Each month, we sit down with a member of the Super Copy Editors team to chat about work, life, proofreading pet peeves, and more. Today, we’re chatting with Suzanne Lombardo, whose eclectic career has spanned everything from finance newsletters to travel writing.
In this candid conversation, Suzanne shares her experiences, challenges, and the little joys of being a copy editor. Dive in to discover the world behind the polished prose.
Dave: I was looking at your LinkedIn profile in preparation for this Q&A, and I saw that years ago you produced a “Your Money” newsletter that went out to nearly a million subscribers. Whoa! That’s a huge audience. How nerve-wracking was that?
Suzanne: It was extremely nerve-wracking! I only had a few days to dream up a question, locate a source, and send and receive answers. The sources were prominent names in finance, banking, etc. (Ric Edelman, Greg McBride from Bankrate.com—even Warren Buffett!), so they could be very hard to get ahold of in a timely manner. However, most were on retainer with the company I worked for, so they had the impetus to respond quickly.
I relished each newsletter but also dreaded it, as you can imagine. Luckily, it was a hit with subscribers, so even if I wasn’t initially very well-versed in personal finance, insurance, and such, I was able to fake it till I made it. I came out of it with a solid understanding of how money works, money management pitfalls, and some good names to drop at parties as well!
Nice. And here’s another thing that really stood out to me from your work experience: You copy edited, researched, wrote, and updated more than 250,000 hotel descriptions for Priceline. That sounds like a monumental task! Can you share a bit about that experience? How did you manage such a large volume of content, and what were some unique challenges or memorable moments you encountered during that project?
I was lucky to have a great boss who let me create the overall structure of the descriptions, so it became fairly boilerplate after a bit. That helped with time management. There were other writers working on it as well, but they all had their own style idiosyncrasies, so making it all cohesive took some work.
I also had never been to any of the properties I wrote about, so I had to research each one thoroughly—things like location and neighborhood (some of the pictures of the places did not match what they put on their websites—shocking!) and carefully reading the reviews. It could be tough to describe a rooms-by-the-hour dump in a red-light district next to a crack house without exposing Priceline to libel! It also made me envious of the people who could stay at those upscale all-inclusives on the Mexican Riviera.
I learned a lot about geography, culture, and customs from that work. It took two years to almost complete—then Priceline bought Booking.com and chose to use Booking’s auto-generated, ALL-CAPS (horrors!) descriptions. Ha! It was all done in a content management system, so I don’t even have any examples of my hard work to show for it.
It sounds like you really had to be creative and resourceful to handle those descriptions, especially without visiting the locations. The contrast between the glamorous resorts and less desirable spots must have been quite an experience. Speaking of varied experiences, you’ve worked across so many industries, from finance to healthcare to travel and more. Which sector do you find the most challenging or rewarding to write and edit for?
I find any highly regulated industry intensely difficult to work in. Legalese dominates all, and reader-friendliness, style, and tone are almost nonexistent. I’ve had to create an entire content library out of the dry facts of pharmaceutical package inserts—by far the driest, most dehumanized, CYA, un-consumer-friendly collection of words you’ve ever seen! Read one, and you’ll see my challenges.
What’s the most bizarre or unexpected topic you’ve ever worked on?
It was actually a novel from the self-publishing world … I had picked it up about a quarter of the way through from another editor who was unable to finish it. I didn’t have any background on the subject, and at first it read like a beautiful travelogue written by a gay man who was something of a transient hotel manager, moving around the country and taking up at various resorts. As the story progressed, however, it was apparent that it was a “memoir” of a serial killer who murdered closeted men. It was brilliantly written, gripping, and utterly original. I wish I could remember the title, but I lost the manuscript at least three dead computers ago.
What’s your “copy editor pet peeve” that you wish everyone knew about?
I have a list as long as your arm, as I expect you do as well! One is endlessly long sentences that also use serial commas (I see that a lot in health care/pharma). Also the Marketing penchant for Capitalizing some Words in A headLine for no Apparent Reason. And the increasing encroachment of slang and colloquialism into copy. I blame a lot of that on Merriam-Webster for allowing so many of-the-moment words into its dictionary. I feel like a lot of the copy I read across industries has become “gobbledygooked” and meaningless marketing-speak. I know that sounds harsh, but I fear this deep relaxing of our language makes us look generally dumb as a people.
But then I have to check myself. Whenever a phrase or misuse seems to appear often, the researcher in me will try to track down where it started and who started it. One in particular makes me crazy: Using “myself” when one means “I” or “me” (I can hear everyone cringing from here!). “Myself and Steve went to the conference”… “See myself or Steve if you have any questions …” That one just bugs me to no end, so I decided to track it down to its origin. And, um, turns out it has been in common use since the 1700s … so I’ve been schooled. But the list goes on.
Editing and proofreading often involve intense focus. Do you have any specific routines or rituals that help you get into the “editing zone”?
I think I’m always in the editing zone. I am boundlessly curious and approach each job hoping to learn something. That’s why I love this profession. I learn so many things in a single day and get answers to questions I didn’t even know I had. But I start the day reading all my news sources and then doing Spelling Bee on the New York Times app. That, and lots of coffee, gets my editorial juices flowing.
If you were to create a “copy editor’s survival kit,” what five items would be essential?
Notebooks for random scribbles, a favorite pen (I’m cheap, so I’ve always been a Bic Flair or Biro girl), Google Tasks, at least one extra screen, and short afternoon naps whenever possible during particularly busy times. Oh, and lots of coffee, of course!
Of course! So, if you could have edited any famous book, document, or publication from history, what would it have been and why?
The Papers of Thomas Jefferson would have to be a dream job for me. I’m a huge history buff, especially early American history, and his papers include letters from just about everyone who was anyone in that period. Plus, it includes letters about stripping my Scottish ancestor of his Richmond lands because he was a Loyalist. I could’ve been rich!
OK, now let’s talk hobbies—what do you enjoy doing when you’re not wielding the red pen?
I love working in the garden, but my husband keeps making new beds for me, and now I can’t keep up! I also am a genealogy freak. I have been an Ancestry.com subscriber since it started up, and I enjoy tracing my friends’ lineages to help them learn more about their families and themselves. I think it’s the stories inherent in the data that really attract me. I’ve traced all the arms of my family to the 1200s … and yet there is still so much more to know. One person leads to another, and it’s rabbit hole after rabbit hole, so sometimes I forget where I started.
In an alternate universe where you weren’t a copy editor, what career path would you have chosen?
I think I would have been an architect. I have no affinity for drawing, numbers, or science—all the prerequisites!—so it was never really an option. But as a kid, I used to spend hours drawing interiors and exteriors of homes in a huge sketchbook I had. I also wanted to be a foreign correspondent, like Christiane Amanpour. But these kinds of careers take planning, and I wasn’t very good at that when I first started out in the world.
Well, I’d say the world’s luckier for it. We got a super copy editor instead! Suzanne, your journey and insights are truly inspiring. Thanks so much for sharing them with us. This was great!
Thanks for asking!