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!
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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).