I think all editors, at some point in their careers, go through a “Grammar Police” phase during which they offer unsolicited (and sometimes unsubstantiated) advice about how to “correctly” use a particular phrase, pronounce a particular word, or use a particular idiom. I know I did. It's an annoying phase — not for the editors, but for everyone around them — and one hopes they grow out of it quickly.
Unfortunately, getting past that stage can be rough, particularly when the stereotype of editor as Grammar Police is taken as truth by those outside the profession. Editors are language authorities, and for some people, that means editors are expected to produce “the one true answer” to every writing, grammar, and usage question.
For example, yesterday I was editing a short ebook about fundraising through snail mail. The author hadn't been consistent in his use of direct mail campaign or direct-mail campaign, so I imposed consistency and added the hyphen throughout.
After that first round of edits, the author emailed me to ask, “How important is that hypen? Is it incorrect to leave it out?” It turns out he had already paid a graphic designer to create a cover image for his ebook, and the hyphenless phrase “direct mail campaign” appeared on it. He was worried he would have to pay to add a hyphen to his cover image.
I hadn't given it much thought when I decided to include the hyphen — it's a campaign based on direct mailing, so calling it a “direct-mail campaign” seemed like the way to go.
But after reading his concerns, I gave it more consideration. I could see how one could interpret the phrase as both a (direct mail)(campaign) and a (direct)(mail campaign). On top of that, direct mail campaign is a more or less set phrase, and a bit of jargon, in advertising and fundraising circles, so readers would be as likely to misunderstand direct mail campaign as they would ice cream sandwich.
So in the end, it was an editorial choice, not the application of some rule. Plus, a ten-second find-and-replace on the file would save the author time and probably a little money. I was happy to knock out the hyphen.
Choices like this abound. One can write about e-commerce or ecommerce, the internet or the Internet, and stadiums or stadia without being “wrong.” Some of these choices will be dictated by a publication's style sheet, but a style sheet is no more than a series of choices that someone has made for you. (A good editor even knows when to go against the style sheet.)
My point is this: Regardless of what those outside the industry believe about editing and editors, we know better. Editing does not consist of applying a concrete set of rules and relationships to text in order to make it “correct.” Editors (like writers) make choices that fall outside the so-called rules of writing.
In short, editing is not math.
Sometimes writers need to be reminded that writing is an artform, not a science.
And so do some editors.