Words & Stuff

EEE: For Want of a Blue Pencil

(27 February 2000)

Every now and then (as, more or less, in column J, column cc, and column hhh), I'm struck by the urge to issue a prescriptivist rant about the language mistakes that other people make. (I, of course, never langage errors of any kind making.) This is another such occasion.

Some years back I noticed that once writers get to a certain level of fame, nobody can edit them any more. Dan Simmons, for example, is a good science fiction writer who'd be a lot better if someone took a blue pencil to his work and cut about a third of the words. Other writers become famous enough that their work is retroactively un-edited; for example, Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land was reissued with 250,000 words that had been cut by an editor in the original edition. There may have been a reason those words were cut....

I spent a while complaining to anyone who would listen that editing was a lost art. But then I learned that Les Miserables is over 1400 pages long, and other 19th century writers were similarly verbose. Dickens, for example. When you're paid by the word, it makes sense to write long. So the lost art of editing was just as lost a hundred-plus years ago.

So I know that editing isn't really getting worse. I'm sure that professional articles published on the Web aren't really that much worse-edited than those published on paper. I don't really believe that the faster pace of the Web, combined with the ease of making changes that word processors provide, is resulting in articles being published that neither the author nor the editor has read all the way through.

But sometimes it's an awfully convincing illusion.

I've been seeing a lot of really obvious blatant mistakes on the Web lately -- major problems that anyone paying attention should have noticed. For example a builder.com review of Dreamweaver contained this line: "Some developers, though, will find this feature a boon. going to be a boon." Who wrote this, Max Headroom? Most likely the reviewer tried to rewrite the sentence, but left part of the previous version in place by accident. That doesn't surprise or bother me; I do the same thing all the time. The unfortunate thing is that the reviewer apparently didn't reread the article before submitting it, and the editor (if any) apparently didn't read it at all; I can't see how anyone who was paying attention could have missed that. The review was posted in late December, and the error remained in place for two months; in the two weeks since I noticed it and pointed it out to some people, it's mysteriously been corrected, so you'll have to trust me on this one. (One nice thing about the Web: it's easier to completely expunge errors once you notice them. The difficulty of correcting errors in print may perhaps best be illustrated by the recent embarrassing incident in which the US Census Bureau sent out 120 million paper letters to the wrong addresses....)

Not all editing is good editing, of course. Robert Anton Wilson has said that Dell required him and Robert Shea to cut 500 pages from Illuminatus!; Wilson claims that he and Shea made the cuts more or less at random (and those pages were subsequently lost). This may not be the best possible approach to reducing the length of a book. But in most cases, I'm inclined to blame the writer more than the editor.

No less an authority than the New York Times recently printed an article on the Web that included the phrase "the Taiwan public, after enjoying enjoyed years of prosperity" -- presumably another case of the writer changing phrasing but not expunging all evidence of the original phrase. The same article went on to note that Taiwan is "still named the Republic of China as it was Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek fled there"; I believe that that phrase is simply missing a "when," but the rest of the sentence was messy enough that I couldn't be entirely certain.

So yes, despite knowing that editors have not always done the best possible job, I do begin to suspect that there are fewer of them these days, that they have less time, and that they're often bypassed entirely. As an editor, I get annoyed by poorly edited work; as a writer, I know how much a good editor can improve my writing. I've seen firsthand the wonders a good editor can work on a manuscript; I can't understand why any writer would eschew the opportunity to improve their work. But then, my parents were both freelance editors at various times.

To be fair, the lack-of-editing problem is certainly not restricted to the Web. Presumably that New York Times article was originally intended for print rather than online publication, for example. And in the latest Year's Best Science Fiction anthology, the MDBT (Mean Distance Between Typos) is somewhere around ten pages. (Except in one or two stories where the MDBT is more like two paragraphs.) And these are mostly glaring and annoying typos -- "was" for "war," for instance. The most entertaining one so far is this: "Gwyneth Jones was a co-winner of the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award for exploring genre issues in science fiction...." The Tiptree award is actually for exploring gender issues. As with most of the other errors in that book, this one was probably induced by a spellchecker.

I should close by noting that, in accordance with Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation, this column is certain to contain at least one misstake. But at least I've read it all the way through between writing it and posting it to the Web.

Note: I use the term "typo" (short for "typographical error") to refer to any sort of mistake in printed material. I know people who claim that the term should properly be used only in reference to errors in typing -- for example, according to that definition, striking the wrong key while typing results in a typo, while spelling a word wrong because you don't know how it's spelled results in a misspelling that isn't a typo. I don't find that a useful distinction to make, so I refrain from making it.

Disclosure: I write documentation for Dreamweaver, so my opinion of the Dreamweaver review is far from unbiased.

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>