Editing by Edict vs. Editing by Ear

Two recent news articles highlight the importance of editing. In the first, Jacob Rees-Mogg laid down the laws of style in a guide for his staff; in the second, a foreign correspondent notes how a “colossal fuck-up” caused an international incident and ultimately became the subject of a movie.

As a junior reporter, Nicole Mowbray was asked to type up a letter. In accordance with the newspaper’s style guide, she “corrected” the American spelling to British. Such silent corrections are commonplace, and seldom raise anyone’s ire (the Riverside Shakespeare, for instance, has Americanized all spellings without known incident). Except, in Mowbray’s case this was a leaked communiqué from the American secret service, and her correction cast the authenticity of the email into doubt. Hence the international incident. Mowbray was given no context in which to work, and she followed the rules in the style guide to the letter, as many inexperienced writers and editors are wont to do. Her experience underscores why editors need proper context when they edit.

By contrast, Jacob Rees-Mogg offers his employees plenty of context. He espouses a prescriptive approach to writing that reminds one of E.B. White’s essay, “An Approach to Style” that first appeared in the 1959 edition of Strunk & White. Yet, as with White, Rees-Mogg seems to often ignore his own dictates (and, yes, that split infinitive defies White’s instructions). In a different essay in the New Yorker, E.B. White wrote:

Usage seems to us peculiarly a matter of ear. Everyone has his own prejudices, his own set of rules, his own list of horribles. The English language is always sticking a foot out to trip a man. Every week we get thrown, writing merrily along. English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment, and education—sometimes it's sheer luck, like getting across a street.

So, which is it? Edit by edict, or by ear?

Style guides are precisely that: guides. Be aware of context and circumstance as well as the rules. Ignoring the context can lead to international incidents (ask Nicole Mowbray).

Inevitably, punctuation and politics belong together. Lynne Truss dedicated Eats, Shoots, and Leaves “To the memory of the striking Bolshevik printers of St Petersburg who, in 1905, demanded to be paid the same rate for punctuation marks as for letters, and thereby directly precipitated the first Russian Revolution.” Those Russians and their wild ideas! Take Anton Chekhov: c.1885, Chekhov wrote a short story, “The Exclamation Mark.” At an official function, Collegiate Secretary Yefim Perekladin is berated by a younger, more educated colleague for his lack of education and awareness of the rules. Perekladin’s experience counts for little. After a sleepless night thinking about punctuation, Perekladin adds three exclamation marks to his name when he signs in to work the following morning. It is an act of defiance against the arrogant conservatism of his conditions of labour.

As with Perekladin’s colleague, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s stylistic dictates say more about his social beliefs than about style. Now, more than ever, we need Perekladins in the era of Rees-Moggs.

Who’d have thought that editing was exciting enough to inspire two movies and a revolution: first, Genius, starring Colin Firth, and now Official Secrets, starring Keira Knightley? Lord, save us from a movie about Jacob Rees-Mogg.