When students first learn to edit, they’re looking for mistakes everywhere. And they find a lot. But one of the things I try to teach from the first day is that not everything has something wrong with it, so they need to know when to leave copy the heck alone. A principle that guides physicians should guide editors as well: First, do no harm. (Interestingly, this exact phrase does not appear in the Hippocratic Oath.)
In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. (Or, as an overzealous editor might say, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.) This is one of the cardinal rules of editing: Have a good reason for any change you make.
Don’t edit to your peeves. Don’t change something simply because “it sounds bad.” Don’t alter perfectly fine writing because that’s not the way you would have written it.
Do fix the mistakes. Do fill in missing information. Do smooth out rough patches. Do trim words that add nothing. Do explain the complicated. That’s plenty of work to keep an editor busy without messing around in things that don’t need messing.
What editors hate more than letting a big mistake slip through is inserting a mistake themselves. One way that can happen is by mucking about unnecessarily in copy — that’s a typo, a dropped word or a repeated sentence waiting to happen.
It’s often said that good editing is invisible. (Great editing can chop 200 words and no content whatsoever from a piece, but let’s save that for another day.) That’s as it should be. The whole point of editing is for the reader to smoothly understand everything without being distracted by anything. And sometimes good editing means doing nothing at all.
Spend enough time in a newsroom and you’ll hear some variation of these questions, or other criticism of what Those Kids Today are learning (or not) in journalism school. Some of it, of course, is typical grumbling – as if anyone arrives in a newsroom for the first time knowing everything. Others, though, are valid points.
Now that I’m on the other side – teaching – I see how complicated it is: making sure the students get all the fundamentals while making sure they have a good understanding of new media technologies, and that they generally know How Things Work in the news business (which, these days, is sort of a moving target anyway). But I’ve tried to cover all the bases, plus give them a good idea of what to expect in their first internship or job, and that includes the valid points raised by working journalists.
I’ve started this blog to have a place to put stuff too big for Twitter and too opinionated, tangential or snarky for my official work website. You can read the “About” page to see more about me.
My goal for this blog is to have a place to share thoughts and tips about grammar, language, words and editing, and teaching all of those, in journalism particularly; to point out egregious errors in the hopes that they will help others avoid such mistakes (or give some folks a laugh for the day); and to explore different and changing usages in English.
As an editor, I know that “standard” language is important in professional writing, and that certain rules need to be followed for a writer to be taken seriously. As a teacher, I know that students need to have a good command of the rules to understand how language works and how to write clearly, then to know when they can successfully break or ignore these rules. But as a linguist, I know that “rules” are a moving target — only dead languages never change. It’s not impossible to reconcile these three aspects, and I strive to be a “reasonable prescriptivist.”