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Friday, March 26, 2010

An Editor’s Pet Peeve

I used to work as an editor, which makes me unable to stop seeing copyediting mistakes in the books I read. Bad editing is one of my pet peeves, especially when I discover mistakes in a book that comes from a supposedly reputable publishing house by a well-respected author.

First, it makes the author look bad. No matter how well I know how easy it is to miss mistakes in one’s own writing, I find myself unfairly expecting the author to be able to spell and punctuate correctly. The author has the final look at the proof text. Unfairly, the author is expected to go over the proof with a fine-toothed comb and find every problem that crept in during the production process, as well as everything that was inadvertently overlooked in the original manuscript. Yet I know that authors are not usually editors. They are the people with the ideas, with the talent for getting those ideas across, with skills of extraordinary expression—not necessarily with the skills of spelling, punctuation, and esoteric points of grammar, for those are among the skills of the editing staff.

Second, it makes me think the editing is being left to the computer to do, which can easily produce nonsense at the least. Do major publishing houses now not employ copyeditors? Is copyediting now relegated to the least-important of the editor’s duties? I’m finding more silly spelling errors (mostly homonyms that are both homophones and heterographs—the kind the spell check cannot correct) in more books lately. In David McCullough’s 1776, for example, most of the instances of the word principle in the book should have been principal instead. Most of them occurred within quotations of original documents, and since spelling wasn’t regularized in the 18th century, the originals probably spelled words differently every time they used them, but the editors or the author or both apparently had chosen to regularize all the original spellings in all the quotations, so I cannot believe that this word is the sole word spelled as in the original material on purpose. Besides, it was spelled wrong in two instances where it was McCullough's own words. It was spelled correctly once only, that I noticed.

Third, it makes the publishing house look bad. I remember how much trouble we copyeditors got into if we missed something at the newspaper where I worked, and especially if it ended up causing the paper to get into trouble, such as when a crime story confused the names of the culprit and victim, and the victim sued for defamation of character. At the two other places I worked in publishing, at the least, mistakes could cause us a lot of embarrassment. There are people like me out there who see the mistakes, ready to pounce on the misplaced apostrophe in genitive it’s when it should be its, and happy to skewer the intelligence of everybody in the industry over grammatical errors and typos.

I want to be given leeway to make mistakes, but I don’t want to see them in professional publications. I expect publishing professionals to be, well, professional about their business. Now I have to put in a caveat lector. I will probably make mistakes here in my blog. I am not treating this forum as I did the book I wrote or the family histories that I compiled, for the simple reason that it isn’t intended to be on that level of professionalism, nor do I expect it to reach beyond a few people whom I know will be lenient with me—as lenient, I hope, at least as we all have to be with the books we read that no longer get the same level of attention to detail as they did in years past.

2 comments:

  1. "...nor do I expect it to reach beyond a few people whom I know will be lenient with me..."

    Hmmm...then maybe you're not expecting your blog to reach me? LOL! I'll try to be as lenient as possible...but it's hard for me to be lenient even with roadside billboards...I should hold you to a higher standard than I do them, yes? :-)

    But seriously...I will enjoy perusing your musings.

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  2. This is illuminating. I had naively assumed professional editors don't make mistakes. But, this reminded me of Karen Hoover thoroughly going through and correcting all the mistakes her publisher noted in her first book. She took four or five solid days to do it. I see lots of grammatical and spelling errors in online texts and sales pages. Nothing turns me away faster than sales pages poorly edited.

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