April 01, 2010

The Devil Is in the Details

I have spent the last six weeks editing a book. Publishing in the digital age isn’t what it was. The days of turning in a physical manuscript and waiting for the proofs seem long-since gone. To be an author/editor is also, now, to be a copy editor and type setter. My eyes are addled by the constant scrutiny, searching earnestly for rogue commas and inadvertent spaces; watching out for the differences between Em spaces and En spaces; burning the occasional ‘which’ that should be a that, which follows a genuine rule you know; juggling leading (line spacing), and font sizing, headings and subheadings, headers, footers and the like. I’ve also been unifying spelling and punctuation. When you have fifteen people writing in English who hail from half-a-dozen different countries it is quite apparent that English is not one language but many. Also references: there are really only four main styles of academic referencing, but most academics write in an idiosyncratic combination of all four. Making one out of four is a devilish business. And of course there are mistakes, and often not of the obvious variety. Would you be able to spot that a quote from Cicero is mistakenly attributed to ‘On Ends’ when really it came from ‘On Duties’? Well, to my surprise, I did.

Now, forget page counts and word counts. When you consciously set about eyeballing every facet of a document (you can hit the show/hide button in MS Word to make every key stroke appear on the page, including spaces and carriage returns) the relevant number becomes the character count. There are, at present, 707,000 characters in this book. I am, understandably I think, bleary eyed. But I am also satisfied.

Why? Because this stuff is important. Too many people these days cannot form basic sentences in their native language (I am reasonably convinced that the problem is worst for English speakers). Spelling has gone out of the window; punctuation is like some mysterious black art; grammar, so far as many people are concerned, is merely your mother’s mother. Mistakes are passed over unnoticed. The beautiful, slippery, taut but paradoxically flexible vagaries of grammatical rule are jettisoned in favour of expediency, laziness, and an altogether unengaged approach to discourse. I maintain, however, that these things are the pillars of politeness. They afford us grace in our interlocutions. They hold us together by a common bond. They pour meaning into belonging, and grant that feeling an esteem, appreciated most, perhaps, when we see it abused. And yet our language, when used properly, also allows us to transcend its strictures, and therein lies its power, its authority, and dare I say it, its cool. But rules can only be broken when rules are known. Otherwise transgression is simple ignorance, and in simple ignorance there is no power, and no authority. There is no cool.

The Devil is in the details. We should do well to pay them mind. Our language is, after all, a precious inheritance.


  1. Good entry and congratulations on finishing another edit. I find editing to be probably the singularly hardest thing I've done and yet at the same time it is, as you say, very rewarding. It's so easy to lapse in concentration for just a second or two and miss a mistake and you're even more prone to do so when it's your own writing so you know what it should say anyway. But it feels quite an achievment to reach the end. I keep my printed manuscript copies with their scribbles and changes jotted in as a souvenir of the effort taken.

  2. Thanks Peter, yes, it's rewarding to reach the end. I shall no doubt find out about my lapses in concentration in due course. When my first book came out, I naturally found the errors immediately. I have filed my frustrations under 'inspirations for the second edition'. I too keep the drafts, which, along with rejection letters, are morbid artefacts that somehow spur me to keep going.

  3. Oh - the first edition of my book I spelled 'Ethiopian' as 'Ethipiopian' I still have no idea how it got past several read-throughs as it was so obvious it almost leapt off the page of the final copies. I think that is my worst lapse, I hope so because if there is a bigger one I'll be too ashamed to type again. Thankfully it was published print on demand so I could rectify after only a few copies were sold.


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