A fine line: between style and correctness

My job is frequently portrayed as being about pedantry. The correct use of the comma, the correct use of subject, verb agreement, the correct spellings.

It’s true, there are some rules: sentences and proper nouns always begin with a capital letter; some words are always spelt the same way each time.

But that’s not always the case.

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There are times, when the rules need to be broken. A sentence without a subject would attract a pedant’s eye at fifty paces but if the narrative calls for it, if the author’s voice demands it, then there is no reason to correct it.

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And that skill, of finely balancing “correctness” with “style” is important for a fiction editor. Yes, your old grammar master might have demanded that certain words come in a certain order but why? Is the meaning clear? If so, why bother changing it?

I was inspired to write this post after completing a free sample edit for an author. As in the example above, rules and conventions were broken but it didn’t matter. It was that author’s voice.

It reminded me of another, hugely successful book: Normal People by Sally Rooney. I read this a few years ago but it has remained in my memory for one very simple reason: there isn’t a speech mark in sight!

The book is stuffed full of dialogue so it should be littered with quotation marks, right? Not one. And I love it. It shows that rules and conventions can easily be broken, the meaning remain clear and people can still love the book.

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And that’s the job of an editor. To understand when the rules need to be applied and when the author’s voice is more important. A sympathetic editor will recognise when that voice is more important to the book than a set of rules.

And that’s the job of an editor. To understand when the rules need to be applied and when the author’s voice is more important. A sympathetic editor will recognise when that voice is more important to the book than a set of rules.

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Published by Nick Taylor | Editor & Proofreader

Fiction editor and proofreader.

5 thoughts on “A fine line: between style and correctness

  1. I enjoyed Normal People, but the lack of speech marks still really got to me. I think it’s becuase I’ve always been told not to stray from the ‘rules’ the moment I started reading and writing. Interesting post. It’s got me really thinking about this subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. People expect editors to stick to these rules and conventions when, really, we need to be asking ourselves: ‘is the message clear?’

      If it is, why are we tampering?

      It’s hard because, like a lot of people, I went to school and was taught about these things! I can only imagine what would have happened if I’d done a Sally Rooney and written with no speech marks!

      Like

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