by Laura Garwood
Do you know that words starting with a prefix, like mini-, over-, non-, or –, are generally closed compounds? Well, neither does your computer. Thus, if you write superpowerful, precourse, noninfrastructure, or preincident in a book manuscript, your software will underline them in red, possibly leading you to treat these words incorrectly.
You have surely already noticed that when you write on a computer or other electronic device, it has all this helpful, built-in software meant for cleaning up your writing. You can also purchase add-ons or subscribe to services for this.
Computers are great. Technology is great. And tools for improving writing have come a long way. I do use some specific technological aids because they can help scan for pesky little stuff that I really don’t want to miss. For example, spellcheck can catch an instance of “the the.” However, it will not correct homophones, which is why I often end up helping people who have written that they “poured over” a newspaper. (Do you want a towel to dry that up?) Worse yet, technology can be downright insulting. A recent text that was intended to voice appreciation became a shocking curse. And my friend whose last name is Babione has often found it autocorrected to baboon.
Technology can help you notice mistakes you might otherwise have missed. But it cannot be your editor.
Actual editing won’t suggest that you change “I don’t” to “idiot.” But editing also goes deeper than surface sorts of problems. When I edit your work, I don’t just fix your spelling. I make sure that when you describe something, you’re not accidentally doing so in a way that will horrify your reader. An automatic editing program can’t tell you when you’re being creepy. It won’t tell you that you have replaced the more mundane walked with the more upbeat stepped just enough times that it has started to stick out.* And it won’t tell you that your main character is using something that hasn’t yet been invented.
Highly trained editors have a vast array of resources that they interpret and apply to your work. If you’re writing a book, an editor will use The Chicago Manual of Style, and there are stylebooks for other types of writing too. These guides tell editors if they should use a serial comma or not, if an instance of president should be capitalized, and what to do about biased writing. Editors also refer to the most up-to-date dictionaries and industry-specific information sources. And sometimes even human editors must wrestle meaning out of these sources—I regularly debate issues with my colleagues to make sure I’m heading the right direction.
So at the end of the day, if you don’t want to confuse your readers, accidentally publish something hilarious that’s meant to be tragic, or be the next Mrs. Baboon, you should probably stick to relying on human assistance. We’re there for you.
*You know who you are, and I love you.
Laura Garwood values editing and her clients enough that she will not mock you if you say you poured over your newspaper. But she does want to help you make your writing the best it can be, the utmost goal of editing. She has been known to say that editing is an art and a science, and she enjoys both aspects.