They say that when you start copyediting, you can’t turn off the editing. You notice mistakes everywhere: on billboards, on advertisements, in your favorite books, in brochures. Everywhere you turn, there’s an error. Although I have read a linguist who argues against the idea of a “standard” written English because of its prescriptive and often nonsensical rules, the writing world insists on proper grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling. Why? Because these elements create credibility. Typos, grammar mistakes, and malapropisms make a reader think that the writer, editor, or publisher doesn’t know what’s going on and subsequently is not a reliable or credible source.
Oftentimes, readers won’t catch these tiny mistakes. We either hear the mistake in spoken English, or our eyes gloss over the error, because we comprehend the meaning and care little about the minutiae of nitpicky grammatical rules. However, careful readers and those pesky copyeditors (hopefully) will notice, simply because they can’t stop and the urge to notice error is involuntary. These critical readers and those in the publishing business sometimes dislike the inability to turn off the editing. These readers want to enjoy a book without being annoyed by a confusion of subject-verb agreement or pronouns agreeing in number and gender to their antecedent, but oftentimes they simply cannot stop themselves. Readers who can’t turn off this mode are often seen as “grammar nazis” or uptight grammarians with no ability to make exception to the rule for writing purposes. Sometimes writers and editors need to take a descriptivist approach to grammar and let go of some of the rules for more informal writing or a more colloquial tone.
I get that. I’m a creative writer. I understand bending the rules for poetic license and creativity’s sake. I get being flexible so that the tone is more accessible to a general reader. Sometimes a writer needs to use a fragment to get a point across or mess around with diction to create interesting wordplay. Sometimes a writer needs to use the second person “you” to create a bond with the reader. Creative writing (particularly poetry) is given a wide latitude to break these rules–if they’re broken for a reason.
I’m one of those people who believes that the rules are made to be broken in creative writing and less formal writing. Thing is, you have to learn the rules first in order to effectively break them for rhetorical or creative purposes. Breaking the rules out of sheer error is a sign of an inexperienced writer. But breaking the rules intentionally with a specific literary goal in mind is a great feat–if pulled off correctly.
But creative writing aside, part of me expects a certain level of perfection once the genre turns away from the creative and experimental and toward the academic and nonfiction. I begin to see typos as careless mistakes and a copyeditor who just wasn’t looking closely enough on that second pass (I don’t judge–I miss things more often than I would like, but I’m not a professional copyeditor). I’m currently reading Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. Massie is an amazing historian–I’ve already read The Romanovs: The Final Chapter and Nicholas and Alexandra. I had high hopes for the book on Catherine the Great. I expected Massie’s excellent historical accounts to live up to his earlier works. However, I soon became disappointed. Not only did I spot some obvious typos–“Catharine” instead of “Catherine” and “women” instead of “woman”–but the writing itself fell short of Massie’s earlier works. There was too much reliance on block quotes from primary sources. His overarching theme that Catherine’s active love life came from damaging past experiences is underdeveloped, usually because of the plethora of lengthy quotes. Occasional long quotations serve an excellent purpose to expand on idea best expressed in the original writer’s words. But using several block quotes on a single page is both overwhelming to the reader and signals the writer’s reluctance to interpret and explain.
As Massie is a historian–albeit for a commercial audience–I wondered if when he was reading the final product that he caught the errors. Writers I know who have published works say that when they catch a typo in the finished work, they cringe and can never stop. There’s something about knowing that anyone can catch the mistake and make a subsequent judgment on the writer’s ability. It’s a kind of horror that all writers hope to avoid.
Why did a professional publishing house not catch these mistakes? For one, it’s a long work–574 pages– and may have needed to be published on a specific schedule before the Christmas shopping season began or when the publisher needed to finish a line of books. Another reason may be the pressures put on copyeditors. The term “copyeditor” is slowly morphing into the role of “content editor.” Content editors not only do the work of a copyeditor but work on the quality of writing itself such as structure, organization, language, etc. Some content editors also have to step out of the comfortable realm of English grammar and literary quality into layout, typesetting, design, and so on. Suddenly one person has to do twice the work in the same amount of time in multiple fields without extra pay. The time that could have been spent on catching typos suddenly goes to communicating weaknesses in the writing to the author or perhaps having to check the notes at the end of the book or the accuracy of the quotes.
This change in the game is only part of the growing pains that publishing houses are experiencing from the technology revolution and advent of e-readers and self-publishing. There’s less money for greater needs, and some of that has to fall on the staff who have to do more with less time and less pay. For most of us, this loss of attention to detail is no big deal–after all, who’s going to notice if someone uses “they” instead of “he or she” except for a minority of type-A perfectionists out of touch with the evolution of spoken English? But at the same time, those tightly wound perfectionists are caretakers of the language, keepers of modern English. And although over time even prescriptive grammarians may let go of rules about splitting infinitives (the source of that rule I’ll discuss in a later post), the written word can’t be careless. It must persevere to preserve our language.