What the epidemic of poor writing across media highlights about the vital role of editing

We have always taken the English language and made it work for us, in an admirably jugaad-filled manner. Now, the lines are blurred. It's good writing vs appalling writing, and bad editing plays a major part in the latter.

The epidemic has been creeping up on us for a while now, much before the viral pestilence hit. Sadly enough, it’s also going to be around well after the latter loses its sting. As a manuscript editor, I’ve been a dismayed observer of this scourge which I term ‘language lacunae’.

We have always taken the English language and made it work for us, in an admirably jugaad-filled manner. However, back then, we could tell the difference between good writing and indifferent writing. What’s more, it mattered then.

Now, the lines are blurred. It’s good writing vs appalling writing, and bad editing plays a major part in the latter. And I’m not sure it matters any more.

I’ve long been in the habit of marking errors in the English papers, and a typical week throws up such gems:

He was buried in a huff/The butterfly was known to occur in October/ It was the death nail/ A courtyard that whiffs of the past/ A spa in Austria is being flocked by all and sundry/ He was cladded in a kurta/ But Khan says he did not take ill of what was happening to him/ He belonged to a family of aesthetics/ Goods auto rams two-year-old toddle, dies immediately/ It was a plumply set table/ Is the angst due to unkempt promises?/ He had a beamish look on his face/ He was involved in more cases of molestating women.

As a manuscript editor, I come down hard with my blue pencil on language lacunae.

As a book reviewer, I try my best to let minor glitches slide, recalling that adage about being reader-friendly and all; once every few books, though, I just have to point out the big bungles. Like in a new-ish bestseller, published by a top publisher’s Indian arm. The text was peppered with errors of syntax, no commas appeared where needed, apostrophes were found in wrong places, there were plotline lapses like the family cook starting out as belonging to a village in Nepal, then turning into a Bihari, some chapters down, ‘Michelle Yung’ becoming ‘Michelle Chung’ as the story progressed and so on and so forth. A lot of so on and so forth, actually. It quite ruined the read for me.

Then there was the latest mythological novel from an acclaimed writer whose weekly newspaper column I read avidly and enjoy a lot. This book was published by the country’s leading publisher, no less. I picked it up with much enthusiasm but soon, my jaw was falling so hard, you could hear it hit the ground. Every page had a howler; sample some from a list I meticulously made:

He enjoyed with his mistress/ I was seeped in the stories/ They flurried their feathers/He shook his shoulders/They reminisced of their frolicking/He hurled himself into the nearest boy/I had disguised as her husband/ Her laughter got under his nerves/ She ecked out a living/ The glint of steal in his eyes/She had developed a severe bout of headache/ You are soberer than anyone I know/Then he talked about an alarming news/She looked at him with foggy eyes/ His semen ejaculated/He stretched his limps/The animal gave another hit to the pillar/ He lay consciousness/She woke to birdsongs/It cuddled in his chest/She couldn’t see through her hazy eyes/They expended food on their enemies/He had considered him as his father/ A drop of tear escaped her eyes/ The room looked unmade/ She had ears for no one/I ploughed like an oxen/Let you not grow up, he said/ I saw death lurking at you/Slowly her zest for life started asserting/Such a strategist, such a thinker and a bit of impulsive too.

I completely understand that authors aren’t totally to blame for these sins of commission and omission. As one who has written four books, I well know that stuff slips through the cracks when you are writing. Basically, a good story needs a good editor to make it a better story. But there is such antipathy to getting one’s work edited, it amuses as well as alarms me. Of course, the main reason is that everyone is possessed of this compelling urge to write a book, and given that one can write and publish a book all too easily these days, people just don’t see the need for an editor.

Then, you have Google’s Smart Compose and AI is, even as we speak, coming up with adept editing tools. However, we all know algorithms have their limitations. We’d do well not to consign the human editor to the scrap bin just yet.

It’s not my case to plug editors or sing a paean to the need for getting your article/book manuscript cleaned up. Or hell, why lie, maybe it is. It’s just that there’s nothing so satisfying as reading an article where the writer uses language to put across their point of view succinctly. Or a well-written story where the plot, conflict resolution, denouement, all flows smoothly. And for this to happen, some amount of editing is vital, believe me.

I was raised on sparkling literature, evocative literature, literature that had me break out in gales of laughter as in the case of PG Wodehouse, that moved me to tears as in the case of Thomas Hardy, or put me in contemplative mode for days like Toni Morrison, Amitav Ghosh, Kiran Nagarkar. That was well-edited stuff and it has spoiled me for what passes for literature oftentimes these days.

By Sheila Kumar first published on August 10, 2020