Home > 6. Ars Poetica: creating & surviving poetry, 7. How to Eat an Essay > How to Eat an Essay–Capers & Copy Style

How to Eat an Essay–Capers & Copy Style

Copy style is a more mysterious thing than most people imagine. Closely related to copy-editing (the preparation of text for publication), copy style has to do with that most intangible editorial task: how to create the “overall feeling” of an article or book. It is the editor himself.

Given the roots of this particular art form, we should look at the goals of copy-editing, the five C’s: clear, correct, concise, complete, and consistent. All of this looks fairly straightforward (though untangling specific issues can be complex), and certainly necessary, but an editor (or writer) should consider the medium and audience: is the piece in question a poem, an essay, a  novel or short story, a newspaper article or a government report? Each form comes with certain expectations.

1) Newspaper articles and organizational reports. Here an editor needs the five C’s and not much else; the author provides the facts and a journalistic tone. For consistency, copy-editors rely on the newspaper’s style sheet or guide. In the Washington, D.C. area, that would be the Washington Post’s. As for reports in the DC area, (at least in RT’s experience), the U.S. Government Printing Office and University of Chicago style guides are most often used (though APA style has a considerable following, too). Accuracy and consistency are paramount in these fields, and the result (in terms of copy style) is a certain blandness; the news or findings must carry the excitement of the piece.

2) Fiction and essays. The CMS is king here; it gives a plain, unfussy look that doesn’t interrupt the reader. Often in book publishing, the feel of the finished work is tied to its appearance through book design.

3) Poetry. In theory, things are considerably more open here. A poet can use typography and punctuation as elements in his or her poems; think of e.e. cummings or Emily Dickinson. But it is helpful to remember that each of these poets was at bottom a formalist, using structure and repetition to shape the feeling of his or her work. And most poets today (once again, in RT’s experience) prefer a simple copy style, one that helps the reader focus on their words.

Plain is in; fancy is out–right? Well, maybe. In terms of *style,* we could start by considering spelling, that most standardized of compositional elements. The first thing that children learn (after the alphabet) is spelling–this gives writing and reading far greater consistency (and thereby far greater precision). And because it is one of the first things we learn, spelling is hardwired in our developing brains in a way that makes misspelling hard to ignore.

So much the better for the practicing poet. Want to jar your readers? How about referring to noodles as nudels? By using a phonetic spelling, the poet has brought to bear an entirely new range of connotations (and will perhaps affect the reader’s next encounter with meatballs and spaghetti). & with a single word, the poet has gone far to establish the poem’s copy style–misspellings (and puns) are fair game. & RT would add, why aren’t essays (which are the man himself) more prone to this kind of play? One of the most overlooked resources in current writing are the classic essays (and even the classic comic strips, which brought Dada to the American breakfast table).

& look at that ampersand!! goooolllly, gosh, and gee, what an elegant letterform it has. & what about letterform (i had to add the word to my dictionary to get rid of the red underlie-ning)…


it seems that with the net, even the cost of paper isn’t that big

••a consi

deration any more (or should tht be anymore?)

and I didn’t mention FoNTs,, did ieye?  



which brings us to the capers in this post’s title. RT is afraid he’s punning again…copy style is a caper, a way of breaking into the bank of good English style and diction and coming out with a hat riddled with bullet holes and a stash of the good green stuff–POETRY!!! && the other way to think of


is: you season lemon veal with salt and garlic powder (your punctuation)), and that’s fine…(BUt the main event is the capers, the copystyle).


Ya du whatcha gottta doooooo….. RT

••kazooah, kachooah!••

photo: Capers jar; author, Whitebox; WikiCmns; licence: CC 3.o Unported.


  1. September 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    Having fun are we?

    I tell you what, science aside, if we could see inside your brain we would see a fireworks show. We, the readers, get to sit back and ‘oh’ and ‘ah’ as each firework blossoms.


  2. September 8, 2012 at 10:35 pm

    margo: blim, blam, bloom…light the fuse! RT

  3. September 14, 2012 at 7:06 am

    nudels? = noodles without sauce.

    • September 14, 2012 at 3:32 pm

      ViF: the artist must have an active wit to capture beauty…puns and pens, or something like that…RT

  1. September 13, 2012 at 2:02 pm

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