The Typographic Oath for editors

Tim Radford at The Guardian recently shared his 25 commandments for journalists, which he not-very-seriously subtitled a ‘manifesto for the simple scribe’. It is a sound, humorous and well-written piece of writing advice. Although the commandments were compiled with news hacks in mind, many of them apply equally well to anyone writing or editing. Commandment no. 1 is as follows:

When you sit down to write, there is only one important person in your life. This is someone you will never meet, called a reader.

Arthur Koestler once said that every writer has ‘a favourite type of imaginary reader, a friendly phantom but highly critical’ with whom the writer is in ‘continuous, exhausting dialogue’. This is easy to believe of Koestler, whose deft, brisk prose belied the great care of its creation, but not all writers are so conscientious. Many are, or try to be, but the results sometimes suggest too great a distance between writer and imaginary reader when the words were being chosen and arranged.

Reading should be a pleasure, not a chore. As I said at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, writers should strive to write well enough not to repel or irritate readers, whose time oughtn’t to be wasted or abused. Editors work to strengthen the writer-reader link, fostering readers’ faith in writers’ intentions and their ability to execute them. We do what we do in order to make it as easy as possible for readers simply to continue reading, understanding, and enjoying.*

Much as musicians switch rhythm and tone according to the conductor and sheet notes, so must editors adjust to different writing styles and readership types. Erin Brenner, at Copyediting, addressed Radford’s article from a copyeditor’s point of view, seeing how it holds for academic writing or any text not intended for a general audience. In her helpful analysis, she stresses the value of adaptability, and notes in a comment that ‘judgement is part of our craft’.

Judgement, not judgementalism. It’s important that an editor not prioritise foisting a firm set of ‘fixes’ on every text. Carol Fisher Saller, in The Subversive Copy Editor (a practical, frank and witty guide to the art of editing), puts it well:

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 through in an effort to make it conform to a list of style rules. Your first goal is merely to do no harm.
And oh, baby—the ways in which we do harm.

A remarkable example of harm is described in a subsequent post at Copyediting: a narrator’s gender was mysteriously changed, and other errant edits were made. This is a far cry from minimal interference; it transforms the very nature, identity, and politics of the text. Author Mima Simić tells of her experience here.**

Loath to miss the opportunity for a pun, I suggested in a comment that ‘Do no harm’ could be called the typographic oath. Erin Brenner graciously adopted the term for Copyediting’s commandments for copyeditors based on the discussion to date. It’s a list that will interest editors, writers and readers alike. And, of course, it remains subject to editing – Erin points out that it is, after all, a copyeditor’s list.

One of its entries advises against being a ‘search-and-replace’ editor:

Whenever we are tempted to automatically change something, such as impact to effect, we should remember language’s finer distinctions.

Making fine distinctions is something editors do all day. Not that we all make the same distinctions. Some of us, though not me, would instinctively amend ‘tempted to automatically change’ to ‘tempted automatically to change’, and we could argue about it until Christmas. The Subversive Copy Editor makes the point that ‘a manuscript will never be edited the same way twice, and it will never be considered perfect, no matter how many times it’s edited’.

Text is endlessly editable, infinitely perfectible, and part of good judgement is knowing when to stop.


* It’s also worth pointing out that a significant chunk of editing involves checking for typos, formatting consistently, and doing other housekeeping tasks that have little to do with the quality of writing.

** See further discussion at the Literary Saloon and Maitresse.


4 Responses to The Typographic Oath for editors

  1. […] I would not introduce changes lightly. It’s a minor matter, but not an insignificant one: the “typographic oath” for editors is to do no […]

  2. […] changing each synonym to said broke the cardinal rule of editing, what I’ve called the Typographic Oath: First, do no harm. It’s vital to understand an author’s intent before reflexively applying a […]

  3. […] a copy-editor I try to abide by the typographic oath: First, do no harm. When you’re making changes to a writer’s text, whatever you do, don’t […]

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