Beneath the red squiggle

Reading the Coles & Lopez blog, you may get the impression that Mesdames Coles and Lopez are grammar mavens of the highest order – keeping our pronouns and antecedents to heel, well versed in the science of the subjective, able to spot a dangling modifier ten pages away.

You would, of course, be right. We revel in beautifully constructed grammar as some might revel in a perfectly executed pop song, or a perfectly planned garden. We take pride in bestowing our knowledge upon the publications of our clients (and upon you, the readers of the Coles & Lopez blog; our adoring public).

In terms of our work, though, it’s more than our knowledge of grammar that makes us proud of what we deliver – and it’s more than our knowledge of grammar that will make you glad you chose Coles & Lopez as your print editors’ collective.

Many people’s conception of copy-editors and proofreaders is that what they do is fix mistakes; that an editor is a human version of a robot that combs through a chunk of text and alerts its creator to errors (for example, by underlining it in red or green. You know the “who needs editors now that we’ve got spell check” argument? I’m about to debunk it. Bear with me).

Actually, our process is a lot more subtle than that. Let’s say you’re a writer. That means you have a message: your job is to pass the message on to a reader, or (of course, you hope) a lot of readers. Another way of looking at it is that your job is to get what’s in your head onto a page (I’m picturing Dumbledore’s pensieve, I have to say). Our job as editors is to make sure that that process goes smoothly: that what ends up in your reader’s head – what they need to hear – is pretty similar to what was in your head – what you need to say.

So much can go wrong in that process of communication. It can never be perfect; what’s in one person’s brain is never going to exactly match what’s in someone else’s. The one tool we have at our disposal to achieve the task is our shared language – and if that tool is to be effective, it must be wielded with skill and care. The thing is that people who have something to say (whether what they want to upload to the zeitgeist is an epic novel or a collection of recipes) don’t necessarily possess that necessary skill with language, or have the time or inclination to take that necessary care. (In fact, I’ve observed, it’s rather miraculous if they do.) That’s where editors come in.

I love taking stock of a chunk of text at the start of a job and asking myself the Big Question: “What’s the message?” When I’ve figured that one out, I begin to immerse myself in the smaller questions that structure my daily working life: “Who is the writer talking to here?” “How much of this can we assume the reader knows already, and doesn’t need to be told?” “Is there something the reader needs to know about here that you’re not telling them?” “What tone are we looking for here – are we chatting over a beer on a Friday afternoon, or are we in a lecture theatre on a Monday morning? Either way, how can we keep that context in mind?” “Could you replace those fourteen words with these four, to greater effect, do you think?” “If we reframe this using an active construction, rather than a passive, your reader will get a clearer picture of what you mean, and your message will be stronger; who is the subject of this sentence?” “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” And so on, and so on. Of course, many of these questions are to do with grammar – and just as many of them aren’t.

One tricky thing about editing is that a lot of the time, I’m dealing with a bunch of these questions at once. Also, the answers to the questions can negate one another – or they can raise new questions (the answers to which can then negate each other).

Another tricky thing is that, usually, I don’t know you; I’ve never met you. All I have is your text, which you’ve emailed to me with a brief and a deadline. A lot of the answers to the questions are based on my guesses about who you are: where you come from, what drives you, who or what you’re representing. When my guesses are particularly audacious, I insert a wee comment, and I ask you as tactfully as I possibly can for your advice. Because the work I do is a lot more about you than it is about me. It’s your precious message that’s about to travel out into the world.

My personal view is that the best editors are the best readers of people. Their job requires a two-step people-reading task: discerning what the writer wants to say, and what the reader wants to know. Each side is inherently human: human knowledge, human nature, human desires and human motivations are inextricably tangled up in every text. The best editors know a lot about the world, or (perhaps more importantly) are open to finding out. They need to be able to approach a text, regardless of its subject matter, and ask and answer the right questions.

Where does grammar fit in this context? The answer is: everywhere. Words, and the way words fit together – that is, grammar – are the clothes your idea wears. If your idea is badly dressed, it’s not going to be respected. Errors and inelegancies of grammar are the equivalents of stained shirts or mismatched socks on somebody applying for a job.

A lot goes on in the process of editing a document: much more than a red wiggly line could ever convey. Believe me now when I tell you that there are good editors, and there are great editors. A good editor makes sure your idea doesn’t feature anything so embarrassing. A great editor makes sure that the very fact that you’ve got every last little grammatical detail right functions as proof that your underlying idea –your message – is of solid foundation, and expertly crafted, and worthy of being shared with the world.