The Typographic Oath
For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about copyeditor commandments. First, we looked at some commandments for journalism copyeditors. Then we examined what is probably every copyeditor’s top commandment, no matter which field you edit in: do no harm.
This week we conclude with Copyediting’s list of commandments, our “Typographic Oath,” based on the conversations we’ve been having. This list is by no means complete or exempt from editing. (It is a copyeditor’s set of commandments, after all.)
1. Do no harm.
“Do no harm” was by far the most popular commandment. Stan Carey, author of Sentence first, noted that we might call this our “typographic oath.” (As you can see, I’ve liberated the term for our entire list of commandments. Thanks, Stan.)
This advice is repeated in many editing books. In The Subversive Copy Editor, for example, Carol Fisher Saller writes:
It is your privilege to polish a manuscript without the tedium and agony of producing it in the first place. Your first goal isn’t to slash and burn your way through in an effort to make it conform to a list of style rules. Your first goal is merely to do no harm.
2. Respect the writer.
Many people reminded us that we should respect the writer. Ruth Thaler-Carter took it one step further on LinkedIn’s STET group: “Respect the author’s voice, but don’t let him/her look like an idiot.”
“For the working copyeditor, deference is the better part of valor,” says Amy Einsohn in The Copyeditor’s Handbook. “If the author’s preference is at all acceptable, it should be respected.”
FisherSaller gives us six habits we can use to keep that writer-editor relationship healthy:
- Ask first, and ask nicely.
- Don’t sneak (much).
- Eliminate surprises.
- Check in.
- Keep it professional.
- Say “yes.”
3. Respect the reader.
Because copyeditors have such a reputation for interfering with a writer’s work, the emphasis was strongly on respecting the writer instead. Still, a couple of people reminded us not to forget our other great duty: to respect the reader.
We can respect the reader by striving for clarity, conciseness, and consistency in everything we edit. We respect the reader by considering whether she will understand what the writer has written and by asking the writer to clarify or helping him to clarify.
We respect the reader by doing our jobs to the best of our abilities.
4. Don’t be a search-and-replace editor.
In his Lapsing Into a Comma, Bill Walsh recommends that we not be “search-and-replace” editors. Whenever we are tempted to automatically change something, such as impact to effect, we should remember language’s finer distinctions. “These changes aren’t always wrong,” he says, “but they shouldn’t be automatic.”
Whenever we are tempted to cruise through a document, focusing on our pet peeves and applying rules that on the surface seem simple, we do a disservice to the writer, the reader, and to ourselves—because we are better than a mere software function.
Other search-and-replace minefields Walsh points out:
- different than vs. different from
- hopefully vs. it is to be hoped that
- compare with vs. compare to
- which vs. that
- convince vs. persuade
5. Look it up.
Not being a search-and-replace editor often means checking the rule in question. If something in the copy makes you pause, look it up. Your subconscious is probably telling you something. Even if it isn’t, you’ll sleep better knowing that you checked. Said Phillip Blanchard of Testy Copyeditors, “If you’re sure you know it, look it up anyhow.”
6. Enforce consistency.
Several copyeditors would have us remember to be consistent throughout a document. Watch for consistency in formatting, diction, punctuation, spelling, and other areas. This is where your style sheet comes in handy. For any project over a few pages, keep a style sheet, advises Einsohn. Record your decisions and refer back to the sheet throughout the project.
7. He who pays makes the rules.
We copyeditors serve many masters: the writers whose documents we work on, the readers who will eventually read it, the language rules we seek to enforce. But we must also consider the person who signs our checks, be it the publisher, the writer, or someone else.
He Who Signs the Checks can dictate which rules we follow—or don’t follow. He can remind us of business concerns, too, if we like getting that check. Sometimes it’s keeping an advertiser, superior, or writer happy. Other times, it’s getting the copy ready to go now. We often have to make compromises.
Especially in this economy, in which jobs are scarce and pay rates are taking a beating, we should remember He Who Signs the Checks. We don’t have to like the political or business sides of things, but if we want that paycheck, we will at some point have to balance our craft against political and business needs. It’s ultimately our choice to acquiesce or walk.
What do you think? Would you pledge to honor the Typographic Oath? What would you add to it or subtract from it? Make your voice heard in the comments section below.
If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to our RSS feed!