One of the most common mistakes inexperienced editors make is to stick too closely to the rules.
Yes, editors need to have a deep familiarity with common style guides used in their fields and know how to evaluate writing in terms of its grammatical accuracy. And certainly one of the main principles of copyediting, in particular, is to ensure consistency in terms of style and usage. That’s where a style guide comes in.
A style guide is a crucial resource and reference tool for editors and writers alike. But it’s not a rule book. It’s a set of principles and useful approaches to writing. Or as the pirate Barbossa in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean says of the Pirate Code:
A skilled copyeditor considers a range of factors when determining whether to apply a particular “rule” to a piece of writing: the author’s voice and personal style preferences, the audience, the genre, the specific context all come into play. One of the ways to make this determination is to ask the question
“Is there an obstacle to the reader’s understanding?”
In other words, will applying a particular style guide rule make the meaning clearer to a reader? Often the answer is yes. But sometimes the change would actually make no difference to the clarity of the writing, and the author’s particular style choice is equally valid.
Skilled editing requires a sensitivity to nuance and context, as well as flexibility about the more subjective aspects of writing—ultimately, the ability to distinguish between rules and guidelines.