A copy editors thoughts and tips on following grammar ‘rules’.

As far back as I can remember, I learned to write in a certain way. English as a subject within school set out writing in a very regimented way and didn’t allow for interpretation, error, or the idea that we could stray from the rules. If we did, we wouldn’t get the grades we needed. As someone who always liked to play it safe, I never thought anything of it. I was never a rebel. I also found the books I read as a child and a teen always stuck to the ‘correct’ way to write English. When I did my copy editor course, I learned an awful lot more about gauging and working with the English language, grammar, spelling and punctuation rules, style guides and how I should navigate all of this with future clients in a way that does not make them perplexed.
The course led me to think about what is truly right and wrong and how much these things matter. This subject is what I want to write about within this post, tackling it from both an editor and a readers point of view.

When I read the book Normal People by Sally Rooney, it made me think more about the idea that we don’t have to be so regimented and strict when it comes to writing. To explain if you haven’t read it: the author doesn’t use quotation marks. I’d never experienced this before, and if I’m honest, I didn’t like it. I put this down to the fact that I’ve always been a stickler to those writing rules – it just didn’t compute with me. Rooney has said in an interview that she doesn’t understand the function of quotation marks within a novel. I personally think they’re necessary as they separate dialogue, therefore making writing clearer to understand. I found myself re-reading paragraphs to try and make more sense of them and where the writing changed from thoughts or actions to dialogue, and it just didn’t compute well with me. However, the book is popular, has won awards and generated a lot of reviews – not so much focused on the lack of punctuation. Just to make it clear: I really enjoyed other aspects of the book and found it to be a thought provoking story, well worth reading. We are all different within how we read and what we appreciate. Again, it got me thinking – should I be so personally regimented with rules, or should I work on becoming more open-minded? What’s truly necessary when it comes to writing a good book?

When I edit or proofread, I always aim to keep the authors writing their writing. Bottom line – it’s an authors right to accept or reject the edits I make, and it’s my job to make sure I follow their requirements and wishes. I cannot push my opinions onto their writing.

A prime example of this is the classic oxford comma. You can either use it or not use it, and neither way is wrong. I’m a person who says a firm no to the oxford comma within my writing, but I have worked with people who embrace it, and I would never go against their wishes – it’s their book. Now, if a writer came to me and specified that they weren’t using capitals, again, as an editor or proofreader, I would follow this, even if it went against my opinion. It is what you should expect if you’re working with a proofreader or copy editor. If you were to work with a developmental editor, however, they can comment on what would suit your audience and give edits or advice following that. A beta reader would work really well with this kind of thing as well – you gain a variety of honest opinions and then make changes to follow suit if you wish.

However, I do think it’s important to think about your desired audience when writing – if you’re aiming for your book to be public. It’s not everything though, because of course, you want to enjoy your writing process and feel happy with what you’ve done. There’s a good balance to find. I partially struggled with Normal People because I sometimes couldn’t keep up with what was dialogue and what wasn’t. It was off-putting. To me, this is where the purpose of having rules comes in. It’s easier to read with them, and it allows for consistency. So if you were to forgo a particular ruling or punctuation mark, it would be worthwhile thinking through why you’re doing it, what it achieves, and whether it’d make your writing tricky to follow and understand.

I have wondered whether making a more tricky read was partially Rooneys aim too. By making you focus and put more effort into reading her work, it may have allowed the reader to be more immersed in a story. Does it also then cause a person to think more about the subjects, characters and moments they’re reading about, therefore becoming more passionate about their views and more emotionally invested in the story and characters?

I suppose that forgoing tradition can lead to more intrigue and, in some ways, more popularity. I find that the world is always adapting and changing. There are so so so many books to read that doing something out of the ordinary could lead to a bigger audience, more attention and talk, which contributes to sales and a writer becoming prominent. Not everyone wants this, and of course, there are many ways to be out of the ordinary, but being rebellious when it comes to writing English is certainly one way. If a writer has excellent skills and a great story to tell, then anything is possible. Punctation may improve clarity and connote meaning, but it’s possible to achieve this without squiggles and marks.

To simplify everything – my top tips around grammar rules:

  • Write what makes you happy. Use your skills, passion and knowledge to create something wonderful and true to you. If this means you do something non traditional and bold, then I applaud you.
  • Think a little about your possible audience and figure out how important their opinons are to you. Will your choices make them find your writing tricker to read. Will they understand why you’ve chosen to do what you have, and see how it effects their reading experience. 
  • Be consistent. If you chose to forgo a traditional rule, make sure you apply it to the whole of your novel.
  • If you decide to use beta readers, ask them to specifically comment on your punctuation or grammar decision. Did they like it or didn’t they? Did it cause them to think more or did it distract? Etc etc. 
  • When you work with a copy editor or proofreader, ensure you give a brief/specification, and that this is stuck to. Explain your reasoning for your writing choices, so they can understand and not question it.
  • If you decide to work with a developmental editor, again explain your reasoning for your choice. Really factor in their opinion – after all, they are a professional. However, as a professional, they should also stand by your finial decisions as the author. 

Realistically, I don’t think that I personally will ever want to write without using punctuation. I love what it achieves, and it’s a big part of my job and something that I enjoy learning more about and understanding. I’m somebody who may always need that regimentation and guidance. It isn’t to say that I cannot appreciate the boldness of a writer who skips tradition and challenges the norm. This subject is one that I find so interesting, it’s always changing with every book that’s written and I’m excited to see where the literary world will go. I’m sure my own reading experiences will evolve to follow suit. I’d really like to know your opinion on this subject too! Feel free to comment.

Published by Amy Ollerton

Hi! I'm Amy—a professional copy editor and proofreader living in the beautiful Scottish Highlands. I provide friendly, personalised services that boost writing while retaining the author's unique style and voice. I write a little myself, shown through my blog. Alongside my work, I read books, enjoy baking, and explore the Highlands with my partner and my dog, Lula. If you've ever any editing queries, feel free to get in touch!

One thought on “A copy editors thoughts and tips on following grammar ‘rules’.

  1. For me, grammar rules are in place for a reason. There are some things that can be open to interpretation. I’ll get to that later. I’m not sure I could read something that has dialogue but doesn’t differentiate between dialogue and storytelling. That’s the whole point of quotation marks. You know who is reading and what they are saying and what is dialogue and what isn’t.
    Oxford comma is one of those things that can be open to interpretation. I use it but only because I grew up using it and everything I read when I started writing used it. I could stop using it and I don’t think it would affect me much. It’s something some people use and some people don’t. Again, it doesn’t bother me. What really bothers me is seeing published work with misspellings and using the wrong word like there/they’re/their. Not really an excuse for that.

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