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Writing and editing
October 29, 2010 2:48 PM   Subscribe

"I've discovered some wonderful books but am frustrated by the standard of editing."

A tweet by Claire Armistead about her experiences judging the Guardian First Book Award prompts discussion of the changing nature of publishing and the changing roles of editors.

Coincidentally, it's recently been suggested that Jane Austen's style owed a good deal to her editor.
posted by philipy (43 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
While I'm not sure that the whole editing function is plain to me I agree that the standard of proofreading has lately degraded a lot. There are loads of spell-check errors (where you get -a- word, just not the right one) but the plain old misspelling is to be found on a fair fraction of the pages of recently published books. Perhaps matters will improve, now.
posted by jet_silver at 3:18 PM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I agree that the standard of proofreading has lately degraded a lot.

I'll say. Found this gem in the NYT yesterday:

"people who have been forced out of their homes may be not be able establish residency to vote"

I keep wanting to offer them my services at like $10 per error found or something.
posted by marble at 3:32 PM on October 29, 2010


"people who have been forced out of their homes may be not be able establish residency to vote"

I'm not a grammar nerd. What's wrong with that phrase?
posted by schmod at 3:35 PM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh, yeah, amen on the proofing. I was pleasantly surprised to see Christos Tsiolkas, an Australian author, getting huge worldwide distribution for The Slap but then on page 12 it's talking about a character listening to "Art Blakely and the Messengers." It may seem like a nitpick, but it's really not -- it's supposed to be a surprising but throwaway detail that makes the character and his milieu more vivid and real, but instead it yanks you out of the story and, if you are a cynical sort like me, makes you wonder if even the author knows anything about jazz, let alone the character.

Later on there's a dude who gets called both "Manolis" and "Manoli" and, because of the other uncaught errors on proper nouns ("Gwen Stafani") I honestly can't tell if the two names are intentional (some sort of Greek code-switching or nickname-creation thing?) or just erroneous.
posted by No-sword at 3:35 PM on October 29, 2010


oh, wait. nevermind.

*Runs off to apply for a job with the Times*
posted by schmod at 3:35 PM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


(Although I suspect the former, because the two are used very close to each other on some pages and "Manoli" tends to appear in dialogue. But still -- at first I was just confused.)
posted by No-sword at 3:36 PM on October 29, 2010


Helen DeWitt:
To your mind, where does an editor come in?

This is where the (I now see) horribly long preamble pays off. The Last Samurai only came about in the first place because a close personal friend introduced me to Kurosawa. DSL is now Professor of Latin at NYU. He loves Moby Dick, Faulkner, All the King's Men, Cormac McCarthy; loves Wagner, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg; has an extensive knowledge of cinema; introduced me to bridge and poker and came up with the idea of a book showing the way mathematicians think about chance. Introduced me to Mel Brooks' The Producers.

DSL is not a DeWitt alter ego; through him I come to work I wouldn't otherwise have considered. If he comments on a book, I can put his comments in context; I know the writers I love that he doesn't care for, I know the kind of thing he likes in a work of art. I also know that this is someone with an extremely powerful mind whose views carry weight.

DSL has a photographic memory and a meticulous eye for detail; I could call DSL up while revising Samurai and say: David, you remember that comma on page 283? I'm wondering whether this is really a good idea. And he'd remember the comma on page 283.

No editor can compete with DSL on his own ground. If DSL introduces me to Kurosawa, of whose work he has a photographic memory, it would be ludicrous to expect an editor with no knowledge of the films to have something useful to offer.

Is this to say that there is no point to having an editor? Surely this is simply to say that DSL is what an editor should be: someone with strong tastes which do NOT simply replicate mine. Someone with profound knowledge of material relevant to the book under consideration. DSL started out with an advantage on books written so far, for the entirely unsurprising fact that an intelligent reader with whom one has intellectual rapport will come up with suggestions that prove fruitful – whose results he is then in a privileged position to judge.

In other words, it would be perfectly possible to have an equally fruitful relationship with an editor in the publishing industry. But that would require something that agents strenuously resist, namely giving the writer a great deal of information about editors' intellectual strengths early on, giving the writer a chance to talk to editors early on, so that an editor's intellectual strengths were of some use to the book.

