My apologies for the long silence. The weather has been (still is) glorious and in the few hours I’ve been able to pin my restless self to the desk, I’ve been Editing with Editor. My trial period ended at the weekend and I immediately bought the programme because it’s my comforter, my security blanket. Was it Linus who used to suck on a piece of rag? Well, I would wail very loudly if someone took Editor off me now.
Yes, it’s mechanical and cannot replace a human being. It cannot spot a plot hole or an inconsistency. It’s not even infallible in what it can do. During the work I noticed that I had ‘sites’ for ‘sights’ and even in its list of homonyms Editor had missed that. At Godstow Press we use one proofreader who is convinced he’s infallible and we have not had the heart to disabuse him. Fact is, no one is infallible, not even a machine. In our experience, a book needs at least four proofreaders but I think Editor will cut that down to one human and one software programme, working together.
I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about editing. One of the worst was from a friend who had his book ‘edited’ by the publisher running it through Word’s spellchecker and accepting all changes. Eighty errors were introduced into what the author considered to be clean text. Worse, the publisher wouldn’t do anything about it other than argue in defence of his ‘editor’. If nothing else, this programme could be used for purposes of arbitration.
Editor’s style sources are the Modern Language Association, the Chicago Manual of Style and, lately, the (London) Times Style Guide. There is much to learn in using the programme, how to create your own dictionaries, how to turn off certain features (‘gender specific’ notices are of no use to any historical novelist!), how to make a list of exclusions. For instance, I do not need to be told that ‘olive branch’ is trite or a cliche when my story is set in Italy on Palm Sunday, so I can exclude that phrase. I look forward to becoming an adept. It may take some time.
I am learning new stuff every day and loving it. Having been taught when I was a child to spell hiccupped as hiccoughed, I now find that the latter is a 16th century mistake. Hiccupped it is! A small triumph of reason over English spelling.
Every now and again I pick up the scent of personal history. I’m beginning to wonder if our true biography doesn’t lie in the words we use, and when we first picked them up and learned to use them. When, for instance, did I acquire ‘in lieu of’ as a phrase, understand what it meant and use it? It’s like being visited by a ghost of my own childhood, a blonde kid in a brown and yellow uniform the colour of banana toffee. There she is, her mind a sponge to all these linguistic expressions which, a great many decades later, are being checked by a software programme and mostly, thank God, approved.
Sometimes I learn things in passing. Editor told me that ‘gifted’ – which I’d used in the sense of having artistic aptitude – is a jargon term or buzzword when used as a verb. Well, I exulted at that, because Editor is American and ‘gifted’ as a verb is, I thought, a prime example of how Americans are ruining English (pace all my good American friends! – you are no more linguistic barbarians than English people are either criminals or servants). So it was both jolting and piquant to be ticked off by Editor for a misuse of the preposition ‘with’, and for Editor to be right. If nothing else, it reminded me that all national stereotypes are false. (See below if you want a truly horrible illustration of the speech ‘pattern’ of a young English person, and some frightening preconceptions of others – not for the faint hearted).
(What would happen to that young Nazi’s thoughts if he learnt to speak properly?)
Until I learn Editor’s exclusion tricks, I have to wade through pages of suggested errors, ninety percent of which are irrelevant. But the remain ten percent are helpful, and within that, a one percent of pure gold. Having sorted out which and that at last, I’m now working on whether and if (rule: if ‘whether’ fits, use it).
Here is an example of sloppiness improved, not by Editor, but by Editor drawing my attention to a fault. The original sentence ran, It was not possible for him to enter the mosque. Editor did not like a sentence beginning ‘It was’, and suggested ‘not possible’ should be ‘impossible’. When I looked at it, however, I realised my mistake. It would be wrong to say that it was impossible for him to enter the mosque. He could scale the walls and take it by storm if necessary. So what had I meant? I rewrote the sentence: He was forbidden from entering the mosque. Much more precise and true.
I think it’s the function of good prose to keep the reader awake and, in John Gardner’s phrase, ‘maintain the fictional dream’, that is, there should be no snags to remind the reader that this is a story. Last night I returned to Level One editing, which is reading out loud to David after supper. He stayed awake. As I read, I noticed that my sentences were flowing like a stream rather than struggling from one stagnant pool to the next. As I read, I was free to agonise about the story, not how it was being written. At the end I expected to be told about my plot holes and absolute lack of pace but all I got was approval.
Now it’s far too lovely to be sitting here and I’m off to the garden to do some watering. The blossom here this past week has been jaw-droppingly beautiful. We are completely bucking the trend of Holy Week, which is usually wet and cold and ends with planting potatoes in freezing mud on Good Friday. Our potatoes are in and David is with them right now, doing his early morning watering stint.