Twitter's Favorite Copy Editor Shares the Secrets to Timeless Style

The more you learn about language, the more open-minded about its rules you become. 

by James Dennin
Unsplash / rawpixel

Benjamin Dreyer, copy chief of Random House publishers, oversees style and standards at one of the most important book publishers in the world. But he might also reasonably be called the copy chief of Twitter, where he is known for dropping his famous #CopyeditingProTips to his 24,000 followers (note that, in “the mindfuckery sense, the past tense of ‘gaslight,’ by the bye, is ‘gaslighted,’ not ‘gaslit.’”) It’s little surprise, then, that the people at Random House eventually talked him into turning his writing advice into a book, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, which was published Tuesday to rave reviews. I caught up with Dreyer on his pub day to talk about grammar’s stuffy reputation, the internet’s impact on language, and, of course, how we can all tidy up our writing.

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Try This Tactic

Dreyer’s book begins with the viral tweet from 2016, where, in an evocation of psychologist-approved Marie Kondo, he recommends “tidying up your writing” by going a week without using “very, rather, really, quite, so, of course, in fact.” He dubs these the dreaded “Throat-Clearers,” words that add little to what you’re saying and, by being in there anyway, wind up fogging your actual point. My old editor had a great tactic, too, which I still use: When you finish up a piece of writing, highlight every appearance of the word “thing” and replace it. You can always think of a more specific and punchier replacement.

Style That’s Truly Timeless

There tends to be a new popular book about writing every decade or so. When I was 16, it was Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which actually became a best-seller after the New York Times declared that it “makes correct usage … cool.” It has not aged particularly well. Because I always like to start my interviews out on a friendly, non-confrontational note, I asked Dreyer how he tried to avoid the style guide’s traditional pitfalls, that they can be imperious, boring, and often dated.

“The title we went to contract with was The Last Word, and I distinctly remember my husband hating the title. He said ‘it’s bossy and hectoring and pushy,’ and I said ‘yeah I know,’” Dreyer remembers. “But the more I was reinvestigating the things I wanted to write about — to make sure I was speaking accurately, not simply reflecting my own whims — …There were a lot of things I was persuading myself to change my mind about. I felt myself becoming more open-minded.”

That’s a refreshing perspective for a grammarian, one which Dreyer says emerged as he rose the ranks from proofer to copy editor to copy chief, where, among other duties, he must now keep his finger on the pulse as to how language is evolving. When he began working as a proofer, for example, Dreyer told me that copy editors always followed the dictionary. Or at least he did until he met the people at the dictionary who told him they were taking cues from him.

“We don’t change these things unless you change them first,” Merriam-Webster’s editor told Dreyer, according to his recollection. “We’re taking our cues from English as it is being published, and thus we change constructions accordingly. We don’t prescribe. We read what’s going on.”

I love that mental picture; two of the English language’s most important arbiters pointing at one another like some kind of highbrow take on the Spider-Man meme, insisting that “no, you go first!”

What the story shows, of course, is that even the people who make the rules aren’t quite sure what the rules are, or what they will be. That’s one of the reasons language can be so fun, particularly on the internet, where wordplay, abbreviations, images, and hidden references can all mingle freely in a single sentiment. This doesn’t mean that the post-text language of the internet doesn’t have rules of its own. But it does mean that the rules are changing even faster, and that they’re perhaps more bendable than they used to be. Creating guidelines for how to write well in this brave new world, and which have the potential to endure, is quite the challenge. Fortunately, Dreyer seems up to the task.

Watch for Your Pet Words

Everyone has their pet words (it was probably a month of writing about innovation before I learned to do a story without throwing at least one “that could all be about to change” in there). Dreyer concedes he has an affinity for the word “notion.” We all have words that, whether we think they make us sound smart, or whether they’re particularly helpful in our daily lives, we overuse. Learning to spot and prune your pet words from your writing will make you sound clearer and less repetitive.

(What are your pet words? I’m honestly kind of curious. Shoot me an email.)

Embrace Inclusive Language

The umbrella rule for good writing is to think about your audience, but Dreyer also points out that audiences are much bigger than we perceive them to be. When he first started editing, for example, the rules of the road stated that if a generic person appeared in some text, you’d refer to them as a “he.”

“We don’t do that anymore, because a default human being is not a he, a default human being is a person,” he says. “It’s always been a bigger world; it just hasn’t always been perceived as a bigger world. And you want to embrace that.”

Dreyer’s book came out Tuesday, and you can order the book here. As you might imagine, I’m completely mortified at the prospect of him reading this. But at least I know he won’t find any “things.”