[At this point, obviously, I'm talking about the role of editor as someone who strengthens the book, rather than as someone who selects it for publication.]
Really, the degree to which Armistead's assertion is shouted down is the degree to which the shouters secretly suspect that yes this is the case but if we merely continue to do more with less and shovel a bit more on the fire why eventually we'll make it through and no thanks to the naysayers.
posted by kipmanley at 3:37 PM on October 29, 2010


Editors rock. Publishers who don't use editors don't care about what they're putting out, and they're doing their writers a huge disservice. Writers are supposed to resent editors, it's a natural part of the process, but the process should be indispensable and good collaborations happen all the time. I do both editing and writing professionally. As a writer I now feel short-changed if copy comes back to me without a lot of changes. I want to know that my publisher takes my work seriously, and cares enough about my readers to pay someone to help me communicate with them as best I can.
posted by aunt_winnifred at 3:52 PM on October 29, 2010 [6 favorites]


I'm not exactly the world's best proofreader but in the recently published novel I've just read even I spotted four glaring errors that should have been picked up by the copy editor.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:05 PM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm a fan of L. E. Modesitt Jr.'s Saga of Recluce series. Sadly, the entire series suffers from sloppy editing. Often it's a simple spelling error, or some weird random character in place of a letter. Sometimes, an entire paragraph will be repeated almost verbatim in the course of a chapter. The errors are obvious enough that I caught most of them on my first reading, and they just leap out the second or third time I read the book. Sad, because it's otherwise a great series.
posted by xedrik at 4:18 PM on October 29, 2010


Copy editor? They still have those? I wouldn't be so sure.
posted by Carol Anne at 4:18 PM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Editors are a casualty of publishing's explosion; first as it was absorbed into larger media empires and and secondly as digital and online writing vastly expanded the pool of material out there.

Two things happened; people were reading so much (when you added up what they read online), much of it error-ridden, that they got used to the lower quality, or simply skimmed right past errors. Much as MP3's got people used to picking convenience over sound quality. Editing and quality checking became less essential to readers. (Mefites excepted).

Add that to the giant multinational media empires' thirst for profits, and you get the ironic result that in an era where there is more text out there in need of editing than ever before, you can hardly find work as an editor--and when you do, it pays chicken feed.*

The exceptions are in education (though it still pays crap) and editing for technical and science publications, although those publications prefer editors from their own fields, not literature majors.

Also, there is quite a bit of difference between proofreading, as in checking for spelling and grammar, and editing, as in reading for flow, coherence, and consistency. In my experience, the worst writers--probably because they required the most editing to have their product make sense--resented it the most.
posted by emjaybee at 4:39 PM on October 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


I knew I would have an error in that post. Yes, I see the extra "and".
posted by emjaybee at 4:39 PM on October 29, 2010


Armitstead stood by her suggestion that too many novels and non-fiction books have been going to print without being properly edited.

I can't believe this is in any way controversial; it's like suggesting that the sun comes up in the morning. And I note with amusement the misspelling of Armistead in that sentence.
posted by languagehat at 4:39 PM on October 29, 2010


Goddamit. I missed my footnote too.

*To be fair, editing always paid for crap.

Editors need editors too.
posted by emjaybee at 4:40 PM on October 29, 2010


Later on there's a dude who gets called both "Manolis" and "Manoli" and, because of the other uncaught errors on proper nouns ("Gwen Stafani") I honestly can't tell if the two names are intentional (some sort of Greek code-switching or nickname-creation thing?) or just erroneous.

Manolis is the nominative and Manoli is the vocative (and genitive and accusative) case of the name in Greek, so it's probably intentional.
posted by ersatz at 4:41 PM on October 29, 2010


My favorite example of the writer/editor relationship is from the Isaac Asimov story, "The Monkey's Finger."

Sadly, the wikipedia article doesn't do the story justice. (And it ruins the ending, too.)
posted by Katrel at 4:41 PM on October 29, 2010


Man, if you don't like errors, don't buy a Kindle. As far as I can tell, they don't get source files from the publisher-- they run the books through OCR. They're riddled with errors, at the rate of one to about every ten pages.

I like the device, but the lack of proofing is ridiculous. Hello! You've got a wireless annotation mechanism. Can you at least let me mark the errors? So dumb.
posted by phooky at 5:13 PM on October 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


The cuts to editing have split up the profession into various levels of involvement with the text. For example, I am currently a project editor for a nonfiction line. Project editors manage deadlines, approve submissions, and corral the production folks and the copyeditor and the author(s) and sometimes their agents. Project editors, in my current line of books, make $10/page of the completed book. Copyeditors make $5/page. There is no specific slot for a developmental editor, which is the sort of editing people describe wistfully.

I've been doing this since the mid-90s. If the Golden Age of Editing existed, it was pre-Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (I studied briefly under Ken Kesey and he had scathing things to say about the downfall of editing, and that was nearly 30 years ago).
posted by catlet at 5:19 PM on October 29, 2010 [5 favorites]


I should add that almost everyone I work with, except maybe the acquisitions editors and the editor nominally in charge of each imprint, is a freelancer.
posted by catlet at 5:22 PM on October 29, 2010


The more I think about it, the more freaked out I am that my eyes scanned over that first "be" about a dozen times without noticing or parsing it. Cognitive psychology is weird stuff, and maybe we shouldn't be making fun of these people quite so harshly.
posted by schmod at 6:05 PM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wait. Intensive line editing and developmental editing are dead?

