Just read this conversation between a novelist Donna Tartt and publisher/editor Michael Pietsch (original here). I could definitely see Tartt’s frustration in dealing with editors in the past, which pretty much solidified her wish to stand out by rebelling against “the rules.” I’ll bet she does write readable, comprehensive prose, though, or she wouldn’t be as successful as she is. So, she’s playing by some “rules.” She just doesn’t want to feel that rules are rigidly imposed upon her by outsiders who are applying some semi-arbitrary style book to her creative work.
Pietsch brought up the “invisible hand” issue about editing (which is more influential in substantive editing than in copy editing or proofreading) and his tone itself stressed the importance of understanding that we editors are challenging, to a certain extent, the writer’s ownership of their creation. We are participating (although mostly anonymously) in the creative process, and therefore a diplomatic and flexible approach (particularly for fiction, I would imagine) is called for. We can’t retreat into some stereotypical Puritanical grammar-lady mode and be of any real assistance to the writer.
Even Tartt admitted that rules might be a good idea for, say, journalism and probably other nonfiction writing, where a standardized approach to communication will create a smooth read for folks who are reading to understand a structure or process. But a “smooth read” is also important for fiction, I think. When I read fiction, I want to get “sucked in” to the writer’s world, to get to a point where I don’t feel like I’m reading words on a page, but actually observing and emotionally participating in the story. I want to come away from the book feeling as if I am still haunted by my experience for a while. I read mostly science fiction and fantasy, so maybe reading more realistic fiction is different, but I doubt it. If the writer’s prose is filled with confusing sentences or even confusing plot process or characterizations that don’t make sense, then my reading experience will be frustrating.
There’s room for individual style, but stretching that grammatical fabric too far does a disservice to the reader (unless you are writing experimental prose for a niche academic audience—I’ve seen how that works). It becomes a balancing act for the editor(s) to be good helpers in supporting the author’s writing and also representatives of the reader and the principles of comprehension. I think it’s funny that editors and proofreaders are so often seen as rigid rule-appliers when, in my experience at least, we’ve had to make so many subjective, contextual calls on best practice based not on a set of rules, but on how the written structure best serves the story the writer is telling.
That’s me, then. Your ally in providing a great reading experience for your audience. First thing I do when I see a manuscript (as copy editor or proofreader, for that is my chosen role) is to follow the writer’s style, figure out how it works, and then only step in to “interfere” when I, as just a reader, find myself stopped and confused, or if I see that the writer’s intent has been sabotaged by his or her own human tendency to forget to be consistent about the use of words or capitalization, or whatever.
I am here to be of service to you, not to take over ownership of your creative work. If I want ownership, then I should write my own book. The only thing I ask is to be given an open-minded consideration of my recommendations. The decision is still yours, dear writer, as is the ownership of your content. 🙂