EAGLE EYE | Primum non nocere
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Primum non nocere

blog-first-do-no-harmIf you think this blog post is about the medical field, you can be forgiven. The Latin phrase primum non nocere, which translates to “first, do no harm”, is well known by doctors and emergency responders, and, as a general rule, the public, at least in its non-Latin forms.

But here I am not referring to anything medical, but rather the chopping up, transplanting and sewing up of a text as it passes through the various editorial stages. At its most basic, an editor’s job is to try to make sense of a text where it does not. This can start off in the overall message of the publication and drill right down to the individual words, spacing and punctuation used to get that same message across—from the macro to the micro level.

Thus when editing, copyediting or proofreading, “Your first goal isn’t to slash and burn your way through in an effort to make it conform to a list of style rules. Your first goal is merely to do no harm,” says Carol Fisher Saller in The Subversive Copy Editor. Indeed, that is true, but that does not mean that an editor need be shy about making corrections.

When I dive into a text, I think first and foremost about the message—what is the author trying to say and is the message coming across? Once I have meddled in the text, adding, subtracting and reformulating, I take another look at the message—does it still say what the author intended it to say? Have I inserted any mistakes where there weren’t any before? Can the text be better?

Yet sometimes it is difficult to know what the author was trying to say; this is especially true of writers communicating in a language that is not their native tongue. Additionally, I can spend significant amounts of time trying to figure out the meaning of a sentence that includes errant punctuation, such as a misplaced comma, or worse, no comma at all. I can also spend long minutes debating whether a word is really the word the author wanted to use.

When it’s not possible to go back to the author and ask for clarification (sometimes the work I do is several steps removed from the person who actually wrote the text), I stick to my main rule: primum non nocere, and move forward in the most unobtrusive manner possible.

(You might be wondering what the image I have chosen has to do with the blog post. Look closely. If you were to harm the “rock”, it would certainly harm you back. I took this picture in the Red Sea in 2009. I was floating just above the “rock” waiting for someone to descend when the dive master moved me away from it—and for good reason. Wrapped around the coral is a Synanceia verrucosa, or reef stonefish. It is the most venomous known fish in the world and can be lethal to humans.)