Well, shit. I guess I shouldn't have spent the past month completely taking apart a poorly structured (but gorgeously written) manuscript and putting it back together again.
posted by ocherdraco at 6:46 PM on October 29, 2010


I'm sorry. I get cranky when people imply I (and my work) don't exist.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:14 PM on October 29, 2010


The piece about Austen is not at all about what the headline in this post suggests. Austen's brilliance, of sentence, structure, and plot, is completely her own. She had a good copy editor, which is important, but is not the same as someone helping her to structure her novels.
posted by OmieWise at 7:29 PM on October 29, 2010


As far as I can tell, they don't get source files from the publisher-- they run the books through OCR.

Unless it's an older (backlist) book, ebooks are created from a digital source, but it's often a typeset-for-print file that doesn't automatically convert well to a reflowable format like the Kindle's.

Proofing these digital files is the publisher's responsibility, not Amazon's, but the publishers often do a shoddy job. Send an email to Amazon customer service and they will refund your purchase (often within minutes).
posted by nev at 7:43 PM on October 29, 2010


Things go wrong in layout too, that don't get caught. I recently read a book (can't remember what - published in the last 5 years) that had a paragraph stop suddenly in the middle of a sentence. I sorta shrugged at it and carried on, then there the whole paragraph was again, with the complete sentence, in the middle of the next page.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:59 PM on October 29, 2010


If I implied your work is dead, ocherdraco, I implied mine is as well: no offense intended at all, but frustration and sadness at how the way I work has changed. Developmental - at least in my end of the industry (trade non-fiction and technical) - is subjugated to the schedule. Make sure it fits the line's voice and template first, then work on developmental issues if there's time in the tight turnaround. As I was told by someone up my editing chain on Wednesday, "too much development tends to offend the author" and that affects the schedule. My former employer laid off the entire full-time editing staff last year in favor of freelance copyeditors because the CEO did not believe that developmental editing was necessary, and he slashed editing hours out of every scoped budget he saw.

I work a lot of unpaid time to do close edits because I believe in developmental editing, and I think that books that undergo good development sell better. I am delighted to hear that there are segments of the industry that still support the editor/writer partnership.

this comment has been neither developed nor closely edited
posted by catlet at 8:47 PM on October 29, 2010


Editors who edit don't bring in the money. Bring in that Bush daughter and the McCain daughter, lets add some MARKETERS to the mix...and lets make lots of money.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:14 PM on October 29, 2010


Unless it's an older (backlist) book, ebooks are created from a digital source, but it's often a typeset-for-print file that doesn't automatically convert well to a reflowable format like the Kindle's.

Interesting. How old does a book have to be to count as "backlist" nowadays?

(And thanks for the customer service tip. I'm not so much of a stickler as to ask for a refund, but it would be nice to get things fixed for future readers. Do the over-the-air updates extend to patching errors in texts?)
posted by phooky at 9:24 PM on October 29, 2010


I translate for a living and often work on lengthy and complex texts. By the time I've wrestled them into acceptable English from the quite different source language, I find that no amount of review from myself will eliminate every infelicity or downright error of my own phrasing, so I'm enormously appreciative of the work of good editors when I'm fortunate enough to have them, and nervous of how my output will inevitably appear when I don't.
posted by Abiezer at 11:39 PM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


> Copyeditors make $5/page.

Thank you. With that brief sentence you have relieved my mind of the niggling suspicion that I might be getting screwed by my usual employers. Not that I thought they were screwing me, but I'm just a wretch of a freelancer living in the wilds of Western Mass., so what do I know? And now I discover I'm getting more or less the industry standard. Feels good, even though I'm just as poor as I was before!
posted by languagehat at 6:22 AM on October 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Story I heard was that editing died after one of John Toland's heavily edited break out books hit it big, and the following, more rushed, less edited, sold just as well. Suddenly, the editors seemed less of an added value. Whatever the market will bear, alas.

But I'm not in the industry and get all my gossip third hand.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:28 AM on October 30, 2010


Well. Nobody was standing there and telling Sidney Bechet to play his horn better, even if there were plenty of mediocre musicians at the time who probably could have used it. It seems like editors are quite necessary to writers who are pretty good, and there are a lot of them, so I guess it's possible that the general state of fiction has declined somewhat. I tend to wonder a bit about how copyediting has worked in the past; is this how it was, for instance, in Germany in the 1830s? In France around the same time? It certainly wasn't in Iran or Madrid in the 1100s. It seems as though, while copyediting is quite important for pretty good writers, great writers seem to be capable of doing it themselves, or at least of knowing how to make sure it gets done correctly and who to entrust with this task. Euripides used Socrates to run through the text of his plays with him before having them performed, they say. Would that every writer had such an editor.

