Tuesday, February 3, 2009

This week's reading

The blurb says this person has already published six books so you are expecting a degree of professionalism, a sign that here is someone whose medium is language and who will therefore have also read a lot, have learned from editors and publishers, have made an effort to understand how language works and to master the medium of his/her art and craft. But no.

It's a set of uncorrected proofs, but these are errors of ignorance, not typos. In less than 300 pages, we have

'sprung' for 'sprang'
'lent' for 'leant' or 'leaned'
'he gave it to Ermintrude and I' (for 'to Ermintrude and me')
'slither' for 'sliver' ('bamboo slithers' -- I think this one is a sort of eggcorn: some slivers are sort of slithery)
'vocal chords' for 'vocal cords' (so is this one: there's an association of meaning between voice and music)
'cohort' for 'companion' (singular -- the sense in which it's used here is, oh, say, 'this wine is a perfect cohort for this cheese')
'inferred' for 'implied'

With one exception, all these errors have been made more than once. Then the finished copy of the novel arrives in the next batch of books and I check to see how many of these clangers have been fixed: two. But there are lavish thanks to editors on the Acknowledgements page. And it's a big major well-known international publishing company.

Perhaps said company has survived by doing away with the services of competent editors. On the other hand, considering how little editors get paid, you'd think it would make no visible difference to the bottom line.

As with all these usage whining posts, the point is that people who use language for a living -- writers, journalists, radio and TV presenters -- have a responsibility to use it professionally. There's no difference between this and the bathroom tiler being eight centimetres out, the pro tennis player being fifteen kilos overweight, the surgeon being a tad hazy about the difference between livers and kidneys. This is not a whine about the language of the alleged person in the street, who often knows better in any case.

Besides, page 19 of the next book restores your faith:
Inside, the diner is meant to look like the 1950s, but it doesn't look anything like how I remember them. Somewhere along the line, people became convinced that the decade was all about sock hops, poodle skirts, rock and roll, shiny red T-birds, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis. It's funny how a whole decade gets reduced into a few seemingly random pictures. For me, that decade was about diapers and training wheels and miscarriages and trying to house and feed three people on $47 a week.
This is another set of uncorrected proofs. But somehow I just know that any errors in it will be typographical or otherwise mechanical; that the person responsible for this seamless marriage of style and content within a vividly realised character's narrative voice is not going to say slither or lent or inferred. This is someone who understands his craft and has worked to master it.

19 comments:

Jonathan Shaw said...

Aren't you just a little tempted to name and shame? And how carefully did you have to proofread this post to avoid Mruphy's Law?

Ann oDyne said...

Having consciously witnessed the decade,
I like that para on the way 'the record' views the 1950's.

re slack editors:
Please do "name and shame" as Mr Shaw above suggests.

re acknowledgements:
Whenever I scan them, I form the opinion that their length increases as the need for them should have decreased.

Parlour Game:
write Will Shakespeare's acknowledgements for 'Hamlet' ... "my editor, my agent, to A.H for all the cups of mead" etc.

Mindy said...

Mruphy's Law was deliberate wasn't it. Priceless.

I shall be reading carefully on the weekend, or the one after to see which book it is and put it on my 'to be avoided' list.

Jonathan Shaw said...

Mindy: Not my invention, though I love it and have consistently found it to be true of my own online pedantry. Mruphy's law: Any post correcting another person's spelling or grammar will inevitably contain at least one spelling or grammatical error of its [or it's] own.

Mindy said...

I consider myself educated then. I hadn't heard of it before. Thanks

Anonymous said...

'Perhaps said company has survived by doing away with the services of competent editors. On the other hand, considering how little editors get paid, you'd think it would make no visible difference to the bottom line.'

Regarding sentence 1: Reputable publishers employ competent in-house editors, but often in small numbers, and their main responsibility is too frequently reduced to project managing a very large list of books (i.e. budgets, liaison with freelancers, typesetters, managing timelines, etc.). It is very rare to see investments of decent editorial time put towards developing each manuscript, on fact-checking, resolving editorial problems — and editors are not always happy about this.

Regarding sentence 2: Unfortunately, investment in editorial work seems to make a significant difference to the bottom line in this 'low-profit business', as we are being told. After all, we are working with professional authors who should know their craft well. (And doesn't every author prefer good sales and publicity, and a book out in bookstores as soon as they feel the first draft has reached a soft-boiled point?)

Reviewers and readers don't always recognise that a book is a physical object, and there are millions of duties involved in putting together a publication. Many editorial tasks have nothing to do with language appreciation or knowledge, and editors often get thanked for liaison work only (which amounts to being on the firing line between authors and everyone else in the publishing/production chain).

