Image credits: The Editor, by Brent Miller (with Midjourny in the style of Edward Hopper), ©2022.

Whether it’s an annual business report, a novel, or an academic essay, the art of writing involves keeping purpose, tone, organization, and coherence in mind. There are also spelling errors to avoid, like there versus their, grammar issues like subject-verb agreement, and tricky punctuation questions. But once a writer is in their “flow,” they seldom register all of the mistakes they make, even if they reread their work later. This is like driving home on “automatic pilot”—drivers know where they’re going, and part of their brain loses focus on the details.

Different roles for different stages

This is where a developmental editor, a line editor, and a copy editor are key to polishing the writer’s text for publication, at least for longer, more complex texts. In the best of worlds, they are separate people. These extra sets of eyes help to clarify the message, hone the language, and achieve the author’s intended effect.

Proofreaders take the final text (in the publishing world, the page proofs) and check what the copyeditor missed: typos, double words, misspellings, grammar slips, and formatting issues. Like copyeditors, proofreaders must have an encyclopedic knowledge of English and of the text’s relevant style guide to make sure they get it right. And while we tend to think that there are fixed rules for English, it’s not a matter of black and white.

It’s not about rules—it’s about style

In writing for newspapers and businesses, the Associated Press (AP) style is often called for, though some publications like the New York Times (NYT) publish their own style guide. Book publishing, however, is usually governed by The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). Those of us who read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (1959)—one of the most assigned books at US universities—might have believed that we knew the one “right” answer that solved all our problems. For example, we were told in my 1979 edition:

“Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ’s . . . Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names ending in -es and -is, the possessive of Jesus’s, and such forms as for conscience’ sake, for righteousness’ sake.”

Strunk and White aren’t always right

But, both CMOS and the New York Times differ on the possessive forms of proper nouns ending in -s (as in the the article below) and add ’s without exceptions.

Notice the possessive, “Jesus’s life,” in The New York Times (August 24, 2022). William Strunk Jr. would not agree.

There is no centralized authority on what is right and what is wrong in the English language, which constantly evolves, and it turns out that The Elements of Style is not our absolute truth, but a students’ style guide (including a lot of Professor Strunk’s personal pet peeves). Here is another:

“In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.”

This also depends on the publication. One could say that Strunk and White follow AP and NYT guidelines on the serial comma, which are different from CMOS’s. Debate on the serial, or Oxford, comma is never-ending.

In short, it’s complicated, but a good editor and a sharp proofreader ensure that your text is consistent with publication-specific guidelines.

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