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We Love You, Mary Norris, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris, A Trendsetter Roundtable

When Publishing Trendsetter found out that Mary Norris had a book coming out, we just knew we had to get it for our roundtable series. Her book, titled Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (W. W. Norton, 2015), covers Norris’ rise through the ranks at The New Yorker, how to use dashes correctly, and many other grammatical conundrums that keep writers awake at night. Norris is a copy editor at The New Yorker; she is also the star of a series of videos called “Comma Queen.” Samantha, Jennifer, and Moè, took turns reading Norris’ book and sat down last Friday to gush, I mean, discuss what we felt Trendsetters would take away from the book.Between You and Me

Jennifer Donovan: Let me start by saying that I would like to formally extend an invitation to Mary Norris to be my new best friend.

Samantha Howard: Seriously! This book was so delightful.

Jennifer: And informative!

Moè Nakayama: Indeed! Those are actually the two adjectives that come to my mind right away, too.

Samantha: I must admit I feel very self-conscious about my grammar right now in this conversation, but I need to relax, because I know Mary wouldn’t want me to worry too much, since she’s a descriptivist. And thank goodness for that.

Jennifer: Right? Whenever anyone finds out I write for a living, they always assume I’m going to be mean about grammar all the time, but most of us aren’t like that at all!

Samantha: She really knows her stuff though. A lot more than I do anyway.

Moè: She does— and she manages to convey all her knowledge in a way that’s not only accessible, but actually entertaining!

Jennifer: I loved that the book taught us about grammar, but in a way that also shared parts of Mary Norris’ career and a whole lot of her personality.

Samantha: I agree completely, and would like to bring up the fact that the back of this book calls it “Reference/Writing” which I find a bit dubious. What do you guys think about the genre classification of this book?

Jennifer: I would think more memoir, but I see why they classified it as Reference/Writing. since it was marketed with Eats, Shoots, & Leaves as a comp title.

Moè: I think that’s what was surprising for me about Between You & Me. I thought it was mostly going to be anecdotes from working in The New Yorker office, but really, it’s an equal blend of lessons in grammar, history, and Mary Norris’ personal experience in and outside of The New Yorker.

The premiere episode of Mary Norris’ Comma Queen video series.

 

Samantha: There’s so much to enjoy in this book that I imagine it was hard to put a genre on it. I think that there’s a huge risk in writing a book that deals so much in grammar, but she really pulls it off because she manages to be so funny. And that chapter where she explains the phrase “star-fucker”? I was losing it. She made what could have been horribly boring lessons very enjoyable and easy to understand. Now someone go find my 4th grade English teacher who made me cry when I couldn’t learn prepositions about this book.

Jennifer: I mean, there’s an entire section about profanity competitions at The New Yorker. Who wouldn’t love to hear about that! Note: Lesson learned from Mary to use the exclamation point instead of the question mark there.

Samantha: Yes! That was a delightful thing to learn as well.

She kind of let us be a fly on the wall at The New Yorker here and there, which was a treat.

Moè: And what’s amazing is she’s so honest about her own mistakes, too. I remember that hilarious bit about autocorrect, which was funnier than all the autocorrect fail screenshots I’ve seen on Buzzfeed, etc., but I think my favorite part is when she writes out all of the words she had been mispronouncing her whole life.

Jennifer: Oh man, I totally related with her there. I mispronounce so many words that I’ve read, but have never heard anyone use in real life. It made me think, “Thank God I’m not alone!”

Samantha: Ha. Well, besides just gushing about how much we loved this book, and some solid grammar lessons, what did we learn? What did we take away?

Jennifer: I learned that your other experiences can often enhance your career. Mary Norris didn’t just go straight to The New Yorker. She was checked people’s feet for fungus at a pool, worked in a costume shop, and was a milk woman. I got the impression that having all this weird experience helps her be a better copy editor.

Moè: I really appreciated reading about that, too. My takeaway is similar— that, at its best, a job can augment you as a person and vice versa.

She explains how she loves her job as a copy editor, because it doesn’t just require a confined skill set, but it takes from the whole experience of the person. That passage really resonated with me.

Samantha: I felt very inspired by her trajectory at The New Yorker too. She has been there since 1978 and has just worked her way up into a job that she clearly loves. She wrote very honestly about mistakes she made, fights she got in along the way, and just kind of learning her role in an office setting, which was very refreshing.

Jennifer: I also loved that she mentioned that there won’t always be a clear right way of doing everything in grammar. Sometimes, you just have to go with what you think is right.

Samantha: This is cheesy, but that also kind of seems like her life mantra.

Jennifer:  Cheesy, but so true!

Moè: Agreed!

Samantha: She also has a lot outside of work that fulfills her, little hobbies and interests, which I think is important to stress. I can imagine that working somewhere like The New Yorker, which is such an institution now, that it could easily swallow up your whole life.

But she loves reading! And pencil sharpeners! Among other things, of course.

Moè: Yes! I hope she knows about the boutique pencil shop that was just recently covered in a NYT article! It mentions a Blackwing, and I immediately thought of her.

Samantha: I want one of those Blackwing pencils now.

Jennifer:Well now I know what we’re doing on our first best friends outing.

Moè: No! It was my idea!

Samantha: We can all take her.

I realize that maybe we covered this a bit already, but what about this book do you think speaks to young professionals in publishing specifically?

Jennifer: I think it’s definitely a must-read for anyone thinking about editorial, if only to serve as a refresher on some of the trickier grammar points. But I also think it’s a good introduction into how a person can climb the ladder while the industry around her (and him) is changing, by being dedicated and adaptable.

Moè: I agree. And really, I think it might be especially inspiring for anyone thinking outside of editorial, because she shows you that you can be— and need to be— creative even if you’re not in editorial. If even copy editing— which at first glance might seem like the most structured and rule-oriented part of the publishing process— is “interpretive, not mechanical,” then surely all the other parts of the process are, too.

Jennifer: Hear, hear!

Samantha: I agree with both of you. It was really refreshing to read her journey of finding her way as a young woman in New York, trying jobs here and there, and occasionally failing. I think a lot of us assume that it was super easy to get a job and just stick with it forever, “back in the day” but Mary definitely had some missteps before starting at The New Yorker, which I think is important to see as a young person.

Moè: Very true. And it seems like they weren’t even missteps in the end, because all those experiences inform her professional identity now.

And I find that encouraging.

Samantha: Absolutely. And we’ll never misuse semicolons ever again, nor say “Between you and I.”

Moè: This is between you guys and I, but I didn’t quite understand that grammar lesson…KIDDING!

Jennifer: I think my favorite moment while reading this book was when Sam sent me an email and said “I feel so confident in my semicolon usage right now!”

Moè: I loved how passionately she talks about issues like that. The enthusiasm is absolutely contagious, and it felt so good to be reading, going, “Yes! I know! I know, Mary Norris!”

Samantha: She gets us.

Jennifer: We’re all Comma Queens! Had to.

Moè: Wow. I’ve been crowned. Best Friday ever.

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