Editors occasionally need to give stylistic advice in addition to making rule-based edits. Since there is no style guide for style, where do we begin?
In the name of style, authors will often hold onto lexical structures and punctuation that are considered nonstandard, and it’s your job as an editor to advise them on how such variations will likely affect readers. Here’s some research to base your advice on.
In the study “Reader Expertise and the Literary Significance of Small-Scale Textual Features in Prose Fiction,” as published in the journal Scientific Study of Literature, Fabio Parente et al. (2019) assessed whether students (English postgraduates and English and STEM undergraduates) could detect and report nonstandard punctuation and lexical formations. The researchers assumed that the students with more experience in close reading—the English postgraduates—would perform better than those with less experience.
To carry out their research, the researchers gave students two versions of a book excerpt, with one of the versions containing either a lexical or punctuation variant and the other containing the standard arrangement. For example, one excerpt would contain the nonstandard lexical arrangement “features evenly distributed” while the other excerpt would contain the standard arrangement “evenly distributed features.” Meanwhile, the excerpt “hopes: cherished” contained nonstandard punctuation while “hopes, cherished” contained standard punctuation (9). (See Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens and The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James for the broader context of those excerpts.)
After the students had a chance to read both of the excerpts, the researchers asked the students if they could report a difference between the versions. To assess whether students detected the changes between the standard and nonstandard sentences, the researchers also analyzed the students’ eye movements to and fixation on specific parts of the excerpts.
The results suggested that all participants better reported lexical variants than punctuation variants. The eye-tracking data suggest that readers were more sensitive to detecting the lexical variants and that “once [the lexical variants] had been noticed, participants lingered on them” (34). Some students were also better able to report lexical changes than punctuation changes.
Notably, English and STEM undergraduate students did slightly better at detecting punctuation changes than English graduate students, leading the researchers to suggest that expertise may need to be defined less as an educational distinction and more as “the ability to notice small-scale textual changes” (22). They further observed that such expertise may be developed over long periods of time by those with a professional need to develop it (e.g., editors) (29). The researchers posited, “The systematic consideration of small-scale textual details may only [be developed]… by the most expert of readers” (29).
If your author is holding onto a nonstandard lexical structure, you can advise them that readers may notice these constructions and linger on them. Now, whether that effect will be beneficial or not depends on the context: Is the nonstandard structure—one that draws the eye and one the reader will fixate on—in a fast-paced, high-intensity fight scene, possibly disrupting the pacing? Or is the nonstandard structure in the emotional epiphany that shapes the main character’s arc, a scene that the author wants the reader to dwell on?
If your author doesn’t understand the need to standardize their manuscript’s punctuation, consider their future publishing goals. If your author is planning to self-publish, nonstandard punctuation may not be too much of a threat because many readers may not notice.
However, if your author’s publishing goals include getting a publishing contract, remember that the researchers had to redefine their idea of expertise and named those who have a professional investment in close reading as those who would notice variants in punctuation. Such a professional investment can be found in those working in publishing houses, as literary agents, as acclaimed book reviewers, and as acquisitions editors. As many of those publishing professionals may judge an author’s effort and potential from a manuscript’s punctuation, you may need to work harder to standardize what you can within the author’s manuscript.
To explore the full results from these experiments on how nonstandard lexical structures and punctuation affect readers, read the full article:
Parente, Fabio, Kathy Conklin, Josephine Guy, Gareth Carrol, and Rebekah Scott. 2019. “Reader Expertise and the Literary Significance of Small-Scale Textual Features in Prose Fiction.” Scientific Study of Literature 9, no. 1 (December): 3–33. https://doi.org/10.1075/ssol.19006.par.
—Abby Forrest, Editing Research
FEATURE IMAGE BY WES HICKS
Find more research
To learn about how errors can affect someone’s first impression, take a look at this Editing Research article:
Condor, Nicole. 2020. “Not Just a Typo: How Simple Errors Affect Image.” Editing Research. https://editingresearch.org/editing/not-just-a-typo-how-simple-errors-affect-image/.
To further understand the importance of standard lexical structures and punctuation, check out this article:
Weins, Kyle. 2012. “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.” Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2012/07/i-wont-hire-people-who-use-poo.