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Daily Struggles of a Nitpicky Editor

Updated: Aug 2, 2020

By Julia Zacharski, Zoha Arif, Yong-Yu Huang, and Grace Zhang


Your grandmother may have told you that perfection is like honey on a vegetarian blue-ringed octopus who lives in the basin of an abnormally large puddle in Borneo with a class of trouts––in other words, the origins of perfection and the evidence of its existence are simply untraceable.

It’s fascinating to then consider the fact that there are things in this nitpicky universe like the spherical shape of caramel apple oreos or the straightness of printer paper that demand the utmost perfection (or, at least, the illusion of perfection) or else a kerfuffle between the tides of the universe will erupt our lives into chaos. In the smaller milky way galaxy of editorial commentary, however, bestowed upon a select few citizens is the rare will for pristine perfection––they carry the name of “nitpicky editor.”

Nitpicky editors strive for flawless work––work they cannot find any fault in, and all too often, their fussy nature does not only apply to editing.

In modern context, folklore explains that the nitpicky editor can often be found at a computer (or within an eleven-foot radius of one). If you have arrived at a reasonable time during the evening or night hours (i.e. at 9 pm and not 1:30 am), you will find the nitpicky editor preparing their working station for the difficult, complex task of addressing a Polyphony submission. It is also important to note that the fingers of the nitpicky editor on the keyboard will likely be about 12 degrees apart except for the thumbs, which will likely be about 24.001 degrees apart on the space bar. Next to the computer and keyboard, the nitpicky editor will display the bare remains of a mug of triple-shot medium roast coffee resting on about six and a half sugar packets. Besides that mug, there will likely be an obscene amount of snacks on hand.

If one observes the suspected nitpicky editor long enough and notices that their specific commentary has stretched far into the second page, and then the third, and, two bars of chocolate later, the fourth, this is solid evidence that the suspect is, indeed, a nitpicky editor. You will notice their pile of snacks dwindle to a sorry-looking selection of crushed candy bars and melted chocolate stains. The coffee has also likely gone cold and the mother of the suspect has already popped their head in twice to check up on the suspicious lack of life signs from the editing chambers, only to find their offspring furiously typing away at their computer. If these are the observed series of events, then congratulations! You have found yourself a nitpicky editor.

However, things take a turn when after measuring the exact angle between your thumbs and fingers in their natural resting state on the keyboard and observing the remains of medium roast coffee, you realize that you are a nitpicky editor. The realization washes over you as you begin to see the pieces fit together.

Editing a single submission for Polyphony should, logically, not take this much time, you tell yourself repeatedly, feeling exasperated while glancing in the corner of your laptop screen. You contemplate how time managed to warp three hours into the future–the truth is, however, that you simply can’t resist removing the red squiggly line from every single word that your computer software doesn’t recognize. And you have to clear the blue squiggly line too, silently cursing the submitter’s errant spacebar that triggered the software.

And how dare anyone forget about the good ol’ Oxford comma. Well, you can hardly leave that gaping error there, can you? So you meticulously go through each and every list present in the piece, inserting your beloved punctuation mark in its rightful place, muttering to yourself all the while. And then you double check the piece again just to make sure that you didn’t miss a single one. There’s no sense in being a hypocrite.

Goodness––don’t they teach the difference between hyphens and em-dashes in school anymore? You could probably major in English and not have to worry about supporting yourself with your writing if you had a penny for every time you’ve corrected a double hyphen to a flawless, streamlined em-dash. But alas, there’s not really a niche career field for nitpicky editors who are hopelessly obsessed with the distinction between hyphens and em-dashes. If only there were! Then you could happily edit submissions for the rest of your life without fear of starvation.

You spend twenty minutes on the phrasing of a single line––granted, there’s nothing explicitly wrong with it, but there’s something off about the syntax that you can’t quite pinpoint, and it’s driving you crazy. You read the sentence aloud with varying edits more times than you can count. Your sibling yells through the wall to tell you to shut up. When you finally find the perfect phrasing suggestion and whoop with joy, you hear a sigh of relief from the next room.

Perhaps you need to be a little more quiet when you think out loud, you muse to yourself.

By the time you’ve finished editing the submission, your commentary is five and three-fifths of a page long––far longer than the actual piece itself, and you’ve definitely gone over the 1800 word limit for Polyphony submissions––your trash can has an impressive mountain of crumpled wrappers topped with two Red Bull cans, and you can’t tell whether there are really two cursors flickering on your screen or if the universe is pranking you again. Early morning sunlight might also be peeking through the window, though you can’t be sure with your rubbish eyesight. But at least you caught every single technical mistake and provided thorough analysis for every line of the piece!

This probably isn’t a good habit to have, you muse to yourself. You’ve been finding this inner editor bleeding into your everyday life, and it’s been a strange mixture of both annoyance and gleeful satisfaction. Is perfect writing really worth the cost of your sanity?

The other day, you found it fruitless to try to listen to the lecture of your teacher when the printout you’d been given did not abide by the standard English title rules. You left the classroom that day satisfied with the list of grammatical errors and the edited phrasings of chunky, confusing explanations, but you soon became concerned yet again once you remember the missing Oxford comma on the seventh paragraph of the third line on the second page of the calculus lesson on the derivative definition of a limit.

At restaurants, you’ve begun to notice how eagerly you snatch up a menu––leaving the rest of your family to squabble over the final remaining dishes to order––to scan for spelling mistakes and severe grammar transgressions. For some reason, you don’t find yourself so inclined to order fettuccine bolognese when they’ve spelled it with only one t and one c. The waiter stares at you when you look up from the menu and announce the number of mistakes you’ve found in it instead of what you’ve decided to have for dinner. Your sibling not-so-subtly scoots their seat away from you and your father steps in with a so, how’d you find the weather this morning? conversation starter.

But you can’t help it! Editing is in your blood now, and don’t your parents have that silly bumper sticker that says “Embrace who you are” in an obnoxious font? Well, you’re a nitpicky editor, and you’re sure not going to let anyone forget it. And, besides, there’s a samaritan aspect to being a nitpicky editor. Like that one t-shirt on every elementary school’s Tumblr that says:

We’re going to cook mom.

We’re going to cook, mom.

Grammar saves lives.

Now if we’re going back to the beginning of the universe and the vegetarian blue-ringed octopuses, the moral of this profound talk on the nitpicky editor is that if you ever happen to pinpoint a nitpicky editor, cherish the illusion of perfection you are seeing. If you are the nitpicky editor, cherish the illusion of perfect editorial commentary because editorial commentary will always have a missing Oxford comma or a semicolon instead of a colon. After all, as your grandmother used to say, “nothing is truly perfect.”


Julia Zacharski is a Genre Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.

Zoha Arif is a Second Reader at Polyphony Lit and the Managing Editor for Voices.

Yong-Yu Huang is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.

Grace Zhang is a Second Reader at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.

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