Everything you’ve been told of editing, forget it.
Everything you’ve been told as a child is wrong. Most of us come to terms with this idea the day we find out about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. And if you don’t know what I’m referring to – they are both real. Now, don’t read any more of this.
Most of us are taught by our grade-school teachers that the rules of grammar are absolute. They are the unwavering truth. However, like jolly old Saint Nick and Mr Bunny, once we leave the classroom these supreme rules lose their unqualified power until, finally, we discover that the limitations placed on grammar are pretty much complete and utter rubbish.
With so many variations of English and so many countries that speak it as a native or second language, there are bound to be divisions over the grammar usage established within the various areas. English is, after all, an ever-adapting and ever-evolving language.
In fact, it would seem no one is able to agree on the elementary rules. Oxford and Cambridge have been battling over simple comma usage for ages. To use or not to use the Oxford comma, these are fighting words!
Nothing is ever absolute, except in editing.
Therefore, editing – or rather copy editing – is essentially an exercise in consistency and believability. An editor’s task is to make certain that everything within a piece of text adheres to guidelines established by the text itself, remaining faithful to those rules and only those rules throughout. If a door was opened on page two, it needs to be closed before anyone can open it again to leave the room. If a main character hates cockroaches, they would not take one as a pet unless there was a very well explained and somewhat logical reason for them to do so. And along the lines of being constant, if an Oxford comma is used once, it must continue to be used all the way to the end. It’s all about logic, plausibility, and continuity.
If a character speaks in a southern drawl and suddenly changes his speech pattern, rhythm, and fluency, there must be a pretty damn good and obvious reason for it. When this inconsistency occurs in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D. H. Lawrence several times declares his reasons why the gamekeeper’s accent changes, even creating tension between the two lovers because of it. This is justification. If there isn’t any justification or logical explanation, there shouldn’t be a variation.
Editing is the practice of forgetting everything you’ve ever known about ‘perfect grammar’ and ‘sentence structure’, revising it all to fall under the category of consistency. The prevailing style is the style throughout, unless it is purposefully changed. If a word is ‘misspelt’ or an alternative spelling is used, it must be spelt that same way every single time – and probably should be used more than once to prove that it had been done on purpose.
Everything else is about keeping the rhythm and flow of the words pitch perfect. This is often where the debate rages over ‘to comma, or not to comma’. Whichever way you choose, follow it utterly and completely.
Be consistent, obey logic, and forget what you think you know. That, my friends, is editing – basically.