Last updated 5 October 2023
I recently edited an academic book on Nazi Germany and, as is standard copyediting practice, checked the spelling and diacritics of all proper nouns and non-English words: the Polish ‘L’ character with a stroke; the triple-consonant ‘sch’ in Mischlinge; the umlaut in Röhm. I’ve found that, with experience, copyediting functions like this have seemingly become almost automatic. A ‘bzzzt’ noise in my brain flags that I’ve just read something I need to check, and I’m consulting the client’s house style guide, Alt-tabbing to my style sheet, or copy-pasting into an appropriate dictionary or Google almost before I realise.
This is essential for efficiency and a positive byproduct of many years of mindfully constructing my own personal editing practice. It doesn’t imply an actually automatic or unthinking approach: rather, my ability to instinctively identify and respond to the more mechanical aspects of a text frees my brain up to better respond to its more complex and nuanced issues.
Nevertheless, for some projects, like the one mentioned above, it might seem like this mechanical approach jars with the content. My editor brain is tripping happily through the text pouncing on issues while my human brain is fixated on the horror or the sadness (or in other cases the hilarity) of what the author is describing.
This calculating approach can seem cold, inadequate, insensitive. As editors we might even feel we’re being disrespectful by subjecting a poignant exposition to such objective grammatical and stylistic scrutiny. It might seem to be missing the point.
But, in fact, entirely the opposite is the case. It is as respectful to ensure a text with emotional import is accurate as it is disrespectful to assume that its inherent gravitas will somehow ward off or neutralise any faux pas. In the aforementioned book on Nazi Germany, I came across ‘Auschwitz’ spelled as ‘Aushwitz’ (not by the author); a methodical approach – regardless of content – is what enables such errors to be caught. And I would argue that errors such as this should really never be missed. It would almost be like failing to notice ‘8/11’. Certain words have an iconic, hallowed status. They make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, for both emotional and practical reasons (even setting aside the possible distraction of its emotional import, clearly ‘Auschwitz’ is easy to misspell). These ‘never-to-be-misspelled’ words will of course vary according to the culture in which the editor works.
Editing requires detachment and objectivity. But, by incorporating this approach into our editing, we show the respect that allows the emotional, cultural and other import of the words to shine out clear, or sit on the page with quiet solemnity, or whatever is intended. This process shows respect for the content and respect for the reader, by helping the two to come together with no grammatical obstructions, distracting typos or other accessibility hurdles.
One of the wonderful things about editing is that, with experience, you can do the robot thing and the human thing at the same time. At first, when you’re learning, most of your brain power is taken up with remembering the rules and working through your mental checklists. As you gain in experience, you still do these things, but they become less all-consuming, allowing you to catch the errors while reacting to the text like a normal reader – and this is good for the author and reader too, as it can only result in the editor responding more sensitively to the text.
Good editing unites respect for the ‘rules’ with respect for content. I have sat editing a Key Stage 2 history textbook with tears dripping off my chin. I have had substantial psychological epiphanies from seemingly dry literature textbooks. And I have snorted with amusement at an author’s particularly dexterous rendering of the footballer Luis Suarez’s biting incidents. But none of these reactions should distract from delivering a solid, accurate edit. By keeping our inner robot and our inner human in balance, we can ensure that, on the one hand, emotive content is spelled correctly and that, on the other, grammatical and typographical considerations never stifle what would otherwise grab us emotionally.