The Art of Editing

Lately we at Book World have been thinking a lot about what we do: that is to say, about editing. More and more of our reviewers are complaining that too many elementary mistakes -- clich├ęs, faulty grammar, even errors of fact -- are finding their way into finished books. This means, of course, that the books aren't being edited as thoroughly as they used to be. The complaint has become so common that recently we asked a reviewer to leave it out (he had other gripes to talk about anyway) for fear that our readers would start rolling their eyes.

Some readers -- and probably a lot more authors -- may shrug and say, so what? Isn't editing an extra, and a pretty artificial one to boot: lofty standards imposed upon manuscripts by prissy librarian types who love to justify their existence by catching errors? But editing, I believe, is something we all do, a fundamental human tendency. We correct ourselves all the time as we speak, going back to replace the wrong word with a better one, to fix a double negative, etc. We also do it collectively, often without even realizing it. The best examples I know of are from movie history. Mae West never said her trademark line, "Why dontcha come up and see me sometime," just that way (or at least not until it had become famous on its own). What she actually said, in "She Done Him Wrong," was "Why don't you come up sometime 'n' see me?" But someone rephrased it in the soon-to-be-classic form, the public started repeating and remembering it that way, and the mass-edited version prevailed.

The same thing happened to "Casablanca," in which Bogie never says, "Play it again, Sam." There's no doubt, to my ear anyway, that the popular versions are improvements on the original. That's what good editing does. Its point is not just to add grammatical polish and fact-checking exactitude; it's also to help writers to strut their best stuff -- pithily, punchily, artfully, memorably. That's one of the reasons why even the best writers often thank their editors in the acknowledgments to their books. We aren't trying to rap knuckles so much as to bring out what Matthew Arnold liked to call one's "best self."

-- Dennis Drabelle

By Ron Charles |  February 3, 2009; 1:54 PM ET Dennis Drabelle
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It has been a long time since I have read a book without at least one obvious error (spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.) and at least a few less glaring. I'm beginning to think that even spell check isn't being used regularly.

Posted by: LBinVA | February 3, 2009 3:23 PM

Typos used to rule in the days before computers were used to set text, but you could depend on the grammar and the facts. I date the transition to downright carelessness the day I started hearing the term "publicist" more often than "editor" in reference to an author's assigned shepherd.

Posted by: cebeling | February 3, 2009 6:18 PM

Yes, Dennis, you are precisely right -- and this distinction is essential. The typos and grammar gaffes are part of "mechanical editing," but the real genius of the editor is to find the words and ways to breathe life into every line.
--Michael Pastore, author of
==The Ithaca Manual of Style==

Posted by: epubster14 | February 8, 2009 8:51 PM

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