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What’s So Scary about Scare Quotes and Italics

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Welcome to the latest edition of “copyediting adventures!” I had the pleasure of editing a great book with some really interesting content. But there was one tiny flaw. Rather, it was a tiny flaw that turned into a big annoyance: the overuse of emphasis in the manuscript. There were scare quotes and italics everywhere. Multiple words were italicized in a sentence. Some times, one sentence had a combination of italics and quotation marks. There were even words that were italicized, quoted, and underlined simultaneously. This, my friends, is what we call overkill.

As a copyeditor, my job is to make the texts readable while respecting the voice of the writer. But in my experience, some writers don’t understand the power of their own voice. So they try to make the reader see that power. This is a mistake. The fact of your written words is already important enough. To say it another way, if the words are not already important, they should not be in your book.

Sure, writing is a process, and each word should be carefully chosen for clarity, comprehension, and impact. And of course, there are moments when some words need to be emphasized over others. However, if you use too much emphasis, you actually de-emphasize the entire sentence or paragraph.

Everything in the book is already important. But if a reader has to pay attention to every emphasized adverb, preposition, concept, or phrase, then readers will forget to pay attention to the big picture of the book.

So, this is my public service announcement: Too many scare quotes are scary. Excessive use of italics is irrational. Every word in the manuscript should be significant on its own. Just keep writing and let the reader decide their own experience.

—KRW

copyediting, proofreading, teaching, Writing

Proofreading and Copyediting Dilemma: The Art of Reading

I find myself in a bit of a dilemma, one that should be easily avoidable for someone like me. Copyediting and proofreading is a skill that is a combination of the art of reading and the art of writing. As a teacher, I spend a lot of time pouring over the details of my young writers’ work; I want them to be correct and creative. But first, I have to teach them to write. This, of course, requires a certain attention to grammar for the sake of readability.

A fundamental problem that happens with young writers is that they don’t understand the power of punctuation. There are either too many commas or no commas at all. And don’t even get me started on semi-colons; it’s too much to bear to think about. There are usually always periods, but usually after a long, rambling run-on sentence. Did I mention the commas?

Don’t get me wrong; I understand why the problem exists. My students are all writers in their own way, but social media writing does not translate well in any setting other than social media writing. And generally speaking, excellent grammar is not always the marker of a great writer (this is why copyeditors exist). Nevertheless, I have to hammer on the grammar to make the writings readable, then hammer on the art to make the writings creative.

Sometimes creativity necessitates the breaking of certain grammar rules. It’s a necessary sacrifice. One that I see all the time as a professional copyeditor and proofreader, and this is where my dilemma comes in.

Proofreading Code of Conduct

I had to do a proofreading job recently, and I was in full teacher mode because, well, there were dangling and misplaced modifiers every where. Every description of every place, person, or thing included a dangling modifier. Of course my instinct was to fix all of the dangling because in a sea of nouns, I couldn’t tell what was being modified.

I wanted to correct these dangly bits. But then I noticed that the color begin to drain from the text. That’s a problem. A book without a voice is a terrible thing. So, I contacted my editor to get some parameters, and she told me that some of those dangling bits are literary. And she was right. And so I let the modifiers dangle, cringing a little in the process.

This led me to reconsider the work of the proofreader versus the copy editor. Proofreaders generally check for grammar, mechanics, punctuation, and syntax. Copy editors check for some of those things plus accuracy, mechanics, consistency, organization, clarity, and more. In some of those sentences, I thought the meaning was confusing. However, this meant that a copy editor didn’t think so, and likely signed off on those sentences. If I were to proceed with too many changes, I would be overstepping my proofreader role.

So I deleted some of my suggestions, probably a bit too much. But the writer’s poetic style remained intact. I guess we can call that a win, and I had to remind myself about the limits of proofreading. Here is the capital-T-truth: while proofreading is less work, copyediting is much easier. Go figure.

Reading is Art

While I sit here stressing over whether I did an adequate job on the project, I am reminded of this simple principle: reading is art. Copyediting and proofreading are artistic endeavors that facilitate the reading experience, an experience that can rise to the level of art if the writing is good.

I have to remind my professional self that what I do in the class room can actually limit me as a copyeditor. I also have to remind myself to allow my students to be creative and not just correct. Sometimes, breaking the rules of grammar is necessary for the sake of capturing experience. Knowing when to do that—or better, when to allow that—is the major dilemma of copyediting and proofreading.