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!
Photo: Deliberate Mistake, courtesy of Neil Turner.
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 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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11 thoughts on “But Is It Wrong?”
This should be required reading for every new editor.
M-W pref. “flaky,” no?
Ah, but is it wrong?
“CMOS 7.1?” she replied in the faintest whisper, in deference to l’éminence grise…
Seriously, though, as an admitted stickler, I go with first preference, even in a blog post or other online article where the rules may be more relaxed. You made me this way, CFS—or at least you helped to—and I’m forever grateful for it.
Pamela, thanks – it’s kind of you to say. Anyway, I agree that your strategy is normally a classic editing practice to ensure consistency for longer works when you suspect the writer might use “flaky” in one place and “flakey” in another. But to call out a standard spelling (indicated in M-W by the word “also”) in a short, informal blog post is an example of what I’m trying to illustrate: editing that doesn’t need to happen, but that we can’t resist. I totally understand the impulse, though – that’s why I wrote about it!
You’re so right.
Must be the hour I spent this weekend powerlifting my way through CMOS Workouts. My stickler maximus muscles got ripped.
Generally speaking, writers are weak-minded little children who need a firm hand, lest they overrun us all with their incessant mewling about “creativity” and “self-expression.”
Editing is a fine balancing act: between inconsistency and clarity, grammatical correctness and wordiness, and many such combinations.
I agree with every contextual principle given here. Unfortunately, too many writers impose what they regard as stylistic options to the detriment of the text, with no compensating benefits.
I let things go all the time as a fiction editor, particularly in word choice and alternate spelling arenas. It’s more important to polish the writer’s style than to impose my own!
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