Spell Check Is Not Enough

Reading a novel recently, I came across a passage in which one of the characters starts a knitting project.

Here’s the description of the stitches she makes:

knit one, pearl three

As any knitter will tell you, it’s “purl,” not “pearl.” But spell check won’t tell you that!

Two photos, one of purls and one of pearls

On the left, purls. On the right, pearls. (Left: Noelle Noodle via Flickr; right: Juhanson via Flickr)

Knitting is a very popular craft: according to the Craft Yarn Council 38 million people enjoy knitting and/or crochet. So this means that out of the perhaps thousands of readers of this book, quite a few winced when they read that line. I showed the line to a friend who is an accomplished knitter. She said, “Ouch!”

I’m not a knitter. But that line stopped me and made me wince.

Editors are only human; we all make mistakes. But editing requires a broad base of knowledge. To be a good copyeditor or proofreader, you need to have more than a good grasp of grammar, punctuation, and where to look up the tricky rules for number treatment in the Chicago Manual of Style.

The editor who wants to maintain and even improve their skills reads widely and also closely—that is, with attention to the writing craft, the author’s voice, the way subjects are presented to various audiences, and how the format of the publication is influenced by the genre and vice versa. They know at least a little about a lot of things—not enough to be an expert, but enough to help them stand in for the reader of the material.

It’s a combination of deep knowledge of the art and science of writing and an awareness of the other side: what readers bring to their reading experience. That’s a lot to include in a job description, but it’s what makes a good copyeditor and a skilled proofreader so valuable in the publishing process.

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