Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Everyone’s A Copyeditor
We can, of course, turn to our trusty style manuals when in doubt. Except my manual may not be the same one you consult, and they may not jive in their advisement.
Problems arise when people think they know grammar but instead know only one style guide or philosophy and assume all writing should follow suit. You run into these folk in critique groups: the grammar nazis who believe all writing should follow formal rules and be bound by the wisdom of Chicago or AP or Strunk & White.
In the wild, you run into folk sure they remember every last grammar drill from school, not realizing they are mis-remembering what was taught or accurately remembering the lesson but not its spirit. I used to get this type of para-grammarian frequently at work. I’d present them with a perfectly good sentence and they would change it around into a perfectly wrong one, somehow believing they’d “fixed” it. (Hmm, comma before and in that sentence or not?)
A few years ago, I submitted 25 mss pages to a contest being judged by published authors. The author who landed my mss went through the first 7 pages marking all the “errors” then wrote: I won't be pointing out any more errors. I suggest a book on basic grammar or a course at your local community college. Erm, I taught freshman college comp while I was in grad school and, at the time this happened, I had spent 20 years as an editor in the corporate world. The "errors" he'd pointed out were all stylistic choices. THIS from someone who purportedly knew enough to be pointing out errors.
Why do I bring this up now? Because yesterday I heard an author had been contacted by Amazon to clean up the grammatical errors in his ebook and republish it. Before you applaud, let's look at the request and the book it was requested of. The email the author received detailed just three errors. Two of the errors were comma-related and the third was a word choice.
To start with, three errors in a full-length novel may or may not pass your individual quality assurance test. (It passes mine.) But the “errors” Amazon was asking be corrected were 1) an unnecessary serial comma, 2) an unnecessary comma between unrelated adjectives and 3) slang in dialog.
The book, Hunter: A Thriller, is here. For the record, the author is a professional writer and professional editor, the book is selling well and it has a number of really great reviews (60+), none of which mentions any egregious issues with grammar and spelling. From the sample, serial commas appear to be used consistently throughout. The offending comma between adjectives occurs in this sentence: ... a high-velocity, 400-grain, solid-brass, boattail spitzer bullet. Did you catch the extra comma there? Thought not. And the slang was a character using the phrase “J school” to refer to “journalism school.” Amazon advised: an appropriate word could be used in the place the letter "J" [sic].
It’s not clear whether the directive from Amazon was inspired by a customer complaint or not, though the odds are that it must have been. Why Amazon would rely on one customer’s evaluation of the book to influence its actions is a mystery. And if Amazon acted on its own, then seriously, they need to find another editor to comb through the books.
I have glanced through the sample and I'll admit I would have made some different choices in comma placement here and there, but they all fall into the gray hole of comma use and not the black hole of comma splices and run-ons.
There are plenty – plenty – of books on the virtual shelves with shoddy formatting and shoddy proofreading. Targeting those books would be doing readers a customer service. Still, individual complaints about books need to be validated by professionals who understand the trade. There are too many people with agendas not in the best interest of the overall reading public leaving reviews and making complaints. And there are too many people out there with no agendas who, while earnest, are simply not credible copyeditors.
I’m currently reading Zoo City, a multi-award-winning book that was released this year in both print and ebook formats. It has some formatting issues and I’ve spotted a couple of typos – true errors such as misplaced apostrophes and quote marks in place of apostrophes. I expect to find a couple more errors before I’m through reading. That’s the nature of both the self-published beast and the traditionally published one. Do movie-goers demand scenes be reshot because of continuity issues or ask for their money back because a character is wearing a black tie in one frame of a scene and a dark blue one in the next frame?
I’m willing to ignore a handful or dozen of typos and even a comma splice or two in any novel – not that I’d be counting them up, but maybe one every 25 pages or so. And I certainly wouldn’t count editor’s choice stylings as errors.
How many formatting or copyediting (gee, is that one word or two?) errors do you let slide before you throw the book against the wall, mention them in your reviews or refuse to recommend a book to a friend?