Should an Editor Fix Every Single Mistake?

Ask the Editor Series, Q3

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Q: What “mistakes” shouldn’t you let your editor fix?

A1: You should never let your editor fix “mistakes” unless they’re removing “scare” quotes from where they don’t “belong.”

A2: Genuine mistakes, on the other hand, are another story, and it’s only sort of complicated. But here’s why.

Language is a crazy thing. Most languages have certain sets of rules that need to be followed for clarity. The old I-before-E-except-after-C and all that . . . um, except maybe that’s a bad example because of how many times I doesn’t come before E, and there’s not a C in sight..

To my point: there are usually rules that must be followed.There are books full of them! Books about books about rules, even. Coffee mugs with rules on them, T-shirts with messages like YOU HAD ME AT YOU’RE across the front.

But there’s that pesky matter of style and preference. Style, at its most basic, is a preference, whether it’s a preference for one industry—like The Chicago Manual of Style is known as the publishing industry standard—or a preference for a particular company. Like the BuzzFeed style guide used by its writers; the Rev style guide used for captioning videos; the Gordon style guide for religious terms; the Associated Press style guide for newspapers and magazines.

Each of those guides follows the same general rules, but is customized for the specific type of printed media. One company may spell out numbers from zero through one hundred. Another may use numerals from ten on up. Should J.D. Rockefeller have spaces after the periods in his initials? That may depend on whether you’re writing a book about him or a newspaper article.

The issue of fixing “mistakes” seems to crop up the most in fiction. The thing editors should always, always be aware of when editing fiction is preserving an author’s voice. There are rules, and there are styles that can be adapted when necessary. Good editors—professional editors—know when to push and when to stet, when someone is exerting their own style or simply ignorant of how things should be.

Insistence on fixing things that don’t actually need fixing seems to be the specialty of some people. There’s always one more English major or “my mother was a teacher” who thinks they’re smarter than the average human and (for whatever reason) needs to prove it to strangers. I have one such person who comments on one of my social media accounts almost exclusively to point out where she thinks I should have put a hyphen. She’s almost always wrong about it, and it’s not only exhausting to keep explaining but it also makes me look and feel like a jerk when I have to.

So make sure your editor knows a mistake from a “mistake,” because it’s possible that your writing can be made so technically perfect that it loses all the spark that made it unique, and nobody will want to read it anymore. I hope I never edit someone into a final draft that’s tedious in its propriety.


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By Lynda Dietz

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Lynda has been fascinated with the written word since she first learned her alphabet. She is somewhat of a woman of mystery—this is in part because people shake their heads and whisper, “What in the world . . .?” when she walks by. The real enigma is that she’s a copyeditor/grammar thug to the nth degree, yet being around her is like having a one-person, personal parade at hand.

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