I’m such a grump about editing (it’s a terrific book anyway)

Okay, here’s the short version: Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, is well worth reading.

(There’d be a photo here, except that I still don’t have a computer that lets me process photos. I hope to be back in the loop by the end of the week . . . the replacement machine is due on Wednesday, and then I can start putting my software tools back in place.)

And here’s the long version: I’m an incredible grump about language usage, and Three Cups of Tea is a splendid book in spite of, rather than because of, the level of care it received in the editorial process.

The basic positives

Greg Mortenson is the subject of the book, which is told in third person (about Greg Mortenson) by writer David Oliver Relin, who did an excellent job of tackling and relating a complex story. Mortenson gave Relin access to vast quantities of information, and the freedom to portray the subject in all its human and political complexity. Relin, whose background in both writing and life experience made him a superb collaborator on this project, constructed a sound narrative structure, got the chapters to flow well into each other, and incorporated background  information efficiently when it was needed. The more challenging step called developmental editing was successfully navigated by the author either working solo or in conjunction with a conceptual adviser (most likely, in today’s publishing climate, the former). For that: bravo.

The story is worth reading and the work for which Mortenson is the catalyst is some of the most valuable (and gutsy) being done on the face of the earth. There’s a lot here about following instincts and having faith and being flexible and not giving up–all conveyed through examples, not platitudes. Read it to hear about someone else’s one-step-at-a-time mission to make the world a better place. Read it for tips on how to keep going with your own one one-step-at-a-time mission to make the world a better place, whatever that mission may be. (Mine, for better or worse, is writing and publishing, mostly about traditional textile crafts.)

The language grump’s two-bits’ worth

It’s too bad the publisher’s editorial department didn’t take slightly sharper pencils to some of the important minutiae of the manuscript.

If the editors had done a bit more thorough job, the reader would have been spared some imprecise word choices. I didn’t mark them while I was reading, but here are a couple of examples, one relocated and one just remembered:

  • An airport scene: "But the level of panic in the stale air was palpable, as inaudible voices echoed through the terminal, announcing delay after delay." (Page 98.) While palpable comes from a root that means "able to be touched," the word’s meaning has expanded to mean "evident" in ways that are not directly tangible; that word choice is marginal. The word that blows that sentence completely away is inaudible. Something that’s inaudible can’t be heard. If something that’s inaudible does echo, no one will notice. I think, therefore, that the inaudible announcement of delay after delay would not increase panic. I think one possible word that might have worked better where inaudible appears is unintelligible, although even then people would not react . . . if they didn’t understand, how could they? And I wonder: was it really panic that the crowd was experiencing? Admittedly, it was Christmas and people wanted to catch flights to see relatives. But were they caught up in "sudden fear . . . causing hysterical or irrational behavior"? Or were they perhaps experiencing a mix of frustration, anxiety, anger, resignation, and, perhaps in a few, despair? I would have taken this sentence back to the drawing board. The version that was printed was what I call a "placeholder": good enough for a working draft, but not for the final description.
  • A reference to "the tenants of Islam," when I think what was meant was the tenets (opinions, doctrines, or principles) and not the tenants (those who pay rent to occupy a space).

The editorial staff might also have cleaned up overwrought, and occasionally mixed, metaphors. They might have straightened out sentences where modifying phrases had slipped out of position. These peculiarities might have been given an editorial pass as quirks of the writer’s style, and it does take longer to edit this way than it does to just hit the surface of the text with a blue pencil. However, I think it would have been worthwhile to pay this much attention to the manuscript. I had to read a number of sentences more than once to untangle them, and I found that the personification of mountains and sky, in particular, distracted me from the story instead of enhancing my understanding.

A solid proofreading would have caught a handful of minor glitches, mostly missing letters that  left in place actual words that were not the ones that needed to be there (like "you" instead of "your").

Imprecise words, awkward metaphors, and typographical errors do, alas,
cloud meaning and distract the reader from the important information
that’s being presented. Inaccurate word selection can, in the worst
cases, threaten the plausibility of the story being told. While this is not a
"worst case," the narrative in Three Cups of Tea deserved, and still deserves, the absolutely highest standards of diction and clarity.

I’m sorry the editorial process did not provide that.

I don’t hold the author accountable for these problems. Telling a story of this magnitude requires an extensive set of skills, which he obviously has. He almost certainly wrote under pressure from a deadline that did not permit a lot of reflection (although he managed that) or revision. He reached (and sometimes overreached) for ways to bring the landscape and the political and human forces to life on the page.

Someone who does that and produces an integrated and successful piece of work deserves the help of an editorial staff that will give the project an equal amount of dedicated attention. I’m sorry that didn’t happen.

Great story . . . despite the editorial lapses

The title comes from a statement attributed to Haji Ali, the chief of the Pakistani village of Korphe, where Greg Mortenson built the first of many local projects to bring education and self-sufficiency to people in rural areas of Central Asia. As Haji Ali explained, "Here we drink three cups of tea to do business: the first you are a stranger, the second you become a friend, and the third, you join our family—and for our family we are prepared to do anything—even die."

Mortenson traveled to the area as a climber, intent on summitting K2. Due to some of the main problems that can occur in mountaineering, he didn’t achieve that goal. He ended up lost on descent, spent a night in the open, and became "found" again in the village of Korphe. He vowed that he would come back to build a school.

He kept that vow, and continues with related work in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, including areas from which even Doctors without Borders has withdrawn its services because of the danger (following the killing of five of its aid workers).

If you haven’t read the book, do. You won’t regret it.

N.B.: I’m not perfect, either

It’s true, I’ve been editing stuff for decades. It’s also true that nothing I have ever shepherded into print has ever been perfect (no, wait, there was one magazine article that was perfect . . . it was in 1998 . . . ). And it’s also true that the attention to detail that I consider appropriate has not always been the level of detail that my employers have thought was necessary. (I sidestep this problem now by working for myself.)

However, it’s also true that the standard I’m describing is always the one I do my human best to grab hold of and hang onto.


1 thought on “I’m such a grump about editing (it’s a terrific book anyway)”

  1. What is it with the misuse of words and the endless typos in new publications? I’m lately blasting through new mystery novels, and the last four have had multiple errors. Some could have been caught by spell-check, for crying out loud. Others, a live editor should have picked up. Like “talking a walk” instead of “taking” one. I also notice that authors themselves get a little snippy when errors are pointed out by fans. Could that be part of the problem? There is some sort of frothing zeal in the publishing world today that has put quality on the backburner. I don’t like it a bit.

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