This month, the New Blue Pencil underscores Embark editor extraordinaire, Shayna K, who tells us why she's passionate about the copyediting craft.
I’m an editor. I’ve worked on a variety of things from book-length manuscripts to content marketing emails to blog posts.
But I’m also a writer who thinks faster than I type and constantly uses spell check, which means I make mistakes in pretty much everything I write. So, though I’ve read the Chicago Manual of Style front to back and occasionally peruse grammar forums to get a kick, even I have used “there” instead of “their” and been the subject of scorn from strangers on the internet.
It’s not a writer’s job
Why do the best of us still make such obvious mistakes in areas that we are supposedly expert? It’s because we’re too close to our material. We need to let go, move on, and let someone else take over; even editors can’t edit their own writing. Everyone who writes, whether writing is their sole profession or if it is just another function of their job, needs to call in someone with fresh eyes and an open mind, and that’s where editors come in.
A writer’s first responsibility should be to compose a message; only later should mechanical accuracy be considered. Our job as writers is to perfectly translate an idea into language; often, this is an idea that we conceived ourselves. It is not always our job to then ensure that the phrases, symbols, and clauses fit within a semi-defined structure. That’s sometimes best left to someone else.
Everyone makes mistakes
Writers make mistakes for various reasons. Maybe the writer is too familiar with the material and can’t give it a fair glance. They’ve played with the message in their head for hours and made dozens of micro-edits as the content evolved. At this point, the writer probably doesn’t want to look at whatever they wrote for a good long time.
Another reason writers make mistakes is that they often work on a tight deadline. Journalists, copywriters, marketers, and public relations professionals usually have just a few days to thoroughly research and compose a killer article or content offering. Authors and academic writers, though they may have a longer time to condense months of research and exposition work into a full-length piece, may still operate under a publisher’s timeline. And all writers eventually face difficult or technical subject matter that is challenging to express: How can we shorten this necessary but tedious seven-line sentence without losing any of the meaning?
Mistakes make a difference
And if you had any doubt, yes, it does matter if your work has mistakes. Most of the errors writers make are minor, like my “their” and “there” mishap, but other mistakes could have more dire consequences.
Let’s say you work for an environmental nonprofit and are writing an email to all of your newsletter subscribers letting them know about a fundraising campaign you’re running to increase access to food in isolated communities. You finish the newsletter, read through it a few times, and you’re ready to press send. But the website link you included is missing a character! You typed http:/savetheworld.com instead of http://savetheworld.com. Now the hyperlink won’t work and fewer people will participate in your campaign. An editor might have fixed hunger!
Can an editor really do all that?
Okay, so maybe that editor wouldn’t have fixed hunger. But editors can still do a lot. A good editor can make sure that links work, ideas flow coherently, definitions make sense, the message is clear, and that your words sound good. At most, this can help you build relationships, write exciting prose, attract and retain clients, tell better stories, and gain credibility. And error free, well structured writing will always shine, giving your idea the spotlight it deserves.
Editors aren’t just for professional authors—they’re for anyone who writes, including lawyers, entrepreneurs, scientists, and more. So, if you ever write anything that needs to get a message across, think about getting an editor.
And now, it’s time for me to send this document over to mine.
Shayna Keyles, a founding member of the Embark Editorial Agency, is a content strategist, writer, and editor. She is currently taking on freelance copyediting contracts. For more information, contact her at skeylesATgmail.com.