Photo courtesy Frédéric Bisson
Time and again, copyeditors ask me questions that leave me scratching my head. The question always amounts to something like this: “If I follow all the rules, nonsense and chaos will result. What should I do?”
What is it about American culture, or education, or religion, that prevents an otherwise normal, intelligent person from concluding without my help that in cases like this you should break one of the rules?
A researcher writing endnotes wonders about including the name of the state where a book was published in addition to the city. He wants everything to be consistent (rule 1), and his style guide says not to add the state if it’s obvious already (University of Virginia Press) (rule 2). But if he leaves out all state names for consistency, readers will assume that a book published in London, Ohio, was published in the UK. What to do?
An editor working on a bibliography encounters a source who signs all work with an initial instead of a full first name. The rest of the bibliography includes full names. The style manual says to use all full names. What should she do? Well, I want to say, what are our choices here? Make up a name? Delete that source? Change all 437 author names to initials only?
Why do they even have to ask?
I’ll tell you why: It’s because for many writers and editors, our work is all about the rules. It’s what we do: we take a chunk of writing and we grind it through the style-guide mill, and we never once stop to ask whether logic and reason and the reader are served. The first question is always “What’s the rule?” instead of “What is helpful?” or “What makes sense?” or—the unthinkable—“Can I break this rule?”
We have the power to break the rule.
Of course it’s fine for “What’s the rule?” to be the first question—as long as it’s not the only question. After all, an understanding of the rules is our best tool for getting writers out of tight spots. And note that I said an “understanding” of the rules, which is not the same as an ability to cite them. Understanding the thinking behind a style choice gives you the power both to discard it when better thinking should prevail and to argue for it more convincingly when the reasoning applies.
I recently spoke to a classroom of new copyeditors, and I took this “knowledge is power” idea one step further. Copyeditors have a choice as to what kind of power they wield. They can wave about the rule book and try to assume the power of saying “No, you can’t” to writers, or they can acquire the power of knowing when to break a rule in order to help writers achieve great writing.
My regular readers know that I like to call that second choice “subversive,” but they also know that it truly isn’t. Choose the second kind of power: it’s a better way of life.