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Underwriter Message

Benjamin Dreyer, copy editor and author of 'Dreyer's English', retires from Random House

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Benjamin Dreyer has reached an inflection point in his career. The best-selling author of "Dreyer's English," which is the inspiration behind the card game STET! which is copy editor talk for let it stand, is stepping down from his position as vice president, executive managing editor and copy chief of Random House. He will onboard into a new phase in which he can curate ideas through robust concepting. I think he will, in fact, be very, very aggravated by this very introduction. Benjamin Dreyer joins us now from New York - semi-colon - which he won't like at all. Thanks so much for being with us, Benjamin.

BENJAMIN DREYER: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: What about that intro?

DREYER: Well, I can say that you delivered it with a lot of rizz, so I really appreciate that.

SIMON: (Laughter) Rizz is the new word of the year, I gather.

DREYER: Yeah.

SIMON: You've worked with some great writers - Elizabeth Strout, E.L. Doctorow, Frank Rich - even edited a Shirley Jackson collection that was published posthumously. Is that a tricky relationship? What's that like?

DREYER: The posthumous one or the living ones?

SIMON: Well, I lumped them all together. I realize you have to be discreet.

DREYER: Well, it kind of goes into sort of two categories. Yeah, I mean, you have your relationship with your living authors. And if it works out right, that relationship is genial. It's a conversation. It's not somebody issuing orders to somebody else and somebody cringing when you're issuing the orders. And I've had lovely relationships with the authors that I've had the pleasure of working with. Working on a manuscript by Shirley Jackson, which was just, for me, a sort of an odd, unlikely dream come true - she'd been my favorite writer for decades. And suddenly, I find myself working on this collection of, indeed, material that she had left behind. And with any writer, really, but particularly one who can't talk back, you have to figure out how to approach the text in an extremely respectful fashion, trying to make a writer's manuscript into the best possible book you can get out of it.

SIMON: How do you tell people what a copy editor does? There are a lot of people that might think it's just, you know, to make certain there are not misspellings and that sort of thing.

DREYER: Yeah. I mean, copy editors do certainly attend to spelling. That's a very important function of the job - and to punctuation. But there are so many other things that you do. And the longer you do it, the more you sort of accumulate this massive bag of tricks that you apply to every manuscript, including, for instance, pointing out to an author that, oh, you know, you've used the word irrevocably five times in the last 20 pages. So let's maybe switch that up a little bit. And if you're working on a novel, you're going to be keeping very close track of the chronology to make sure that all the days run in the proper order and that people are aging at the same rate as the other. You're there to do what an author might have done had an author not already looked at their manuscript 175 times.

SIMON: You've issued a challenge in your book for people to go a week without writing or uttering certain words - very, rather, really, quite, in fact.

DREYER: Yes.

SIMON: In fact, isn't this quite a very, really, rather cunning challenge?

DREYER: (Laughter) It is. And the thing is, they are, of course, the words that we use to pad out the things that we say, you know, very often. Even though you're doing it lightning fast, sometimes you just stretch a sentence out by a word when you're trying to think of what it is that you're trying to say. But you are always, as a copy editor, looking for unnecessary fat that isn't really helpful and suggesting, urging the author to consider disposing of that fat. To say that somebody is very smart almost sounds like pleading. If you want to say that somebody's very smart, why not reach for a jazzier adjective like brilliant?

SIMON: What concerns do you have about American literature, the book industry, the entire use of words when we're coming into an age of AI, for example?

DREYER: You know, occasionally, people will come to me to shore up their perception that language and writing are deteriorating. And I think that the level of writing these days is just wonderfully, perilously high. I just see so many great books and articles from so many gifted writers. I find it encouraging. As to the looming threat of AI, I think that writers will always write, and good writers will always write. And I think that computers and artificial intelligence can imitate but can't create. Yeah, I mean, writers bring humanity.

SIMON: What one insight about writing do you think you've learned and applied over the years that we ought to keep as we go about writing in our every days?

DREYER: Find your voice. Find a way to express yourself that sounds like you. And if you can figure out what that sounds like, you are going to take a lot of the tension and the anxiety out of the job of writing.

SIMON: Benjamin Dreyer going on to other things after 30 years at Random House. Thanks so much for being with us.

DREYER: Thank you very much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.