Thursday, July 07, 2005

Editors Gone Wild

Check out this "correction" from the NYT.

Michael Barone emails Glenn Reynolds:

I have one or two unanswered questions about the New York Times opinion editor adding two sentences to Phil Carter's opinion article.

(1) Is the editor still working at the Times?

(2) If so, why?

As someone who does quite a bit of editing, I think what the NYT did is pretty appalling.

BTW, if you want to read a very long but pretty amusing essay about one writer and his troubles with editors, see Thomas Sowell's Some Thoughts About Writing. (Maybe, though, it's not quite as funny if you don't do much writing or editing.)

Here is an excerpt:

Pedestrian uniformity and shriveled brevity are the holy grail of copy-editors, the bureaucrats of the publishing industry. Like other bureaucrats, copy-editors tend to have a dedication to rules and a tin ear for anything beyond the rules. Seldom is there even the pretense that their editorial tinkerings are going to make the writing easier for the reader to follow, more graceful, more enjoyable, or more memorable.

Self-justifying rules and job-justifying busy work are the only visible goals of copy-editors.

If, through extra-sensory perception or some other miraculous process, a writer could determine in advance the copy-editor’s stylistic preferences and slavishly followed them in his writing, the manuscript would still come back with changes. Making changes is what copy-editors do. An old song from the musical “Showboat” said, “fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.” Editors gotta edit.

In all of this, the style manual is an instrument of power for the copy-editor, while engaging in a compulsive activity in which readers have long since been forgotten. There is nothing wrong with style manuals. But, as with so many other aspects of life, good principles can become terrible as fetishes—and fetishes are what the style manuals have become in the hands of copy-editors, who treat them as if they had come down from Mount Sinai on tablets of stone.

Cast in this role, style manuals have become anti-style manuals. Since style is a variation on a convention, rigid conformity is the antithesis of style. Ironically, the University of Chicago Manual of Style itself says: “Few of the rules contained in this book are inviolable.”3 But that is the one part of the manual that is never quoted by editors or copy-editors.

Sowell just gets more and more worked up as the essay progresses! Hopefully my boss thinks I'm an exception to this characterization of editors!