3* Rookie Editing Goofs You Can Stop Making Right Now

Editor’s Corner

Some lessons are harder to learn than others. Unfortunately for new copyeditors, sometimes the only way to recognize bad habits is to get slammed a few times by writers pushing back or by supervisors writing stet all over the copy.

So let me save you some grief and humiliation! Here are three bad habits I identified the hard way as a young editor.

1. Asserting petty preferences

Everyone has their favorite phrasings; don’t assume that yours are superior to those of the writer. Novice editors should restrain themselves in almost every way, making changes and corrections only when they can cite style-book reasons for them. It’s possible that your ear is “better” than the writer’s—but perhaps it’s merely different. People acquire many language preferences in their youth according to local—sometimes extremely local—customs, and it’s a mistake to believe that they’re universal. One good antidote is to read widely and deeply.

2. Enforcing rules that wreak havoc

Maybe you can quote the Chicago Manual rule that there should be a comma after the year in an author-date citation to a writer who has used colons throughout ([Pollan 2006, 99–100] versus [Pollan 2006: 99–100]). But before you decide to hunt down all eighteen hundred colons and change them to commas, ask yourself some questions:

 Does the break in style inconvenience the reader?
Was the writer inconsistent?
Does anyone really want to pay for the time it would take to edit to style?
Is there any justification for editing other than to conform to an arbitrary style guideline?
 Can the change be made without risking the introduction of new errors or inconsistencies?

Unless you can answer yes to most of those questions (perhaps after consulting with your assigning editor), you’re better off adding the break in style to your style sheet.

3. Querying without researching

It’s so darned easy to research almost anything online these days. Why ask a writer to verify an unfamiliar phrase instead of simply looking it up? Nothing freaks out writers faster than a “Did you mean X?” query when anyone with either experience or an Internet connection would know they meant X. Don’t give your writer reason to doubt your intelligence. Looking things up will in fact give you opportunities to wow. You’ll find yourself querying at a higher level and only when the writer actually has erred.

*Does the numeral in the headline bother you? Feel free to discuss below!

Photo: Ooops!, courtesy of Sten Dueland.

Editor’s Corner posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at Writer, Editor, Helper.

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10 thoughts on “3* Rookie Editing Goofs You Can Stop Making Right Now

  1. I’ve had both amusing and frustrating experience with your first tip. I work with a senior editor who quality-checks documents once we’ve edited them and, when she sends along her QC results often includes the disclaimer that some of the changes she made were not because any of us chose wrongly but that she didn’t agree with us. Personal preference, not corporate style. To quote a Tom Petty song, “I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused.”

  2. Asterisks and footnotes can be awkward on web pages. On a printed page or PDF page image one merely glances to the foot of the page to see the note. But on a web page one may have to scroll down to find the note, which in this case isn’t at the very end of the web page but below the main text and above the comments. Keep the numeral and lose the asterisk!

  3. I agree that the 3 was fine, but the asterisk threw me at first. In fact, after editing for engineers for years (and now retired), I’ve stopped spelling out numbers altogether with the exception of “one” used as a pronoun. Most of the engineers I edited for used a style guide that spelled out only single-digit numbers anyway, and they followed that really erratically. I’m with them: just give it up!

  4. The numeral in the headline wouldn’t bother me as much if it were styled differently. The massive asterisk and the fact that the numeral dips below the line makes it look like 3* is errant HTML code that broke on through to the other side—so much so that I read the headline as simply “Rookie Editing Goofs You Can Stop Making Right Now.” Great post, though!

    • The fact that the 3 dips below the line is simply due to the typeface chosen; this one uses “old style” numerals. You’re right that it’s distracting, but it’s not a copy problem.

      As for whether it’s correct to start a hed with a numeral—that’s a matter for the site style sheet.

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