First, Do No Harm

One of the hardest lessons to learn as a copyeditor is to know when to leave well enough alone. When it is literally, well enough—technically incorrect according to say, Chicago, but well within the norms of communication and perfectly coherent. You might even say, it’s a matter of style. Or, it’s simply a pet peeve that has gained widespread acceptance. I’m not advocating giving in to popular opinion or outright errors, but rather taking a moment to consider if your efforts will do more harm than good. Is it a completely consistent practice that would be difficult to eliminate even with find and replace, and therefore changing it would introduce numerous opportunities for error? Well, maybe you should give it a second thought. Will you be creating chaos just to eliminate a pet peeve? Be honest.

This is the sort of minefield that reading The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller can create. Fortunately, Saller’s goal is to lead you safely through the danger zones that editors encounter daily but hardly ever discuss. As one section heading declares: “Rules Are Made to Be Broken; Copy Editors Are Not.”

She begins with “Who’s the Boss?” The answer is the reader. After all, isn’t the writer himself working for the reader in the end? The copy editor is just another member of the creative team who, ultimately, is responsible to the reader. The writer comes second: “…to see the writer-editor relationship as inherently adversarial is to doom yourself to a career of angst and stress.”

The writer’s job is far more difficult than the copy editor’s: the writer has to actually write the thing. It is your privilege to polish copy without the tedium and agony of producing it in the first place. Your first goal isn’t to slash and burn your way through a document in an effort to make it conform to a list of style rules. Your first goal is merely to do no harm.

And, that’s just the first chapter. I’m going to take it slow and try to make updates when I can, but so far, it’s a great read.



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