It's very interesting to read how a reviewer responds to a 'dodgy manuscript'. When we discuss these authorial/editorial shortcomings within the framework of current publishing structures and practices, rather than blaming editors for all of the book's 'curly beauties', we are truly engaging in a productive discussion of the writing and publishing process, as it is conducted in this country at the moment. Otherwise it's a bit like criticising a casual babysitter for the fact that the child's maths grades are getting worse, when she (and almost never a he) was only asked to supervise tooth brushing before bedtime.

One anonymous editor

R.H. said...

I blame writers first, and editors second. Correcting shouldn't be necessary in the first place.

Thomas Mann said the difference between writers and others is that writers find it harder to do.

Well that's encouraging, to me anyway; I find it enormously hard.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Jonathan, nope, no naming and shaming -- that would be me being unprofessional, in the extreme. And the book has good aspects as well. Weirdly, as I have now discovered, the two books in question are carrying very similar messages. As for Mruphy and his Law, yes, I did indeed read this post more carefully than usual before I put it up! But of course the problem with that list of errors is that the writer didn't know they were errors.

Anonymous editor, this post wasn't intended as an attack on editors qua editors -- quite the reverse. The view I am attempting to express here is that editors' skills aren't valued anywhere near enough. Publishers should be employing good copy-editors to, like, edit copy (am I right in thinking this "minder" aspect of the editor's task is a relatively recent development?). Some still do, as I have discovered doing my section of a huge book coming out this year, which at one point involved receiving a 1500-page ms every page of which had been microscopically attended to. I was thrilled. But writers should care about the use of language enough to educate themselves not do it in the first place, and the way to do that is by reading. But there's a major and to me quite scary trend particularly in Creative Writing courses for students to say 'Oh no, I don't like reading other writers' (by 'other writers' they mean, like, Austen, Dickens, Woolf, Fitzgerald, etc) -- I don't want to be influenced.' I find it increasingly hard to listen to this with a straight face.

Jonathan Shaw said...

I didn't expect any names or packdrill, Dr Cat: I was just projecting my own readerly lust for revenge onto you.

Bernice said...

I trust RH is joking? The terrible thing about slipping editorial standards is that once gone, I suspect few will miss them. Angels & fools rushing...

R.H. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
R.H. said...

You don't know if I'm joking? Well I blame myself. And anyway, as someone with no secondary or tertiary education I'd need editing. One would think so. All the same, I might presume to give advice on writing. And if there were only one thing I could say it would be brief. And simple.

Check your work.

froginthepond said...

Ah, yes, but checking your work implies knowing what to look for.

I worked as an editor's assistant for a time and learned a great deal about my natural inclinations as an editor (I long for a marker when in public loos), the line between editing structure and grammar and wanting to rewrite the whole damn ms, and the balance between time, money and author ability. It's complex, strange, exhilarating and bloody frustrating at times. I think that's why I left.

Pavlov's Cat said...

'checking your work implies knowing what to look for.'

Yes, exactly. Every one of the clangers I listed was put there in good faith by an author who thought it was right. It's why the ideal sub- and/or copy-editor is by nature suspicious, OC and hyper-literate.

R.H. said...

Well golly, what are we talking about? I recognise clangers myself. Some are rather cute, but they bugger the whole thing.
Most people are suspicious about a word they're unfamiliar with, yet some will go ahead without checking. If I'm unsure I look it up, that's all. Far better to do that than have your earnest treatise laughed at. One clanger is all it takes.
You can always learn if you want to. Being good at language I thought I was clever, but hit the earth head first when I began writing letters to newspapers who edited out irrelevancies, making the whole thing more effective.
Say what you like about the Heraldsun, it knows its job.

meli said...

I have heard many stories about an old family friend who used to write jovial letters to chocolate manufacturers etc pointing out grammatical errors on their packaging. He must have had a way with words because they always sent him back loads of free chocolate.

He also became very rich on some sort of general knowledge TV show in the UK, and was fluent in at least fifteen languages. He's dead now but I met his widow and stood in the house he bought with his winnings...

R.H. said...

1. I love pedants.

2. You can't do without editors.

3. Reading makes you a better writer.

All true.

Fignatz said...

Surely 'checking your work' assumes 'knowing what to look for.'? Now there's pedantry for ya.

R.H. said...

Measure twice, cut once.
Now there's good sense for you.

I've always wanted a show called Pedant's Corner. I'd laugh through the entire thirty minutes, including adverts.