Are You a Felix Unger?
26 May, 2021
If you read the title and just said “Don’t you mean Felix Ungar?” then you know you are.
The very fact that you’re reading this makes it likely that you’re a Felix. You’re probably an editor, and editors tend to be Felixes (or should that be Felices?).
Felix Unger was a character on the TV show The Odd Couple (1970–75). In the movie and play that the TV show was based on, he was Felix Ungar with an a—an ironic inconsistency, since Felix’s defining trait is an overriding fastidiousness. The humor in the show comes from his constantly locking horns with his extremely untidy roommate, Oscar Madison.
A Felix Ungar (or Unger, if you prefer TV) is someone who cannot not be tidy, even if it’s not their job and not their stuff.
Take the Quiz: Are You a Felix?
Here’s a quick quiz to see if you, too, are a Felix:
- If you’re in a library or bookstore and you see a book out of place, do you put it back in its proper location?
- If you’re in a grocery store and you see an item that someone has left on the wrong shelf, do you put it back where it belongs?
- If you’re walking down the street and you see a crumpled wrapper lying on the sidewalk, do you deposit it in the nearest wastepaper-basket?
- When you’re reading a magazine or newspaper, do you take out a pen or pencil and mark corrections of errors on the article as you go?
- Do you email those corrections of newspaper and magazine articles to the editors?
- Did you want to correct “wastepaper-basket” in question 3?
- Does incorrect grammar and punctuation on signs in stores irritate you?
- If you’re going over a preliminary draft of a document that will be revised by several more people before being finalized, do you fix mechanical details such as stray double spaces and apostrophes that curl the wrong way?
Give yourself one point for every “yes.” Write your score on a piece of paper. Now throw the piece of paper out—you already know the answer anyway. But wait: did you crumple the paper and toss it, or did you fold it tidily and place it carefully in the recycling bin? A true Felix will do the latter.
But if you are a Felix, is it really the best thing to be all the time? If you’re an editor, it’s your job to be tidy, sure. But what about when it’s not your job? What about when you’re shopping and you see a sign with a misplaced apostrophe? What about when you’re reading an article published in a magazine you don’t work for and you spot an error? And, most to the point for editors on the job, what about when you’re doing substantive or structural edits on a document that’s not at the copyediting and proofreading phase yet and you see stray double spaces or mis-curled apostrophes?
The Cost of Being a Felix
It’s a hazard of being an editor. You have the instinct to tidy things up, and it doesn’t go away even when it’s not part of what you’re supposed to be doing. But as much as fixing little mechanical things may seem as natural as picking up litter, there are several good reasons to let them go:
- It distracts you from what you should be doing. If you’re supposed to be looking at the content—the structure, the flow, the facts—rather than the form, spending your time on little details takes your attention away from that. Yes, true, if they’re going to distract you as long as they’re there, fixing them removes that distraction, but how much extra time will that take?
- It may be a waste of time. You might be fixing something that is just going to be revised or deleted. Even worse, a subsequent reviser of the document might put the error back in (“Please note that I added double spaces after all the periods, as my high school typing instructor taught me to do”).
- It may be a redundant effort. If this document will be moving on to copyediting and proofreading, all the things you’re checking will be checked by someone else— someone who’s actually getting paid to check them.
- You may be making decisions that aren’t yours to make. It’s the copyeditor’s job to apply house style, and to make judgment calls as necessary. In some cases, the copyeditor may decide which of multiple possible styles to go with on the basis of the author’s apparent preference; if you make style changes, you may lead the copyeditor to go with your preference rather than the author’s, and is that really appropriate?
- It may be rude. Unbidden corrections are not always appreciated—if you’re imposing your style when it’s not your job to do so, it can be about as polite as correcting people’s grammar at a dinner party (which, in case there’s any question, is boorish behavior, no matter how primly it’s done). Stay in your lane.
Being Less of a Felix for Yourself (and Others)
OK, so how do you overcome your infelicitous Felix tendencies? Ideally, over time you will develop a certain level of chill and detachment. But here are some little things that might help:
- Create a mental shelf of things to get back to. Put those little mechanical details on it as you see them and think, “I’ll get back to that.”
- Say to yourself, “Someone else is getting paid to do this, and I’m not.” Do you do freebies? If so, why? Aren’t you a professional—someone who gets paid for your work? Well, then.
- Say to yourself, “Don’t ice a cake before you bake it.” For those who don’t know, the icing goes on at the end; if you ice it before it goes into the oven, the results are… not good. Do things in their proper sequence, and that means focusing on the bigger things first and leave the finishing touches for the finish.
- Mind your manners. Take a moment to ask yourself whether you’re really helping or just imposing yourself.
- Build PerfectIt into your process. A major reason for wanting to fix little errors the moment you see them is the fear that they might be missed later on. But when you know that you—or someone else in your department—will be running PerfectIt, you can be confident that many kinds of inconsistencies and departures from the style sheet will be caught. PerfectIt doesn’t do your editing for you; it’s just an automated assistant to help you catch things you might have missed… and to do so at the appropriate stage of the editing process.
PerfectIt runs as a plug-in to Microsoft Word for Windows or Mac. If you don’t have PerfectIt yet, download a free trial. It will both serve your inner Felix and keep him unger ungar under control.