Where have all the editors gone? -- 02/18/13

(Sing the title to the tune of Where Have All the Flowers Gone.)

Okay, let me begin by saying that I make mistakes all the time. When I write one of these little essays, it is not unusual for there to be a mistake in it. I do (usually) run a spell check to avoid typographical and spelling errors and I do attempt to write grammatically correct sentences. (Well, given a generally conversational tone and a fondness for em-dashes and ellipses and parenthetical asides....) If I see some particularly egregious grammar glitch when I post to the web, I even sometimes go back and make a correction -- but if I spot it the next day, I generally just shrug and ignore it.

My daily job involves quality assurance reviewing and editing of course material (we call it "courseware") for internal and external training in the use of certain high-end software tools and platforms. These courses are intended for professional programmers and systems analysts and carry a hefty price tag. (An hour in one of these classes costs more than an hour in an Ivy League classroom.)

And sometimes when I read a book for relaxation and enjoyment, I spot errors. I do not do it consciously, but sometimes things just leap off the page at me. It is my belief that errors are becoming more common. I have no statistical proof of this, but I have read numerous complaints about editing standards falling even at major publishers. Apparently one of the ways of saving money is to cut back on editing (and to increasingly use outsourcing and off-shoring for editing).

This struck me with some of the most recent books that I've read. This is not an attempt at picking on these authors -- every writer can use a good editor -- nor am I picking on these publishers (and without looking, I have no idea what company published this book -- or any other book I've read recently). This is merely looking at a typical book that I read for recreational purposes. I wouldn't hold up this book as being an outstanding work of literature but neither would I claim that it was badly written. It did, after all, hold my attention, made me turn the pages, entertained me well enough that I read them through to the end. I am not accusing the authors of greater than usual manuscript errors. It is the purpose of editing to find and correct these errors.

So, consider The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick. I have read and enjoyed works by both of them individually and both have been nominated for and have won awards for their writing, including Nebula and Hugo awards. This novel is an interesting book -- one of the things I enjoyed about it is that there are no hyped-up thrills, no explosions, no colliding planets, no evil super villains -- just an intriguing mystery to be solved. After I read it, Nancy picked it up and has also been enjoying it.

However, it really could have used an alert editor.

For example, the book is told in third person. Early on (page 7). Mary Gridley, the head of NASA is talking with Jerry Culpepper, NASA's head public relations guy. She tells him that a topic raised by a reporter in the just-completed press conference has "gone viral."

The next line is: "You're kidding," I said.

I presume that is Jerry saying that, but this is not a first person narrative.

Another glitch: On page 10, billionaire industrialist Bucky Blackstone visits Jerry in Jerry's office. There is no question that this is an actual physical visit and not a video call. (Page 11 -- "Please," he said, "have a seat, Mr. Blackstone." He indicated the wing chair, which was his preferred location for visitors.

Where's the glitch? It actually comes a couple hundred pages later -- page 215 -- Jerry accepts a job offer from Bucky and shows up at Bucky's office. Bucky found himself facing the man he'd seen so often on television. I was startled when I hit that sentence -- I was certain they had already met in person (as well as having had many phone conversations). I had to turn back to the early pages to confirm to myself that they had indeed already met in person. The simple insertion of the word "again" into that sentence could have fixed the problem. I don't blame the writers; I blame the publisher for cutting back on professional editing.

These are not things that running a spell checker or a grammar checker will spot. They require a human being to read the manuscript. This is at a lower level than questions about characterization or pace or plot considerations, but these glitches can still break the flow of the story.

I can recall reading a thriller a couple of years ago when I got very confused as to why the protagonist was suddenly with one of the female characters in New York City when she had last been several states away and he had been with a different female -- until I realized that for three pages the names of two of the female characters had been accidentally switched. He had been with one character but for three pages she was being referred to by another character's name.

Maybe it's just me. I showed Nancy a couple of pages in a techno-thriller I am currently reading and she didn't notice the errors that leaped off the page at me until I specifically pointed them out to her.

Do you notice errors when you read? Believe me, I do not try to find errors -- they just pop out at me. I always wonder, if these are the ones I spot, what about all the ones I read past without noticing? (And these are novels -- have you ever stopped to think about the editing of textbooks to be used in schools?)

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