Monday, June 16, 2008

So you want to be a book editor?

If you want to be a book editor then one of your jobs will be fact-checking. This includes making sure the writer has not misspelled any proper names, including place names.

For example, 'sienna' is the clay pigment used in oil paints; the colour comes in two varieties, raw and burnt. It is not the name of the beautiful walled city in Tuscany where they make panforte and have the annual medieval horse race. That is called Siena. (NB neither of these is to be confused with senna, which is a naturally-occuring laxative.)

Similarly, the boot-shaped peninsula in South Australia is called Yorke Peninsula, not York Peninsular. 'Peninsular' is an adjective, meaning 'peninsula-like'. Cape York Peninsula, without an 'e', is the big pointy one in Queensland.

These errors should not have made it past a first read-through by the author, much less all the way through successive MS drafts and proofs re-read by the author and two different editors into a finished book and a Penguin book at that.

It is your particularly bad luck if they happen to be two of the book reviewer's favourite places on the entire planet. And I'm only on page 125 out of 450; who knows what sloppy horrors are yet to come.


Cross-posted at Australian Literature Diary.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

I wouln't have noticed Siena/sienna myself (partly because I've always assumed the pigment was named for the place, just as I assume umber comes from Umbria). "York Peninsular" is another matter entirely - both errors calculated to horrify the soul of a former cartographer.

David

Pavlov's Cat said...

The derivation of 'umber' is 'shadow' (as in umbrella or the French word for shadow, l'ombre) but there probably is a connection with Umbria which also means 'shadow(y)'. I think. The word 'sienna' probably does derive from Siena, which was once the main source of the clay, apparently, but the spellings are different. I probably wouldn't have known either if I hadn't been there and read about it. But the real point is that editors should always check -- it's part of the job description.

ocky said...

Welcome to my nightmare. I spend a large part of my working day moving from dictionary to atlas to encylopedia to whatever, muttering "I'm sure that can't be right, it's certainly wrong, and yet this is the third or fourth proof. Oh, OK, it's wrong.... Sigh."

(Rests head in hands, breathes slowly and evenly. Rubs eyes, resumes slow death by imagining self as -almost- the last sentient being who cares about the difference between expect and anticipate, or cares that 'begging the question' is used wrongly in about 100 per cent of cases.)

Barry Leiba said...

I once reviewed a (computer/technical) book that had a "Forward" at the beginning. That certainly got my review started on a sour note.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Ocky, you are not alone. But I think we are fighting a rearguard action on 'begging the question'. I may have said this before, in fact, though probably not to you.

Barry, I see 'Forward' quite often lately. It confirms my view that many people simply don't think about the words they use.

Anonymous said...

Siena/sienna: as has been mentioned above, is a bit obscure, 'York Peninsular': quite astonishing. I work as an editor and remember the words of a wise editing teacher who once mentioned that reviewers will notice glaring errors in the published copy (as they should), but no one will ever know how appalling the manuscript might have looked when it first reached the editor's desk, or whether the editor's job was mainly to prompt the author to submit their work on time. The fact is that editors working for major publishers nowadays in most instances do not have the 'leisure' they once had to work on manuscripts in a thorough dedicated manner. (I'm not sure what happens at Penguin, though.) Instead of thinking about a manuscript in an absorbed fashion, reading over it several times, looking through resources to check inconsistencies, propose alternatives, etc, we are now mainly valued for our ability to 'meet tight deadlines' (read: 'light edit', and once only), 'project manage', 'multitask', 'effectively prioritise a varied workload', 'meet publishing targets'. A lot has been said about the decline in literary publishing in Australia; perhaps the decline of editorial quality of published manuscripts is a function of the rushed circumstances in which these books are produced, and in which editors work. Many of us are exceedingly frustrated by this.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Oh yes, Anon, I know and sympathise. It runs parallel with the pressure on at universities to push through graduate theses as part of the basis for getting funding, at the expense of making them better theses.

And book editors get appallingly paid and always have; I know that as well. For what it's worth, I do think this kind of thing is the writer's responsibility in the fist instance. One of the first writers I ever got to know well enough to see his copy in its raw state was functionally semi-literate, much of which seemed simply to be carelessness, and when I asked him how he could submit copy in that state he merely replied carelessly 'Oh, the editor can fix that.' I was even more appalled when I worked out that this 'Oh, the servants can fix it' mentality among writers was quite widespread.

I think the main reason I was surprised by these two, to me, particularly glaring errors was that it was a Penguin book. (I know, not logical these days, but still.) And overall it was a case of being a book with real potential and liveliness and all sorts of other good things, but badly in need of a good structural edit to cut the MS down by at least a quarter, as well as crying out for a proper copy-edit. But as you say, who knows what time was available or what processes it went (or, more to the point, didn't go) through.

Pavlov's Cat said...

First instance.

Ahem.

ocky said...

'tis a trifle, Pav, a mere trifle. (hmmm... pav and trifle)

Mind you, the day I find a serious error of fact or typing in The New Yorker is the day I might go off to live in a cave. Then it truly will be all over.

sigmund marx said...

Football commentators are a good source of mangled English. The word 'literally' has come to mean something like 'really, really', eg it was 'literally raining cats and dogs', meaning it was raining really, really heavily. I can remember a few years ago, a footy commentator saying that the outcome of a game was 'literally in the lap of the gods'. Wow!

lauredhel said...

My all-time favourite abuse of "literally" is "We're getting literally tons of email!".

Mindy said...

Reading for a living must, on occassion, really suck. Especially when you are an expert in your field.

Suse said...

I read a book by an "historian" recently that was all over the place - sloppy scholarship, inconsistent footnotes and citations and outright conjecture about what people thought, said or did with no references - it was published by HarperCollins. I was shocked. (I blogged it, of course). And then I read a review for this particular "historian's" latest book and apparently it's just as awful.

Once is bad enough from any publishing house let alone a biggie, but twice is unbelievable. As for the author ... well. Words fail me.

derrida derider said...

Another much misused term is "refute". It is neither a synonym for "deny" nor even for "disprove".