How to edit without peeving

At the start of the year, I invited you all to make no-peeving your new year’s resolution.

One editor got into conversation with me on social media, struggling to see how editors could work without peeving – surely they can’t just stand by and see how far things ‘slide’? They’re paid to alter what someone’s said to something more acceptable. Isn’t that peeving?

Well, no, it’s not.

It’s perfectly straightforward to edit without peeving.

So what is peeving, again?

Let me be clear: peeving is bigotry – being convinced that your way is the only right way, and imposing it willy-nilly on others, whether they’ve asked for your input or not. Peevers will also make whopping great generalisations about people who disoblige them around language; probably not complimentary generalisation, either.

Editors frequently have to edit to a style that doesn’t chime with their personal preferences. Good editors and proofreaders are adults. They can cope with that.

Example: I copyedit books and one (soon to be two!) journals for a university press. The press’s style guide forbids ‘whilst’ and ‘amongst’. I use those two words myself in writing and in speech. If I were one of the peeverein, I’d either ride roughshod over house style, or go off in a huff, or obey house style hating every moment of it and knowing I knew better.

As it is, I roll my eyes in jocular fashion and get on with it, knowing that my preference for whilst (in some contexts) and amongst (in some contexts) is my preference and not a universal law. People who disagree with me are not beyond the pale (I just looked that up, as my instinct was to cap ‘pale’, but that’s for historical usage only, these days. Fine, no cap).

Repeat after me:

My personal preferences do not constitute universal law.

Peevers believe their personal preferences ought indeed to be universal law, and those who don’t abide by this unwritten, invisible and, frankly, pretty unknown law are to be publicly shamed at every opportunity.

Peevers – the peeverein – need to get over themselves.

How does that work when you’re editing or proofreading?

In my nonfiction world, one of the questions I ask myself is how the text fits along various axes: the norm amongst peers; the expectations of the readership; the mood the author is creating; the features of this author’s voice; and the requirements of the publisher.

Then I apply my editorial judgement and then I apply consistency, to help produce a coherent text that won’t have readers stumbling over poor syntax, dodgy vocabulary and irritations like oft-repeated words.

But what I decide is poor or acceptable or wonderful, dodgy or edgy or safe will depend on the overall context and the publisher’s brief and style, and those may – nay, will – vary from job to job. It’s not so much I Am The Gatekeeper And This Shall Not Pass, as Which Gate Am I Keeping Today?

It’s my great pleasure and joy to edit texts with vastly differing author voices and styles. It’s my great goal to zhuzh up [technical term] those texts to meet everyone’s expectations whilst preserving the author’s voice. When the author gets the text back, they really ought to be able to recognise it as theirs.

Peevers make bad proofreaders and worse editors

Now: consider the indie author market – huge. People are actually daring to write stories and novels without the structure of a publisher’s style guide. Fiction has much greater scope for novel (ha!), inventive and imaginative language and, by and large, fiction requires much less formality of style – it’s definitely the author’s artistic choice.

The peeverein would remake everyone else’s writing in their own image. As my earlier post describes, that would generally be their own, ill-informed image.

And here’s where peevers can do a lot of damage – in part because their clients may well be insecure about their writing.

A peever wades in, in the guise of an editor, and unsplits all the infinitives, tucks dangling prepositions safely inside sentences where surely any fule kno they always have to be, removes any conjunction that starts a sentence… and cuts the heart out of the text. Sometimes they do that to dialogue, not just narrative.

A peever may well, indeed, fix (rightly) free reign to read free rein, and that’s cool, that’s the job. But they go beyond the job and impose themselves on a piece of text carrying someone else’s name, the repository of someone else’s dedication and devotion, and of their blood, toil, sweat and tears; in short, on someone else’s aspirations to be heard.

Why does this matter?

We come back again and again to the fact that English – like most languages, indeed – has no external authority dictating this word is Right but that word is Wrong. English was not handed down from the gods on high.

English has fought its way through centuries of suppression and influence and growth and usage, pinching some things that are appealing and shiny from other languages, tossing out other things it no longer finds a use for, sending some to other countries then taking them back, altered.

English – like all languages – needs room to evolve. The peeverein would preserve the language in the aspic of their own preferences and prejudices.

The who/whom distinction is probably going to be lost, soon. Will it be the end of civilisation as we would wish it to be? Editors say no, peevers who peeve on this particular point say yes – and they don’t give in gracefully or quietly.

Yeah, sure, I notice when people say they got the question right, rather than the answer, or they ask a question to someone rather than of someone. It’s interesting.

Prepositions in particular seem to be in turmoil at the moment, in unedited text and in speech, and it would seem that schools gave up teaching what idioms actually mean quite some time ago, or more people would know that ‘free rein’ relates to allowing a horse its head, not doing something odd on a throne, and would therefore stand a better chance of spelling it correctly.

NB: Here, ‘correctly’ is shorthand for ‘according to current convention’ (and I’m helped by understanding ‘free rein’ from having been very horsy in my youth).

But observing these things doesn’t give me the right to criticise the education, intelligence or morals of the speaker or the writer – and certainly not to leap into their face or their social media and tell them so, brandishing my flaming torch of I’m Right And You’re Wrong (with Therefore I’m Superior to You sometimes remaining unspoken, sometimes, regrettably, not).

Editing without peeving

If I’m being paid to edit, I edit, and I exercise the best, most informed judgement I have, in the framework I’ve been asked to work within (…within which I‘ve been asked to work? Nah, not today, not in this context).

If I’m not being paid to edit, I observe and I catalogue and I note contexts and build up my store of language usage, knowing it’ll come in handy some time.

So, yes, editing without peeving isn’t difficult. Peeving without editing is – those peeverein just can’t help themselves. But, goodness, I really wish they’d try.

5 thoughts on “How to edit without peeving”

  1. For I was handed a glass tablet with a new commandment: Thou shalt not peeve.
    Thus questioning and observing mine own peeverein tendencies.

    A humbling (and entertaining) moment. Thank you for teaching me humility.

    Another commandment comes to mind: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
    Or, in this case, respect other writing styles as you would like yours to be respected.

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