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Picking on the professionals

our cat bella logoI’ve been reading a young adult book, Wildwood, by Colin Meloy with fine illustrations by his spouse, Carson Ellis. Meloy is the lead performer of the Portland, Oregon, band called The Decemberists and Wildwood, his first novel, published in 2011, is Book 1 of the Wildwood Chronicles. The publisher is Balzer + Bray, an imprint of big-house publisher HarperCollins.

don speaking logoI almost quit this book.

Two times so far I have talked myself out of just throwing the book against the wall in hopes of breaking its spine, and I am only just beginning Part Three, the final third of the book.

I do not fault the writer. We writers have bad habits, holes in our understanding of the fine points of language, and other concerns than doing typo patrol. That leaves the editors. They should have done a better job, and their job is typo patrol, word editing, and picky stuff in general.

The latest thing to send me up the wall was an ugly use of apostrophe in a fanciful place name — the Ancients’ Grove. To begin, let us simply agree that the apostrophe here is technically correct but that usage allows for the dropping of the apostrophe in cases such as this, where the idea of possession is not the point of the phrase in question. Besides, as the creator and bull-bitch tom-wallager of his own alternative universe, Meloy can do whatever he wants with language. Anyone who complains can be simply thrown in the cells and allowed to rot while musing on the cabbage-headed king.

I blame the copy editor here. He was not doing her job.

The first thing to send me up the wall while reading Wildwood was not the mixed metaphor of bike tires carving through wet pavement. No, it was that 12-year-old Prue, who is important to the narrative, “found herself whiling time outside the coffee shop”. I can tolerate the writer either leaving out or not knowing that the word whiling (a transitive verb) is half-naked if not followed by the word away. Meloy’s use of whiling  is either a half-naked idiom or a half-naked cliché. In any case, all this exposed word flesh embarrasses me for the copy editor, who did not fix the problem. You could argue that whiling time is fresh and creative, but since you didn’t say that it also makes sense and conveys something that readers will be able to follow, don’t go there.

It was a mistake that no one caught.

I hate to pay for a hardcover novel with even one typo, particularly a book from a big house with lots of editors, but since I had grown fond of Prue, I continued to read through my irritation, past the occasional word or phrase that did not make any sense and that no editor chased, caught, and fixed.

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Why do I care about poorly edited or poorly written copy to the point of throwing the offending book against the wall?

It gets me that I paid a big-damn publisher for a book that was published while still in serious need of an editor’s attention. That’s half.

The other half is my visceral reaction to sloppy copy, or even slightly sloppy copy.

Well, you could reply, as a copy editor, writer, and blogger yourself, to say nothing of your sermons that you deliver off the cuff from an outline, you have done worse. God knows you have done worse.

That is true.

Maybe that is what keeps me going with this otherwise fine book. I myself have done worse.

Amazing Grace. Roll the tape.


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What remains is a question with two horns —

■ How important is clean copy?

■ How can we as writers, self-editors, and bloggers produce clean copy?

And another stray thought. Perhaps it takes an entire village to produce clean copy. When you see an error or typo, you can send a friendly email to the author or publisher.

Ebooks, at least, can be fixed one error at a time without forcing the need for a new ISBN or edition change.

That helps, and the rest is a choice that a writer makes concerning how much crud he will tolerate in his own copy, and how she will edit the copy that will be born, she hopes, without blemish.

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