I signed up for a grammar course.

I know my English isn’t perfect and I can edit fairly well, but I also know that if someone asked me to explain each and every edit, I wouldn’t be able to do that effectively. I cannot always label all the rules or reasons for my edits, but I seem able to apply many of them. The thing is, it’s not enough to remember and apply only some of the rules or to work on instinct alone. We owe it to ourselves and our clients to learn as many of the rules as we can and to keep brushing up on the ones we might have forgotten. And I am not only talking about the rules of grammar!

Rule No 1: Know the rules of professional conduct

PEG members are bound by a code of conduct – rules that guide our behaviour in our work as editors and among ourselves as professionals. I wish there were prescribed courses on professional conduct. But there aren’t. Unlike grammar courses, there are no assignments or formal assessment tools to prove we understand what it means to call ourselves professional. We have to do this part of our work (being professional) ourselves.

Our commitment to professional conduct is not only about knowing the rules that guide sentence structure or correct use of punctuation; it concerns something far greater – the appropriate use of self. This means we need to be aware of the impact of our actions on those around us – potential clients, existing clients, past clients and, of course, colleagues. PEG’s code of conduct outlines, among other areas of conduct, what it means to be competent, responsible and reputable as a professional editor.

Rule No 2: Know the rules of grammar and punctuation

We should be able to explain what we are doing to our clients and to ourselves, even if we are seldom asked to do so. Surely, we respect our craft as much as we respect our clients. Authors take great pride in their writing and often expect that we (as editors) will add in a few commas and full stops or spot misspelled words only. When we do more than that, we show integrity in our work and respect for the client. We should demonstrate the reason we make those changes to improve their text, and explain such changes to clients who need, or want, to understand.

Rule No 3: Know the rules of style

Every document needs a style just as every editor needs to know that one should be applied. If there is one thing I have learnt as an editor, it is that our clients often do not know what they want in terms of style. By style I mean the preferred font, typeset, numbering and heading styles, language convention, text alignment, word use, tone, register and many other preferences. If our author does not have a specified style guide, we could offer to create a style sheet for them (this is not as comprehensive as a style guide, but is a list of style elements that pertain specifically to the document that needs editing).

Style sheets and style guides keep us on the right track. They ensure consistency in our work and can relieve us of the energy otherwise needed to work out what is best or what is appropriate, what is permitted and what is not.

Rule No 4: Know the rules of access and exit

Some say rules are meant to be broken. Obviously, I can’t agree. As a devout follower of rules, I believe that we should first access and understand the bare minimum and then build from there at a steady pace and never stop. This goes for rules of editing, rules of conduct and rules of style. When we understand the rules, we can more easily act as agents of change to ensure that the rules that are being encouraged are reasonable, relevant and appropriate. If we don’t like the rules, it is our choice to leave the client, institution or profession that is asking us to follow them. Alternatively, we could become involved in finding ways to constructively amend rules that need changing. We are our own agents and should use this right constructively for the benefit of our profession.

A concluding comment on rules

When we belong to a professional organisation and want recognition as professional editors, there are many ways to learn the rules: access available information in the form of authoritative guides and sources, peruse the organisation’s website (which includes lists of recognised sources), speak to colleagues, compare the rules to which we are bound to those of similar organisations, commit to training, and continue to learn so that we know whether or not the rules we learnt first have become outdated or irrelevant.

It takes maturity to admit that we do not know what we do not know, and it takes confidence to seek or ask for information that could expose our ignorance or naivety. Furthermore, it takes an understanding of the rules to know how to engage or when to walk away without burning bridges, and in a manner that maintains a sense of professionalism.


Feature photo: Joshua Miranda / Pexels

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PEG.

About Alexis Grewan

Alexis is a collaborator with a flexible style of communicating. She worked in two previous professions before entering the world of language practice. Her background as a social worker and natural healthcare professional underpins her interest in the way we interact and what drives the quality of our communication with others. As an editor and writing consultant, Alexis values accuracy and upholds high standards of editing and writing practice. She is ethical, vigilant, disciplined and reliable; she believes these values should also form the basis of professional relationships. Alexis is a PEG Accredited Text Editor and has been the chairperson of PEG since May 2021.

About PEG

The Professional Editors’ Guild (PEG) is a non-profit company (NPC) in South Africa. Since moving to online activities in March 2020, PEG has been able to offer members across South Africa, and internationally, access to an extensive online webinar programme. Continuing professional development remains a key offering and the first PEG Accreditation Test was administered in August 2020 to benchmark excellence in the field of editing.