The Editor’s Toughest Challenge

Editor’s Corner

In my view, the most regrettable copyediting disasters come in the form of errors introduced by the editor. Letting a writer’s original mistake survive is certainly cause for regret, but nothing’s worse than knowing that the work was correct until you messed it up!

New editors are especially prone to err in that way—the overeager types who simply can’t wait to put marks on the page, whether it actually improves anything or not. From inexperience, they don’t have the enlarged vocabulary, knowledge of style rules, and—most important—knowledge of exceptions to the rules that give practiced editors flexibility in editing.

My advice to trigger-happy editors is to remember the first rule of copyediting, which is to do no harm. These two tips will help you:

In editing, every time you mark on someone else’s copy, you should be able to cite an authority in support of that change. (Don’t actually cite the reason; that would be annoying. Just be able to cite one.)

In querying, it’s the same deal: if you challenge a writer’s grammar, usage, or facts, you must first either look it up or be able to say by what authority you know it.

That may seem too much to ask, but I promise it will keep you out of trouble! Even if you make a mistake, having a good excuse for it will minimize the damage.

Take a look at the photo above: I Own This Wall. And This Crayon. Juhan Sonin captures perfectly the delightful anticipation that comes with being in charge of the red pencil. New editors are not toddlers, and yet they have a lot to learn. Learning editorial restraint is the toughest challenge they face.

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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: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself). You can also find Carol on Facebook and Twitter (@SubvCopyEd).

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