What do you mean by “careful?”

Last week I saw a post from Grammarly that asked the question “Have you become more or less careful with your writing?” (That’s the gist. I don’t recall if there was a time span mentioned, nor does it really matter.) My first thought was: That all depends on what you mean by “careful.”

I’ve made no secret of my opinion about Grammarly’s software. However, their blog posts often have merit. This is one such post, even if the question I heard wasn’t the one they asked, and if my response isn’t the one they expect. I’m giving it anyway. They’ll probably never know.

“Careful” writing means different things to different people. For some, it means adhering to every rule whether it’s a rule or not, no matter how many times it’s been disproven or debunked. For others, it means ensuring no typos creep into their work. Still others might feel as I do, that “careful” means different things under different circumstances.

When I see the question “Have you become more or less careful with your writing?” I think of how I approach writing for different audiences and purposes. I like to think I’ve become more careful–as in more aware of register–over time, and that by now I’m pretty well able to peg the right register for a given audience. Here on the blog, I’m quite informal. This certainly isn’t how I’d write for a thesis presentation. (Not that I’m going to be doing that. I have plenty of student loan debt already, thanks.) Over the four and a half years I’ve been writing for this blog and building my editing client base, I’ve done a lot of reading. A lot. A LOT. Usage books. Grammar books. Style guides. “How to write fiction” books. “How to edit fiction” books. Copyediting books. Developmental editing books.

A LOT OF BOOKS. And most of them are on my reference shelves.

Because of all this reading and referencing, I’ve become stronger as an editor and nonfiction writer. (I still can’t plot my way out of a paper bag. Fiction writers, you have nothing to fear from me.) I’ve found my voice, and I’ve gotten better at adapting it to registers from the very casual (I’m very fond of internet speak/slang, much to some folks’ chagrin) to the very formal (I can write academic arglebargle with the best of them, and I can write sensible prose in that same voice–which is an ability not to be sneezed at, believe me).

Have I become more careful? I say yes. I’ve stopped obsessing about tombstones (the nonrules that never were rules but hang around anyway, like “never split an infinitive” and “never end a sentence with a preposition”) and focused on learning about walking in the no-man’s land of the pragmatic editor. Descriptivism has a place, as does prescriptivism. Neither place is my place, though. I live in the between. I work there, too. And I’m careful about where I step.

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