Sue Burke (mount_oregano) wrote,
Sue Burke

Editors can only do so much

I do freelance editing and proofreading, and I’ve edited a few works recently where the authors either don’t seem to have proofread their work or don’t know some basic rules of grammar and writing.

I’ve been editing for decades, especially during my time working at newspapers and magazines. Sometimes, texts come in very clean. Other times, they need work. Obviously, the latter class of writers didn’t have my university journalism professor, the late, esteemed Jay Sykes, who said you want to turn in clean copy to protect yourself from editors. “Once they change one thing, no matter how small, that will encourage them to change even more.”

As an editor myself, I understand how small changes embolden editors to make big changes. Worse yet, after enough big changes, I’m tempted to move beyond the correction of errors and make “improvements” in style, as despicable an editorial act as that is.

I wonder if these writers treasure their words. Since I’m being paid by the hour, I also wonder if they realize they could save themselves some money by being a bit more careful.

But I have a bigger concern. Writers who don’t know rules of grammar and usage (I’ve witnessed some who seem proud to say they don’t) are like professional sports players who don’t know the rule book: they don’t know what they have to do, what they can do, and how far they can get away with bending and consciously, even conspicuously breaking the rules. To use another metaphor, a writer’s only tools are words and grammar, and not knowing how to use them to their fullest with precision is like being a musician who hasn’t systematically explored and mastered all the possibilities of an instrument. Those writers will never play guitar like Prince (rest in peace) – or fully fathom why they can’t.

Sure, as an editor, I can fix things, but writers who don’t know language deeply, who haven’t mastered the art of words, will miss opportunities, and those can’t be edited in.

It makes me sad.

— Sue Burke


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