Red pen pedants, Anna Rogers

Book editor Anna Rogers on why even the best authors need saving from themselves. 

For most people, a menu is a list of food choices. For an editor, a menu is a test: can the restaurateurs (not the restauranteurs) spell cappuccino? Are they trying to sell you a Ceasar salad? Can they really mean to have written “Chicken Cordon Blur”? And then there are shop signs (all those “tomatoe’s” and “avocado’s” and “ice cream’s”), newspapers to sigh and tut over, TV and radio to shriek at – “fewer” children in the classroom, not “less”; the ship “sank” not “sunk”. Then, most importantly, there are books.

Yes, editors are nit-picking, detail-obsessed know-it-alls, thrilled by Trivial Pursuit, irritatingly keen to correct others. Their favourite essay in Anne Fadiman’s delightful Ex Libris is “Insert a Carrot”, in which she and her family realise that they’re all closet proofreaders. Her mother has spent years collecting clippings, 394 of them, containing mistakes perpetrated by the Fort Myers News-Press. As Fadiman writes, “Hunters shot dear; lovers exchanged martial vows; mental patients escaped from straightjackets; pianos tinkered; Charles celebrated his twenty-fifth anniversary as the Prince of Whales.”

Such examples are good for a laugh, but does it all matter? If readers grasp the general principle, if communication is accomplished, do correct grammar and spelling really make a difference?

Language is constantly changing, and a determined refusal to accept this can amount merely to intransigence. As Joe Bennett writes in his latest collection of columns, Eyes Right, They’s Wrong:

What people bemoan when they wail about the decline of English is not decline. The pure English or Queen’s English or standard English that people believe in is merely an idealised memory of the English that prevailed when they were young. What they are bemoaning is the passage of time and the constancy of change, just as their parents did before them and the Elizabethans did before them.


English is marvellously flexible, capable of infinite variation. And it is this capacity for subtlety and surprise that requires us all to respect this language and to apply the sensible rules that make it work. Some clumsy, silly pomposities should be sent on their way – striving to avoid a  split infinitive can cause far worse linguistic crimes – but it’s surely worth preserving distinctions that so economically convey important differences. I mourn, for instance, the steadily growing misuse of “disinterested” to mean “uninterested”.

Bad spelling and poor grammar interfere with meaning and hamper communication. They ensure that readers notice the mistakes, not the writing. And, as Lynne Truss’s royalties show, people do care about such matters – the pedants are revolting. It’s a matter of respect, too, for both reader and writer. Poor editing diminishes fine authors by not saving them from easily avoidable mistakes: even the greatest writers have grammatical and spelling blind spots. If a novel, for example, is good enough to be published, and especially if it’s being promoted as the next literary masterpiece, its publisher must ensure that it’s properly edited.

But good editing takes time – to get the measure of a manuscript, to work through it carefully and make suggestions, to negotiate with the author – and publishers are at the mercy of the ordering deadlines of major bookselling chains, and must meet the time constraints required by their promotional and sales colleagues. Even publishers whose device on a book spine was once a guarantee of quality are now often prone to the carelessness born of speed.

A recent Faber book I reviewed appeared not to have been seen, let alone touched, by an editor. There’s also the problem of a New Zealand school curriculum that, for a generation or more, failed to teach the grammar of which most people over 45 have at least an elementary grasp. Through no fault of their own, the editors of tomorrow often simply don’t know what they don’t know. They must be taught more than merely how to edit.

So what do book editors do? Why would that Faber book have been better for the attentions of an editor? Wouldn’t the edit and spell check keys on the computer do the job just as well? Absolutely not.

Editors are the indispensable fix-it people, the detectives, of literature. Their work is properly done when their presence is invisible, when what ends up on the page represents the best that the author can be, when the reader isn’t distracted or confused by factual errors or failures in continuity – dates that can’t be right, eyes that change colour over the course of a novel, characters who get into one make of car and climb out of another a paragraph or two further on, flowers blooming out of season, names that are too similar. (Why did the editor of Carol Shields’s excellent Larry’s Party let her have a Dot and a Dorrie?)

Editing is about much more than getting the spelling and the facts right and making sure the punctuation is spot on, though these are vital. It’s about trimming flab (less is so often more), organising arguments, pointing out needless repetition, preventing novelists from telling when they should be showing, challenging characterisations that fail to convince, watching out for possible plagiarism, asking whether it’s really a good idea to use that very striking and noticeable adjective three times in as many pages, suggesting that the ending may be a rush for the tape rather than a considered conclusion ….

This rigorous process makes for a unique and often extremely satisfying relationship with the author, who must trust the red pen wielder with something that has become as precious as a child. When the chemistry is right, lasting author-editor friendships often result, though the personal and the professional must be kept firmly separated.

Most writers, and certainly the best, respect and thank their editors. Some do neither. For almost 50 years Diana Athill was the doyen of British editors and in her delightful memoir Stet she tells of a lengthy manuscript, “by a man who could not write”’, about the discovery of Tahiti: “he had clumsily and laboriously put a great many words on paper because he happened to be obsessed by his subject.”

Athill was given the task of editing this opus: “I doubt if there was a sentence – certainly there was not a paragraph – that I did not alter.” But, as a true editor, she enjoyed the work: “It was like removing layers of crumpled brown paper from an awkwardly shaped parcel, and revealing the attractive present which it contained.” The published book received an excellent review in the Times Literary Supplement, which praised the writing. The author sent the review to Athill with a note: “You will observe the comment about the writing which confirms what I have thought all along, that none of that fuss about it was necessary.”

As Athill’s rueful story shows, editors shouldn’t be in the job if they burn for recognition and fame – or if they’re unable to leave their own opinions behind when they pick up a manuscript. They’re there to serve the book and the writer. They’re there because they care, as all who love books, whether publishers, authors, readers, booksellers or reviewers, should care, about the language and how it’s used.

I was lucky enough to work with Lauris Edmond on the absorbing task of combining her three volumes of autobiography into a single, shorter book. Some years later, I asked her for a comment on editing to use in a magazine article I was writing. It would be hard to find a better description of the editor’s role and why editing standards should be maintained, even as deadlines tighten, as emails and text messages steal away vowels and punctuation, as our endlessly supple language alters and adapts:

Your editor is your alter ego, your better self. It’s your editor who says out loud what you have hinted to yourself, hoping nobody would hear. She – or he – is your intellectual physiotherapist, encouraging slack emotional muscles and self-indulgent brain cells into alert and productive action. A writer has (or should have) an editorial ear somewhere in the back of the head, checking for gaps, falsities, superficialities, muddiness of meaning, but a real editor is tougher, far more relentless, far more to be trusted. Yet good editors aren’t disciplinarians; the ones you come to love and rely on speak out, but they also confirm and indeed enjoy the original material (or convince you that they do). Their shaping proposals are never a violation; their understanding is all the sweeter for being hard and fairly won.



Anna Rogers has been a book editor for almost 30 years. She is also an author and reviewer.


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