Change Is Good (Sometimes)

Editors pore over text, moving from letter to letter, even looking for extra spaces and judging whether punctuation marks should be italic or roman.

Yes, an editor’s work might seem tedious, but then—BAM!—an editor finds an error and feels an undeniable charge. Editors might not pump their fists like tennis players winning a big point, but there’s a joy there. It’s one of the rewards of the profession.

That joy, though, shouldn’t influence whether an edit is actually made.

Every editor on the planet has probably heard that the first rule of editing is to “do no harm.” Good advice. There’s no greater sin in editing than introducing an error into the text. I don’t want to miss anything, ever, but I can forgive myself for that. I can’t forgive myself, however, for introducing an error because I’m too busy patting myself on the back to realize that a change shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

So once the thrill of finding what appears to be an error has passed, an editor should settle down and ask a number of questions.

  • Is it wrong? A misspelled name is wrong. A subject that doesn’t agree with its verb is wrong. But there are plenty of changes editors would like to make that have nothing to do with the supposed error being right or wrong. All editors have preferences, and some editors feel that their preferences are a reflection of who they are. Serial commas rule! or Down with serial commas! Either attitude is fine, and when editors have a choice, hey, by all means, they should follow their preference. But if you’re editing for someone who follows the Chicago Manual, then you use the serial comma, and if you’re editing for someone who follows AP, then you generally won’t. The point is that preferences over style should be put aside both for client and for audience.
  • Could it be correct if looked at from another angle? Sometimes we’re so sure that something is wrong that we don’t step back and ask whether there’s something we haven’t considered. Yes, that noun is singular and it’s linked to a plural verb. But have you considered that it’s a collective noun and the sense is that the members of that collective are acting individually and not as a whole? Editors should also try to look things up even when they are sure. (How many people are sure that just deserts should be just desserts?)
  • Should I make this edit? Does the edit go beyond the scope of my assignment? Yes, it’s a dangling modifier, but fixing it would mean radically restructuring the sentence. Maybe that’s something I should query before doing any rewriting.   
  • Does it affect other areas of the text? If I decide to write out the number eight and numerals have been used for numbers under ten throughout the document, then I’ve introduced an error where none existed before. What else could be affected by the change I’ve made?

The Halo Effect

Editors also have to consider the halo effect (missing another error close to the error that’s just been corrected). When an editor corrects an error, there’s a feeling that all is well, and that often extends to a few words before and after the error. You don’t want to fix the spelling of the subject and miss that the subject doesn’t agree with the verb. The best way to deal with the halo effect is to back up to the previous sentence and reread the portion of text again.

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