Interview with Bill Walsh

Bill Walsh

Bill Walsh

Meet Bill Walsh, a copy editor at the Washington Post and author of The Slot, (unaffiliated with the Washington Post) which began in August 1995 as the Crusty Old Slot Man’s Copy Editing Peeve Page.

Please introduce yourself and provide some background information.

I’m Bill Walsh. I’m a copy editor at the Washington Post and the author of “Lapsing Into a Comma” (2000), “The Elephants of Style” (2004) and “Yes, I Could Care Less” (2013). I was born in Pottsville, Pa.; grew up in the suburbs of Detroit; finished high school and started my career in the Phoenix area, going to college in Tucson in between; and have been in the D.C. area since 1989. I’m a copy editor at the Washington Post, where I’ve worked since 1997.

How did you first start blogging?

I met my future wife online in 1993, before the Internet. Before normal people had heard of the Internet, at least. We were talking about tennis on Prodigy, which I guess you could say was AOL before AOL was AOL. In 1995, she got an Internet account and I tagged along. Jacqueline called dibs on starting a tennis page, and my No. 2 choice was to do something on editing and usage. I was running the copy desk at the Washington Times then, and I adapted the nagging little notes I was writing to my staff.

When the idea of buying actual domain names occurred to us, I turned the Crusty Old Slot Man’s Copy-Editing Peeve Page — http://access.digex.net/bwalsh/~editing.html — into The Slot. Dot com! My goal was to turn the site into a book, and I got lucky and landed a deal for “Lapsing Into a Comma.” Blogs started to become a thing around that time, and I played around with a personal blog and a tennis blog before I got bloggy about grammar and such.

It seems absurd now, but for several years there it never occurred to me to dash off short entries on The Slot. I did Sharp Points, which were undated and would have looked pretty long as blog posts, and the rest of the site was devoted to explaining what copy editors do. Early in 2001 I started a “Carets & Sticks” feature that looked kind of bloggy, but I didn’t start blogging in earnest until 2004, when I started a Blogger site. I cheated a little and retrofitted those Carets & Sticks entries, and so my Blogslot site looks as though it started in 2001.

How long have you been blogging? How many followers do you have? Why do you do it?

Continuing the progression from long Sharp Points to shorter blog entries, I joined Twitter in 2008 and started talking shop there a few months later as I, along with everybody else, started to grasp what Twitter was really about, and what potential it had. The tweet that got things rolling for me: “I fear that the ‘make the copy desk do it’ mind-set is outliving the concept of actually having a copy desk.”

Now, six years and more than 4,000 tweets later, the good news is that I have over 7,200 followers. The bad news is that my attention span runs to round about 140 characters. So first The Slot became largely a portal to the blog, as well as a place to hawk my books, and now most of the new things you see will be in that little window that shows my latest tweets. I’m making more of an effort to put things on the blog, but I’m finding it hard to write longer-form pieces unless I have a new book contract.

You are a book writer and a blog writer- do you prefer one over the other? How is the process similar? Different?

I’m a lazy blogger, so it would be irresponsible to even talk about that process. I write when I feel like it. As for books, I’ve written three under distinctly different circumstances. “Lapsing Into a Comma” was like a band’s first album — the material was all there, but it had to be shaped and adapted. “The Elephants of Style” was as close as I’ve come to doing what people might expect from me, methodically putting together something close to a reference work. I didn’t think I had another language book in me when my agent and St. Martin’s came calling, and so I tried to articulate a set of principles in “Yes, I Could Care Less.”

What is it about “The Slot” that has made it such a successful blog?

It didn’t hurt that I was one of the first people to establish a language-and-editing brand on the Web. That probably gave me some breathing room to be myself.

What is so interesting about language/grammar to you? What do you think is your unique contribution to the English language?

What I’ve been able to do with my job and the Web and the books is channel a neurosis. I think I just have a heightened sensitivity to words and capital letters and punctuation marks. There’s a thing called misophonia — it’s an extreme sensitivity to sounds. My youngest brother has written about it, and I have it to some extent, too. You’ll get a dirty look if you start whistling near me. But it’s also a good analogy to my usage neurosis. Or think about “supertasters.” That sounds like a good thing, but really it’s a burden. It doesn’t mean you enjoy food more; it means broccoli and cauliflower taste like sulfur. Cilantro tastes like soap.

So maybe the pet peeves come a little more naturally to me, but again the result might be counterintuitive. I think my neurosis makes me less likely, not more likely, to cling to “rules” that aren’t rules. Can I squeeze in one more analogy? Call up YouTube and find a tennis match from the ‘70s between Bjorn Borg and one of the more mechanical players, like a Brian Gottfried. You watch Brian Gottfried and you can just see the gears grinding in his head as he goes through the checklist: Watch the ball. Take your racket back. Step into the ball. Follow through. And then Borg just plays instinctively, with technique that was considered all wrong at the time, and he wins. I’m not saying I’m the Bjorn Borg of English usage and copy editing; I’m just saying it’s a good thing to listen to your instincts. Too many of my fellow copy editors devote so much energy to learning and memorizing rules that they forget to trust their fluency in the language.

If you could change the way people speak or write what would you suggest? Why does it matter?

I don’t like to play favorites among my babies, but I guess the issue of one word vs. two words vs. hyphenated looms large for me. Oh, and capitalization of proper nouns, especially in the recognition of what’s a trade name and what’s a generic word. Don’t get me started on ”list serve.” Maybe my legacy will be that I helped “e-mail” keep its hyphen for an extra three minutes. I still haven’t seen anyone else observe that the evolution to “email” is a unique phenomenon. How’s that for a totally awesome epitaph?

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