An Editor Should Do No Harm

A recent blog post at, a newsletter for editors, proposes a “do no harm” oath for copyeditors.
Here are highlights of what the site calls The Typographic Oath.

1. Do no harm.

This advice is repeated in many editing books, including Carol Fisher Saller’s The Subversive Copy Editor:

It is your privilege to polish a manuscript without the tedium and agony of producing it in the first place. Your first goal isn’t to slash and burn your way through in an effort to make it conform to a list of style rules. Your first goal is merely to do no harm.

2. Respect the writer.

Saller provides six habits that can keep the writer-editor relationship healthy:

  1. Ask first, and ask nicely.
  2. Don’t sneak (much).
  3. Eliminate surprises.
  4. Check in.
  5. Keep it professional.
  6. Say “yes.”

3. Respect the reader.

Editors respect readers by striving for clarity, conciseness and consistency and by considering whether they will understand what the writer has written and by helping  the writer to clarify.

4. Don’t be a search-and-replace editor.

This one is open to interpretation, in my humble opinion. In the book Lapsing into a Comma, author Bill Walsh recommends whenever editors are tempted to automatically change something, such as impact to effect, they should remember language’s finer distinctions. “These changes aren’t always wrong,” he writes, “but they shouldn’t be automatic.” Among the search-and-replace minefields Walsh points out:

  • different than vs. different from
  • hopefully vs. it is to be hoped that
  • compare with vs. compare to
  • convince vs. persuade

5. Look it up.

Being an editor often means checking the rules. If any copy makes you pause, look it up. Your instinct could be warning you. Even if no change is needed, you’ll feel better.

6. Enforce consistency.

Good editors watch for consistency in formatting, diction, punctuation, spelling, and other areas. For any project over a few pages, keep a style sheet, keep track of your decisions and refer back to the sheet throughout the project.

7. He who pays makes the rules.

Editors serve many masters: the clients, the audience, the rules of grammar, spelling and language. They must also consider the person who signs the checks, be it the publisher, the writer, or someone else. The Person Who Signs the Checks can ultimately dictate which rules are followed or ignored, as well as when and how things get done.

As an editor, I’m happy whenever a client says, “I didn’t know I could write this well,” or other words to that effect. It’s nice to hear, but the words ultimately come from the client and must sound like they do. That’s the real mark of an editing  job well done.


Leave a comment

Filed under Commentary, Editing Tips

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s