Editors

“No passion on earth, neither love nor hate, is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” H. G. Wells

“Ignorant or blundering editors” – William Walter Skeat (1835-1912), author of A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language and many other scholarly works

“Some Editors are scrubs, mere drudges, newspaper puffs: others are bullies or quacks: others are nothing at all – they have the name, and receive a salary for it!”  – William Hazlitt, 19th-century freelance essayist, critic and journalist

On the other hand, we all commit “slips of the pen or of the mind, to which every writer is liable and for whose correction before print he is duly grateful” (American critic Jacques Barzun, “Beyond the Blue Pencil”, 1985). A rather embarrassing example of that is “an quasi-academy” in the introduction to English Like It Is, which remained in place through five versions before I caught it.

As an editor for newspapers, magazines and books, I correct obvious errors, like those in “on-going updates” in this blog. When I edit a book for an author, I flag suspect usage and ask the author if he is sure of the spelling or if he has a reason for the anomaly, and if not I suggest a correction. I do not make a correction without conferring with the author. Publishers’ editors change text without telling the author. It is then the author’s responsibility to catch the errors introduced by the editor. Just a few examples of errors inserted in my books, which I fortunately discovered and demanded to be removed: 1984 for 1894, “the six hundreds” for “the sixth century”, “Joseph” for “James”, and several rewrites of quoted material. One that I only discovered when an article was printed was the replacement twice of “Thomas Moore” (18-19th-century Irish poet) with “Sir Thomas More” (16th-century English statesman). The Irish magazine editor, in his ignorance and arrogance, assumed I had made a mistake, without asking me if the name was written correctly. He obviously didn’t know the difference between the two men, or was unaware of the existence of the poet Moore, many of whose songs are still sung: “The Minstrel Boy, “The Last Rose of Summer”, “Oft in the Stilly Night”, “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms”, “The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Halls”, “The Meeting of the Waters”.

“Hardened wretch, art thou but this instant delivered from death, and dost thou so soon morse thoughts of slaughter?” (from an early edition of Walter Scott’s novel The Monastery)
Does this mystery word “morse” come from the Latin mordere “to bite” or the Old French amorce “to prime”, as some experts have guessed? No. It will be obvious to anyone who has edited editors that someone carelessly misread “nurse” in Scott’s manuscript and was oblivious to the fact that “morse” didn’t make any sense.

I know where Tong is (Letters, 23 January). The editors don’t. (Letters, LRB 6/2/14 p. 4)
Alan Bennett had been criticised for apparently “appropriating one of Shropshire’s finest churches for his native county [Yorkshire].”

I heard two stories about idiotic editors recently. An Irish writer told me the first one. He had used the expression “a weighty problem”. His editor told him he couldn’t say “weighty” because readers who were obese might be offended. That might be amusing as a joke, but the editor was serious — possibly even “weighty” himself. A former reporter for a national television station in a non-English-speaking country told the second. She had written a follow-up article for a news story about actor Liam Neeson and recorded it. Her editor told her to re-record it because she had pronounced the name “lee-am”. She said that was the correct pronunciation. It didn’t matter. The anchor had been pronouncing it “lye-am” all morning, and it was necessary for my friend to use the same pronunciation, though incorrect, to avoid embarrassing the anchor. She refused. Someone else, more malleable, did it.

It is true the computer makes mistakes; but as anyone who reads the newspapers, let alone online, can attest, the general tolerance for disjointed, misspelled, or ungrammatical text appears to be quite high. Keeping me around to double-check the computer’s work might even prove too costly; after all, once readers are habituated to mangled writing, there will be no market-based reason to bother fixing it. (“Soft knowledge, soft target” by translator Adrian West, about “competition” from translation software. The Author, Winter 2014)

An article in The Author Winter 2014, “Taking children’s literature seriously”, challenges the attitude exemplified by “the question that children’s writers notoriously get asked by interested strangers: ‘When you’ve had a bit more practice, will you write a real book?’” Ironically, the author profile for a contributor elsewhere in the issue states: “His most recent books are NH3 (Rickshaw) and The man in two bodies (Fingerpress). A children’s book, The Canterbury Tales (Nocturnal Press) was published in November.” This gives the impression that The Author does not consider that children’s book “a real book”. An alert editor would have sorted out this contradiction – and inserted a comma after “(Nocturnal Press)” while he was on the page.

Reviewer Craig Brown notes “a repetitive tic in the author’s style” and wonders, “Why didn’t an editor notice it?” (IMoS 25/1/15 p. 75) See Hazlitt and Skeat at the top of this page for suggested answers.

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