This endearing comment from a client of mine this week who cares–really cares–about perfection. And why shouldn’t he? His entire career has been based on his meticulous choice of words, and he’s an incredibly skilled writer. What was he so worried about that he thought our reputations depended on getting it right? Well, we were operating under different rules for what exactly qualifies as a “bad break,” or an inappropriate way to split a word in two when it falls on two lines of text. Yup, we publishing types fight bloody wars to break words between lines where we see fit.
I don’t mean to rag on him in particular. In fact, in general we see eye-to-eye on issues of style: He’s the only writer I have ever allowed to misuse the subjunctive case, because he doesn’t believe in using it at all–and that is part of his style. That kind of purposeful use of the English language is admirable, in my opinion, because it means he has thought out why he should or shouldn’t use the subjunctive and has a method to his madness. And that is my point, dear reader. Style is not there simply as a ruler to rap your knuckles.
So back to amateur night. I respect a passion for perfection. But this comment reflects a point of view that I have largely abandoned, and that is that writing can be perfect. Writing can be perfect in the same way my daughter is perfect–as a living, breathing, beautiful organic lifeform. While I am quite competent at following a style guide and crossing all my Ts, I don’t subscribe to the notion that a piece of writing can always be made just right by following one set of rules. Writing needs to breathe like its author, needs to reflect his tone and at least some of the idiosyncrasies of his speech. And don’t forget the audience. All writing has an intended audience, even if it is the author himself, so the form of a piece of writing must also follow the function. And that requires flexibility in style rules to accomplish the objective.
I am adamant about consistency, so don’t think this is an excuse to throw all rules out the window or be lazy. It can be quite challenging to determine the right approach to editing a piece of writing, as I imagine it must be difficult to figure out the right approach to disciplining a child whose temperament is the polar opposite of her sibling. When there is no one-size-fits-all, you have to think.
This is what it boils down to: I believe that writing has a soul–the soul of the author–and needs to be treated with respect and a little flexibility. These are couture garments we are creating; this is not an assembly line. Just thought you might like to know… your editor might have a soul after all, too.