One of the primal joys in life is to do good work. When the suit fits, the accounts balance, or the pie crust is flakey, someone takes pride in it.
In editing, it feels good to make corrections, tidy things up, and serve the reader. It feels good to put knowledge into practice. And—admit it—it feels good to spot an error!* After all, if we never found anything wrong, we would have to doubt our knowledge and skill. Finding mistakes and fixing them reassures us that we know what’s correct and how to achieve it.
Problems arise when that good feeling becomes a motivation in itself, when like lab mice we live for the next little reward, pouncing on any excuse to assert our knowledge and skill.
But in editing, as in any craft, there are times when a styling that looks “wrong” should be left alone. Some factors to consider before you pounce:
What’s wrong in running text might be fine in a heading. What’s wrong in a legal brief might be fine in a newspaper ad. To quote The Chicago Manual of Style, “Rules and regulations such as these . . . are meant for the average case, and must be applied with a certain degree of elasticity.”
A writer might break a style rule in order to avoid a greater inconsistency. Forcing the rule might not improve the text.
When a writer’s style-breaking preference appears frequently and consistently throughout a document, pulling at that loose thread might unravel more than you intend. You might end up with more inconsistency than you started with.
It’s one thing to play fast and loose with facts or grammar, but a break in style is not automatically incorrect. Respected authorities disagree on matters of hyphenation, capitalization, and spelling, and readers tend to tolerate a variety of styles in different contexts. Living with a style that won’t inconvenience readers is sometimes the best solution, even if it isn’t your house style.
Sometimes breaking style is the best way to be clear and efficient.
“Fixing” something that isn’t really broken is a waste of time and money.
Are you willing to accept a writer’s choice when it violates your style guide? Please share in the Comments section. (Registration is required only the first time you comment at Shop Talk.)
*It feels good if there’s still time to fix it, that is!
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Editor’s Corner posts are the opinion of Carol Fisher Saller, editor of the Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and author of The Subversive Copy Editor, now in its 2nd edition. Find Carol on Facebook and Twitter (@SubvCopyEd).
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