Editing: It’s more than just sentence fluency

Look, editing mistakes happen. But even the most minor one threatens something more valuable than sentence structure; it puts the author’s credibility in danger.

I was reminded of this invaluable lesson while reading one of the best history books I’ve read in a while. Ronald Rosbottom’s When Paris Went Dark, the story of Paris under the Nazi occupation, is full of fascinating details and anecdotes about ordinary Parisians and how they adjusted to the sound of German footsteps on their boulevards for four years (as a teacher myself, I was particularly amused by the anecdote of a university professor, found to be undermining the Nazi regime’s authority, who was punished by being sent to teach middle school).

The only thing that detracted from the riveting story was the occasional editing error. For example, look at this sentence from page 280:

“Hundreds of rapidly scribbled and notes and letters from detainees were sneaked out of the Vélodrome…”

Clearly, the “and” in boldface wasn’t meant to be there. Is it there because the author doesn’t quite understand how English works? Doubtful. The first draft probably looked something like this:

“Hundreds of rapidly scribbled letters and notes from detainees…”

The author or editor may have read it over and decided it would sound better if ‘notes’ comes first, so he moved ‘letters’ to come after ‘notes’ …

“Hundreds of rapidly scribbled and notes letters from detainees…”

… naturally added the ‘and’ to separate the two nouns…

“Hundreds of rapidly scribbled and notes and letters from detainees…”

… and voila! Editing error. The reader has no trouble understanding, but it’s still a distraction.

Three pages later, we have this:

“Already, food shortages, the snail-slow release of French prisoners of war, and declining living conditions had made criticism of Pétain’s ‘contract with the devil’ come under much more incisive criticism from the public.”

If you’re like me, you experienced a sense of déjà vu with that second “criticism,” since you’d already seen it in the sentence. Was Mr. Rosbottom insinuating that the criticism itself was coming under criticism? Au contraire!

My guess: The original draft had the first “criticism” in it, but as the author reached the end of the sentence, he realized there was no satisfying way to end it. So he wisely decided “criticism from the public” was clearer, and forgot to extricate the “criticism” from the beginning of the sentence.

The unfortunate thing here isn’t that the sentences were mangled in an attempt to improve them (although I feel a sharp pain in my bicuspids whenever that happens; my dentist insists it’s psychosomatic). The bigger issue is that any one error suggests there may be others, which may be more consequential. There are at least two editing errors in this chapter. Are there more? Did the correct original form of these sentences include mistakenly deleted key words that changed the meaning? Or were these mere editing errors and nothing more?

You’ll never know, unless you ask the author directly.

So I asked the author directly.

Mr. Rosbottom, a professor of French and European studies at Amherst, clearly knows his stuff. In his response to my email, he described himself as “an inveterate proof-reader,” and gave credit to an astute copy-editor at his publisher who gives his manuscripts another perusal. But, since both are human (and the book is 400 pages long), mistakes occasionally slip through. Mr. Rosbottom told me these editing oversights will be remedied for the book’s next printing.

With just these two changes, the sixth printing of the book will be slightly cleaner, causing fewer distractions, leaving fewer unanswered questions, and giving the reader fewer openings to question any part of what they’re reading. What’s left is a well-crafted, detailed history, written by an expert in his field who is committed to telling the most accurate story of the tense, harrowing years when Paris went dark.

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