What do we expect from editors?

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First of all, sorry for the hiatus! I was seriously stuck whilst in Portugal – as well as internet limited by how much I could afford to load on my dongle, I had laptop problems. My laptop had a hissy fit at the heat (38-45C) and the dust/ash caused by the forest fires (and yes, we were in the middle of the affected area). I’m now back in UK and just recovering from the trauma of buying a new laptop – more about that in another post.

Because I was internet deprived and laptop deprived I couldn’t write so I did a lot of reading, and quite a bit of pondering on what I’d read. I want to share a couple of in depth reviews/commentaries with you because they raise issues that affect the craft of the writer.

The first writer I want to discuss is Harlan Coben. I have only read one book – The Woods – so bear with me if it is out of line with the rest of his work.

Now, the book I read deserves much of the praise Coben garners. It has an intriguing plot, an excellent introduction to the mystery, great characters (even the minor ones), well-written dialogue, fascinating insights into states of mind including those of criminals, prosecutors and parents. And I was truly hooked on the story. I can see why he wins awards and I will definitely be looking for more of his work.

But – and this is where the discussion point comes in – who edited it and where did they learn about grammar (or not)?? And who lets Coben get away with murdering his native/adopted tongue?

From the beginning the book is simply packed with tense shifts, sometimes within the same sentence, lack of agreement between subject and verb, jarring continuity errors… I hate it when tenses are misused and it says something for the story content that I carried on reading anyway and just felt forced to share my feelings with others.

Am I really a dinosaur for preferring English to be correctly written? Do the editors at Orion simply not care because they know they will make money anyway? Do readers in general really not notice faults like this? Any writer can make occasional mistakes, some of them typos and some of them out of ignorance. But this is constant! Coben probably doesn’t realise what he’s doing but surely an editor’s job is to work to polish material? Isn’t that one of the arguments for buying ‘published’ writers in the sense of those published by the big/known publishing houses? Whilst I’ve come across a few self-published books that share some of Coben’s problems this is actually the worst example of badly edited language I’ve come across outside school English essays.

Note that I’m by no means giving the writer a bad review. I can recommend the book in spite of its flaws. Your thoughts would be welcome!

4 thoughts on “What do we expect from editors?

  1. I haven’t read the book in question (only one Coben so far, if my memory serves, Darkest Fear, so long ago that I hardly remember anything; it was a translation anyway), but I hate slapdash editions too. And in translations it’s even worse insult, cause the respective author can’t even know what has been done to his work. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me there’s more of poor editions now than it used to be years ago. Publishers want sell cheaper? Maybe, but it’s also matter of faster, and faster, and RIGHT NOW! There’s another brand new top hit! And it’ll last only until the next one, no more than a year! We must have it NOW, man, hear me??? Sort like this, I guess? Funny, cause one can still hear readership falls (and new Middle Ages are coming, and an ice age, and so on). I’d say it’s quite the contrary, people read a lot. And buy. Even trashy editions… One can say, fine, buy good ones and give careless publishers a lesson, let them go bankrupt. But what if there is only one edition, and it’s horrible? If it won’t sell, the publisher won’t think ‘Oh, I should have paid some good editor who knows the job’, no, he’ll think ‘I shouldn’t have invested in this author, no one wants him/her’. *sigh*

    • Absolutely! The editors are letting down a really good author who deserves better. Coben, as an example, can put a story together better than most writers, but might not have total language skills – not everyone does, just as not everyone can knit, or paint, or take good photographs. But that’s what editors are for, surely? A Word grammar check is worse than useless, after all. Readers wanting the story Coben can tell deserve to read it in good English. And you are right that translations are even more of a minefield! I’m sure that speed is the problem – high earning writers are expected to put out a book a year at the minimum and are assumed to be responsible for much of their own editing. It destroys trust in the editing process and makes one more reason for the traditional publishing industry to fail.

  2. Much as I hate slapdash editing, I tend to think there’s a difference between sheer sloppiness, and breaking the rules for the sake of artistic effect. I’ve never read the book so I can’t comment on it in particular, but I have read other books where the tense or point of view shifts about wildly, and it’s been done deliberately and adds a great deal to the atmosphere of the book. A couple of examples: ‘Death of a Monk’ by Alon Hilu, and ‘Dancer’ by Colm McCann, both of which were slightly weird in the grammar department but both of which were brilliant books.

    • I must agree with you about the use of tense switches for effect, and other rule-breaking. Indeed, I often disobey grammar rules myself. However, this had no effect other than irritating the reader… I have lent the book to my daughter so can’t quote a direct example at the moment. I would like to stress that I thought the book was a brilliant thriller despite the flaws – which I’m quite sure were not deliberate.

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