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Why the little things matter in communication

Editing your work, and letting others edit you, is about much more than fussiness

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The internet can be a nightmare for grammar sticklers. Anyone can publish their every unedited thought, and even professional publications are cutting down on copy editing in the name of speed and changing priorities.

But copy editing is still important, for everything from articles to emails, because language is important — little things can make a massive difference between confusion and clarity. Of course, not everyone has a professional copy editor on hand to take a look at every important message before they send it, but you can learn to take care with your own writing before you release it into the wild. If you don’t act as your own copy editor, you’re asking everyone reading to do all the work for you. Not only is that discourteous to your audience, it can also lead to terrible misunderstandings…

 

Mary Norris
Mary Norris

 

Longtime New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris became a leading public advocate for the craft when a column she wrote defending her publication’s extensive use of commas went viral in 2012. That turned into the bestselling book Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, which came out in paperback this month. Norris recently shared her experiences as a copy editor with the Slack Variety Pack podcast, and her lessons can inform lots of different kinds of collaboration. Here we lay out some of her wisdom about writing, copy editing, and when to break the rules.

 

Lose (or at least check) your ego

This should probably be the first tip in most lists about work and creativity, or anything. But writing is an inherently personal act, regardless of content, and you have to be open to going back and forth.

“Writers can be very defensive and protective of their prose, but what I’ve found is that the better the writer, the more interested the writer is in getting feedback and getting a reaction, and trusting a copy editor and making sure that the meaning the writer wants is getting across,” says Norris.

“I was just the kind of nightmare writer that I sometimes encounter as a copy editor. I was resistant to everything they tried to change, I thought they were trying to change my style, and flatten it out, and make me say things that I hadn’t wanted to say.”

“Without a comma, ‘Let’s eat Grandma’ is like a scene from the Donner party, but ‘Let’s eat, Grandma” is ‘let’s have a lovely meal together!’” says Norris.

– Mary Norris, New Yorker copy editor
Mary Norris
New Yorker copy editor

And if you’re giving feedback on someone else’s work, accept that your suggestions are just that.

“A lot of times when a copy editor is starting out, he might want to be important, he might think ‘I should be getting published, not this writer,’” says Norris. “But you have to have the humility to be helping and keep your ego out of it. You are really just the midwife here. We negotiate things, we make a suggestion to improve a sentence. We might suggest that a word isn’t exactly the right word. All you’re doing is opening it for discussion. It’s not my piece, it’s the writer’s piece.”

“Without a comma, ‘Let’s eat Grandma’ is like a scene from the Donner party, but ‘Let’s eat, Grandma” is ‘let’s have a lovely meal together!’” says Norris.

 

Rules serve meaning

Just as working within constraints can help designers and other creators focus on solving a problem, working within rules of grammar and usage can help make sure you communicate exactly what you mean to say, and not something else that you don’t. For example, the comma, Norris’s star subject, can be critical to clarity.

“Without a comma, ‘Let’s eat Grandma’ is like a scene from the Donner party, but ‘Let’s eat, Grandma” is ‘let’s have a lovely meal together!’” says Norris.

Regarding the hotly debated serial comma, otherwise known as the Oxford comma, Norris says that rather than having a blanket rule for using it or not, writers and editors should think about whether using it communicates the right meaning.

“If you’re just making a series, just be consistent in either using the serial comma or not,” says Norris. “One of the arguments for it is that it prevents ambiguity. Like the famous expression, ‘we invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.’ I think the main thing is to choose one way or the other and not to get all on your high horse about which one that you use.”

 

Rules can also be bent to serve your creativity

“You can learn not to follow the rules if the writer has a reason,” says Norris. “I’ve worked with the writer Richard Ford a little and he is dyslexic. When he writes, it takes him a long time to read, you can tell when you’re reading one of his paragraphs, that it’s sculpted. He sees words in 3D. Letters move around on him. When he puts in a comma, he really feels that it belongs there. If you think the sentence could do without it, for some logical reason, you might have a point the sentence could do without it — but he feels a pause. However many rules you might have under your belt, if there’s a personal preference that the writer has, that’s what takes precedence.”

 

Remember that your work serves a larger cause

When you pay attention to details in your writing, you’re not only supporting its meaning — you’re giving that meaning a long-term life.

“The written word is what we’ve received from the past, and it’s what we’re going to give to the future,” says Norris. “Everything comes out of a tradition and goes forward. It blends with new traditions of course, but it’s our link to the past, our desire to preserve the language and be a part of the continuum.”


Listen to Mary Norris’s interview on the Slack Variety Pack podcast to hear more of her tips and insight.

https://soundcloud.com/slacksingleservings/tips-on-writing-well-from-the-comma-queen


Evie Nagy likes to put food inside of other food.

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