When the reviews say “she should fire her editor”…

The short version is: the reviewer doesn’t know that. In fact, that reviewer knows little of the dynamics of editor/author relationships.

It’s common, though. An unpolished book sees print, either self-published or conventionally published. The reviewer finds fault, figures it’s the sort of fault a competent editor would have fixed, and leaps to one of two conclusions:

“She obviously didn’t have an editor.”

“Her editor was clearly a failure.”

Either is possible. The first is common enough, because competent editing is not inexpensive, and the big draw of self-publishing is that one gets to make all the decisions. Considering the sizes and fragilities of many first-time authors’ egos, given time, an author can talk herself into the delusion that editors are for mere mortals. In reality, she may have been terrified that an editor would puncture her bubble (carefully nurtured by family and close friends, who told her she was wonderful), giving her only two choices she can live with: give up in despair, or do the la-la-la-la fingers-in-ears thing. She has a third–to learn to better herself–but that’s the most difficult one for many.

But let’s cast reasonable doubt on the title statement’s implication. Taking that line in the review:

There might never have been an editor or proofreader, although I would concur with the review line in that case: that means she hired herself as both, and did an unacceptable job worthy of dismissal. The outcome might have been acceptable to her, but she’s not the reader. The reader makes the final decision, and authors and editors who forget that will suffer.

The ‘editing’ issues may be proofreading issues. Not that editors should ever let an error pass untouched, but editing and proofreading are not the same–and many reviewers don’t realize that.

The author might have hired only a proofreader, who is not a copy or substantive/developmental editor, and who stuck strictly to catching typos, punctuation, and egregiously bad grammar. The reviewer probably doesn’t know if that’s the case.

She might have hired only a copy editor, who is not a substantive/developmental editor. A copy editor doesn’t care if the story is stupid, as long as it’s well-written. The reviewer may not realize that being hired to tighten prose isn’t the same as being in at the birth.

She might have hired any of the above, then disregarded all the guidance. It happens rather often, yet the reviewer may assume in error that the editor actually had influence.

She might have been fundamentally incapable of decent writing, hired professionals to fix it, and then decided the book needed revision. If she never accepted the reality–that she must never, ever fix her own mistakes unedited–that would leave stretches of capable writing interspersed with inexplicably amateurish insertions. All the reviewer will see is that parts of the book appear dropped on their heads.

The reviewer may not grasp any of the nuances on the spectrum between proofreading and substantive or developmental editing. To the reviewer, it may all look like ‘editing,’ which is tantamount to equating a Jiffy Lube oil changer with an ASE certified master auto mechanic. My mechanic in Kennewick (Ralph Blair at Tri-City Battery, a great guy and an expert at auto repair), didn’t do my oil changes; one of the junior techs did. That was fine, because anyone under Ralph’s tutelage had better do a good job. The point is that they did different work. So do editors (of the various types) and proofreaders.

There is no guarantee that the reviewer even knows good writing from bad. Many should, as all reviewers are readers, often voracious ones; they should be exposed to enough good writing to know it from bad. That’s the theory. In the real world, I see many, many lousy books festooned with shimmering reviews. If reviewers are generally competent to judge bad writing, why are so many of them gushing about this junk? That alone should cast reasonable doubt upon any criticism one finds in a book review, at least absent proof of the reviewer’s fundamental competence.

Someone else may have bungled, and badly. I know of a social historian (emphasis on sports) by the name of Allen Barra, who now works for American Heritage and The Wall Street Journal. I like Barra because he is unafraid to stake out a position and support it, in addition to his fundamental writing and researching competence. Barra wrote a biography of Wyatt Earp some years back, and I bought a copy. What I saw mystified me. To my eyes, the book seemed to have been typeset and published in the early stages of author revision; there were swatches of text duplicated in more than one place, unfinished thoughts, orphaned paragraphs, and many other problems. This made no sense. I’d been planning to write a review, but before I did, I got in touch with Barra. I had an address for him from a very brief correspondence over something he wrote at Salon. In short: “What the hell happened, Allen?” Barra was quick to explain. His publisher had committed a spectacular error, publishing an early and incomplete version of the ms. Seriously. You may imagine his discomfiture. He asked if he could send me a copy of the correctly published version. At first I demurred, thinking it a bit much for an author to try to ‘make it right’ for every reader victimized by the stupidity of his publisher, but he made the telling point: “If you are going to write a review, I would rather it be of my best work.” Couldn’t argue with that. He sent it, I read it, and the review was what the proper version merited.

And yes: it could be that a bad writer hired a bad substantive editor, did everything he said, and published junk. I’m not saying that the title statement is always wrong. It is that it is often an uniformed statement issued by a person unqualified to judge, or unaware of the reality. It’s one thing for a reviewer to say: “The book is not well written,” or “The story has unacceptable holes,” or “I found the basic typos distracting.” Those judgments are as fair as the reader’s own discernment, and are all verdicts no author should wish to see in a review. But “She obviously either had no editor, or had an inept one” is generally unfair, because so many other factors may have been the reality–starting with most readers’ absence of understanding of how authors work with (or against) their various editing and proofreading colleagues.

Just please do bear it in mind the next time you get ready to peel the paint off a terrible book.

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2 Comments

  1. SE

    My current read has a proofreading problem. It’s a good premise, decent prose and story development including adverb avoidance. The missing conjunctions, duplicated pronouns or mislaid prepositions are slightly annoying. I kept thinking, “Did she even have an editor? How did he miss these minor, but annoying mistakes?”. I had no idea that an editor did not (or not always) proofread. Thank you for the lesson.

    • It’s like this, Shannon, bearing in mind this is only one person’s take. For proofreading, ideally, one is seeing the ms for the very first time. Every time one sees it, it becomes more familiar, and errors become harder to spot. An editor will see it several times, and unless it changes radically throughout, will experience a similar phenomenon–kind of like highway hypnosis on I-70 past Salina. Thus, while an editor will do his or her best to leave not a single typo, there’s still proofreading to be done. And this also explains why writers can’t be effective at self-editing. If it gets harder for the editor to see flaws as familiarity increases, how much harder is it for the author? That atrocious para in Chapter 2, never really questioned, becomes part of the landscape. An editor sees it for the first time and says, argh, atrocious, fix fix fix. So in your case, editing should have spotted most of that, but it was the job of proofreading to eliminate the remainder. As readers, we don’t know who failed, or whose role was skipped entirely. What we do know is that it made the author look bad–so someone blew it, because our job is to make authors look better than they yet are. I guess we’re kind of like Hollywood makeup artists.

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