An American Editor

May 20, 2010

Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance

Editors rely on lots of “professional” resources to guide their editorial decisions when working on a manuscript. In addition to dictionaries and word books, we rely on language usage guides and style manuals, among other tools. [To learn more about the professional editor’s (and my) bookshelf, see The Professional Editor’s Bookshelf.]

But it isn’t unusual for an author (or publisher) to have a different view of what is appropriate and desirable than the “professional” resources. And many editors will fight tooth and nail to make the client conform to the rules laid down in a style manual. As between language usage guides like Garner’s Modern American Usage and style manuals like The Chicago Manual of Style, I believe that editors should adhere to the rules of the former but take the rules of the latter with a lot of salt.

The distinction between the two types of manuals is important. A language manual is a guide to the proper use of language such as word choice; for example, when comprise is appropriate and when compose is appropriate. A style manual, although it will discuss in passing similar issues, is really more focused on structural issues such as capitalization: Should it be president of the United States or President of the United States? Here’s the question: How much does it matter whether it is president or President?

When an author insists that a particular structural form be followed that I think is wrong, I will tell the author why I believe the author is wrong and I will cite, where appropriate, the professional sources. But, and I think this is something professional editors lose sight of, those professional sources — such as The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association — are merely books of opinion. Granted we give them great weight, but they are just opinion. And it has never been particularly clear to me why the consensus opinion of the “panel of experts” of CMOS is any better than my client’s opinion. After all, isn’t the key clarity and consistency not conformity to some arbitrary consensus.

If these style manuals were the authoritative source, there would only be one of them to which we would all adhere; the fact that there is disagreement among them indicates that we are dealing with opinion to which we give credence and different amounts of weight. (I should mention that if an author is looking to be published by a particular publisher whose style is to follow the rules in one of the standard style manuals, then it is incumbent on the editor to advise the author of the necessity of adhering to those rules and even insisting that the author do so. But where the author is self-publishing or the author’s target press doesn’t adhere to a standard, then the world is more open.)

It seems to me that if there is such a divergence of opinion as to warrant the publication of so many different style manuals, then adding another opinion to the mix and giving that opinion greater credence is acceptable. I am not convinced that my opinion, or the opinion of CMOS, is so much better than that of the author that the author’s opinion should be resisted until the author concedes defeat. In the end, I think but one criterion is the standard to be applied: Will the reader be able to follow and understand what the author is trying to convey? (However, I would also say that there is one other immutable rule: that the author be consistent.) If the answer is yes, then even if what the author wants assaults my sense of good taste or violates the traditional style manual canon, the author wins — and should win.

The battles that are not concedeable by an editor are those that make the author’s work difficult to understand and those of incorrect word choice (e.g., using comprise when compose is the correct word).

A professional editor is hired to give advice. Whether to accept or reject that advice is up to the person doing the hiring. Although we like to think we are the gods of grammar, syntax, spelling, and style, the truth is we are simply more knowledgeable (usually) than those who hire us — we are qualified to give an opinion, perhaps even a forceful or “expert” opinion, but still just an opinion. We are advisors giving advice based on experience and knowledge, but we are not the final decision makers — and this is a lesson that many of us forget. We may be frustrated because we really do know better, but we must not forget that our “bibles” are just collections of consensus-made opinion, not rules cast in stone.

If they were rules cast in stone, there would be no changes, only additions, to the rules, and new editions of the guides would appear with much less frequency than they currently do. More importantly, there would be only one style manual to which all editors would adhere — after all, whether it is president or President isn’t truly dependent on whether the manuscript is for a medical journal, a psychology journal, a chemistry journal, a sociology journal, or a history journal.

Style manuals serve a purpose, giving us a base from which to proceed and some support for our decisions, but we should not put them on the pedestal of inerrancy, just on a higher rung of credibility.

2 Comments »

  1. I love the phrase “pedestal of inerrancy” – what a great word!

    I often wish there were only one incontrovertable (probably not quite the right word, but I haven’t finished my coffee yet) style guide. It would make life so much easier. Of course, it might also reduce some of the need for professional editors, so I’m not going to make advocating such a step my life’s mission.

    Like

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — May 20, 2010 @ 8:59 am | Reply

  2. […] in fiction editing it’s more of a guideline (being, after all, a style guide; see, for example, Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance). Publisher’s house style may overrule Chicago, and so may the author’s chosen style. House […]

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    Pingback by Thinking Fiction: The Mind-set of the Fiction Copyeditor | An American Editor — October 6, 2014 @ 4:00 am | Reply


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