Friday, 24 February 2012

The dying art of editing

Do publishers not bother editing books any more? And do authors not take the trouble to check their work before they deliver their work to the publisher?

I ask because I’m spotting more and more errors in published works – both novels and work of non-fiction – and it really annoys me. I’m not talking about typos necessarily (though they’re not unknown), but about errors in punctuation or syntax, or simply instances of bad writing that should have been eradicated, either by the author or their editor, before the book was printed.

Take the opening sentence of William Boyd’s ‘Ordinary Thunderstorms’. It’s a superb novel, one of the best I read last year, but it starts unpromisingly:

“Let us start with the river – all things begin with the river and we shall probably end there, no doubt – but let’s wait and see how we go.”

That contradiction in the section between the dashes, between ‘probably’ and ‘no doubt’, pulls you up short. Any decent writer (and Boyd is a great deal better than decent) ought to have spotted it when they read through their draft, and deleted one or the other; it’s what authors do. So did Boyd not check his work? And did Bloomsbury not edit it when he delivered the novel to them?

I’ve just finished reading another excellent book, ‘The Champion’ by Tim Binding, and it contains a classic example of the kind of sloppiness I’m talking about. The narrator, an accountant, discovers that a builder hired by his employer is taking liberties with his bills. On page 304, the builder is referred to as Paul Langley. Two paragraphs later he’s become Lumley, then four lines after that he’s Langley again. Further down the same paragraph he’s still Langley, then he’s back to being Lumley. Two pages later, just to confirm the error, he’s referred to as Paul Lumley.

You can see how it happened, of course. Somewhere in the process of writing the book, Binding decided the builder should be called Lumley rather than Langley (or vice versa), but he didn’t do a very thorough job of making the change. And, once again, neither he nor his editor at Macmillan proofed the typescript thoroughly enough before publication to spot and amend the error.

Does any of this matter? It does to me. A good novel immerses you in its world, and anything that jars when you’re reading risks breaking that spell. Good writing is writing that you don’t notice – and I, for one, notice errors.

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