Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 08/10/20 4:21 PM

Feature: Where have all the editors gone?

Where have (all) the editors gone?

First a hark-back, to Delhi, circa the late Nineties.

At a dinner, I found myself on the receiving end of some trenchant criticism regarding the  many  errors that appeared daily in the newspaper I worked for, arguably the country`s largest- selling daily. I smartly lobbed the criticism over to my boss who also happened to be present there, and boy, did he field that one smoothly.

“We are a reader-friendly newspaper so we frequently use colloquialisms that may not always be grammatically correct,“  he replied with an easy smile. The criticism died down in a somewhat befuddled manner, and it was a good two hours later, back home,  when I figured out that colloquialisms need not be grammatically wrong at all.

That was perhaps the start of the Big Slide.

The epidemic has been creeping up on us for a while now, much before the viral pestilence hit. Sadly enough, it’s also going to be around well after the latter loses its sting. As a manuscript editor, I’ve been a dismayed observer of this scourge, which I term ‘language lacunae.’

We have always taken the English language and made it work for us, in an admirably jugaad-filled manner. However, back then, we could tell the difference between good writing and indifferent writing. What’s more, it mattered then.

Now, the lines are blurred. It’s good writing vs appalling writing, and bad editing plays a major part in the latter. And I’m not sure it matters any more.

Errata, errata!

It`s not all about books, though.

As an army wife, I lived on and off in small- town India and got into the habit of marking errata in the English papers there, though I did so with more amusement than irritation.

I’ve been back in my city for many years now and I’m still keeping a record of boo-boos I spot in local newspapers and magazines. Now, there`s more irritation than amusement.

A typical week throws up such gems:

He was buried in a huff/The butterfly was known to occur in October/ It was the death nail/ A courtyard that whiffs of the past/ A spa in Austria is being flocked by all and sundry/ He was cladded in a kurta/ But Khan says he did not take ill of what was happening to him/ He belonged to a family of aesthetics/ Goods auto rams two-year-old toddle, dies immediately/ It was a plumply set table/ Is the angst due to unkempt promises?/ He had a beamish look on his face/ He was involved in more cases of molestating women.

Long before I became a manuscript editor, I was error- spotting in the multitude of books I read.  As a manuscript editor, I come down hard with my blue pencil on language lacunae.

As a book reviewer, I try my best to let minor glitches slide, recalling that adage about being reader-friendly and all; once every few books, though, I just have to point out the big bungles.

Like in a newish bestseller, published by a top publisher’s Indian arm. The text was peppered with errors of syntax, no commas appeared where needed, apostrophes were found in wrong places, there were plotline lapses like the family cook starting out as belonging to a village in Nepal, then turning into a Bihari, some chapters down, ‘Michelle Yung’ becoming ‘Michelle Chung’ as the story progressed,  and so on and so forth. A lot of so on and so forth, actually. It quite ruined the read for me.

Then there was the latest mythological novel from an acclaimed writer whose weekly newspaper column I read avidly and enjoy a lot. This book was published by the country’s leading publisher, no less. I picked it up with much enthusiasm but soon, my jaw was falling so hard, you could hear it hit the ground. Every page had a howler; sample some from a list I meticulously made:

He enjoyed with his mistress/ I was seeped in the stories/ They flurried their feathers/He shook his shoulders/They reminisced of their frolicking/He hurled himself into the nearest boy/I had disguised as her husband/ Her laughter got under his nerves/ She ecked out a living/ The glint of steal in his eyes/She had developed a severe bout of headache/ You are soberer than anyone I know/Then he talked about an alarming news/She looked at him with foggy eyes/ His semen ejaculated/He stretched his limps/The animal gave another hit to the pillar/ He lay consciousness/She woke to birdsongs/It cuddled in his chest/She couldn’t see through her hazy eyes/They expended food on their enemies/He had considered him as his father/ A drop of tear escaped her eyes/ The room looked unmade/ She had ears for no one/I ploughed like an oxen/Let you not grow up, he said/ I saw death lurking at you/Slowly her zest for life started asserting/Such a strategist, such a thinker and a bit of impulsive too.

Enter the glitch-fixer

I completely understand that authors aren’t totally to blame for these sins of commission and omission.

As one who has written four books, I well know that stuff slips through the cracks when you are writing.

Basically, a good story needs a good editor to make it a better story. But there is such antipathy to getting one’s work edited, it amuses as well as alarms me. Of course, the main reason is that everyone is possessed of this compelling urge to write a book, and given that one can write and publish a book all too easily these days, people just don’t see the need for an editor.

Then, you have Google’s Smart Compose and AI, is, even as we speak, coming up with adept editing tools. However, we all know algorithms have their limitations. We’d do well not to consign the human editor to the scrap bin just yet.

Of course, there are editors and editors. A blue-pencil wielder who isn’t too grounded in the intricacies of language (English in this case) isn’t going to bring anything to the table. But a good editor  will bring your work up to the best possible version of itself.

Paean to the blue pencil

It’s not my case to plug editors or sing a paean to the need for getting your article/book manuscript cleaned up. Or hell, why should I lie, maybe it is.

It’s just that there’s nothing so satisfying as reading an article where the writer uses language to put across their point of view succinctly. Or a well-written story where the plot, conflict resolution, denouement, all flows smoothly. And for this to happen, some amount of editing is vital, believe me.

Call me old -fashioned, call me a grammar Nazi. I was raised on sparkling literature, evocative literature, literature that had me break out in gales of laughter as in the case of PG Wodehouse, that moved me to tears as in the case of Thomas Hardy, or put me in contemplative mode for days like Toni Morrison, Amitav Ghosh, Kiran Nagarkar.

That was well-edited stuff and it has spoiled me for what passes for literature oftentimes these days.

A slightly leaner version of this article ran in FIRSTPOST dated 10 August 2020. 

error-ridden writingFeatureFirstpostgood languagegood writingimportance of editinglanguage lacunae

Sheila Kumar • August 10, 2020

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