I get the feeling a 'editing establishment' isn't exactly the natural state of things, in the same way there's not really a 'writers' estabishment.' Good writers ought to know how to be friends with their editors, and how to befriend the right people, the people who can help them produce what they'd like to produce. Neither is a simple job you'd ask just anyone to do. As with all things in a capitalist state, however, there's an increasing assumption that money is the chief and even sole motivator in this relationship, whereas I get the feeling it's only the necessary pretext. In a way, the recent spat of badly-edited books is just as much the fault of writers as it is of editors; it's just that writers seem to have learned that an editor is the person you pay to publish your book, the person who sometimes annoyingly demands changes in your otherwise-perfect manuscript. Maybe this comes from the radical individualism of our society – this unwillingness to share the creative act in the most natural way in the world – I don't know.
posted by koeselitz at 9:19 AM on October 30, 2010


Do the over-the-air updates extend to patching errors in texts?

Yes, but not en masse. They do seem to push updates for books now and then.
posted by nev at 10:24 AM on October 30, 2010


an editor is the person you pay to publish your book (koeselitz)

You've got that backwards. We pay writers for the rights to publish their work, not the other way around.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:04 PM on October 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


living in the wilds of Western Mass.

languagehat, I cannot help but think of you as Melville out there.
posted by OmieWise at 3:34 PM on October 30, 2010


Perhaps he would rather you not.

I tend to wonder a bit about how copyediting has worked in the past

You can find anything on the internet!

In a way, the recent spat of badly-edited books is just as much the fault of writers as it is of editors

That's a bit hard on writers. I suppose if you're making serious money at the game the expense might be worth it, but few writers do. Expecting them to put in the initial investment in time, blood, toil, tears, sweat and then to write out a serious check to Languagehat for something that may well not sell at all, despite the first rate copy-editing, well....

There's heroic, then there's self-flagellation. As it is, given the odds, I'm often amazed that anyone writes for money at all.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:29 PM on October 30, 2010


I don't mind typos and misspellings so much. More egregious on the web (present company excepted) is the glut of babbling on and on. The trouble with electrons being free is that you get five paragraphs where one will do.

E.g. today, "30 top apps for the Android" could easily have been pared to 10. Economy isn't just about less paper and ink; it's about -not wasting readers' time with minutia-.
posted by Twang at 5:39 PM on October 30, 2010


I don't mind the typos as much as I mind inconsistencies. When I hear people say J. K. Rowling is a bad writer, I put in my own view that she's a great writer -- she just needed a better editor. Someone who could have smoothed over the parts where her inexperience was showing, tuck in loose ends, and tweak her world-building problems.* It would have improved her story and kept it her own. Those things should be the job of an editor.

I see this kind of thing in books all the time, and this post has helped me understand it better. Thanks.

*Wouldn't it be great if there were world-building consultants for fantasy and sci-fi authors? Someone who could help the writer make it all work, and still by following the author's intended in-world logic? It would save the readers so many headaches.
posted by Toothless Willy at 6:26 PM on October 30, 2010


I don't mind typos and misspellings so much. More egregious on the web (present company excepted) is the glut of babbling on and on. The trouble with electrons being free is that you get five paragraphs where one will do.

I've noticed the same thing. It's like that one article series in the newspaper every year that is CLEARLY a Pulitzer attempt. Or, god help us, film articles on Wikipedia and computer hardware reviews. Shut the hell up and make your goddamned point already!

But as we are seeing here, there is increasingly less "creative restraint" on producers of all manner of creative works. The majority of creative people need some kind of editor type to tell them the truth, to make them better. But the risk/reward isn't there to actually hire people for that nearly as much any more. Nobody complains, or if they do, the publisher can say "hey, we are putting this shit on the web for free. Don't like it? Don't let the door hit you in the ass." The notion of constructive criticism is waning.
posted by gjc at 6:39 PM on October 30, 2010


ocherdraco: “You've got that backwards. We pay writers for the rights to publish their work, not the other way around.”

Yeah -- that's what I meant. I think many writers are really confused about the utility and necessity of editors. Not so much they pay the editors, but... they're required to use editors until they get famous enough to free themselves. Which is the wrong idea.
posted by koeselitz at 7:45 PM on October 30, 2010


I keep wanting to offer them my services at like $10 per error found or something.
I'm sure they'll take you up on that, since the reason more papers are filling up with errors is that they can't justify the $150/shift rate for editors any longer. You finding fifteen mistakes will be a great replacement.
posted by bonaldi at 6:19 AM on October 31, 2010


In the fanfic world, they're known as beta readers and... you can't make a living at that either.
posted by Karmakaze at 6:53 PM on November 1, 2010


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