The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Serious writers are at the mercy of copy editors’ whims
Learning not to distort

Cultural anthropologists give a special place in their work to the interpretation of apparently irrational behaviour. The really ingenious ones among them try to persuade their readers that such practices as cannibalism, headhunting and the burning of widows have an inner logic in whose light they appear intelligible, meaningful and even reasonable. My imagination does not extend that far. The puzzle that I would like to share with my readers is about the conduct of editors in their relations with the authors whose works they undertake to prepare for publication.

As an author of books and articles in journals, magazines and newspapers, I have been a victim of editorial caprice for more than three decades. Editors, assistant editors and sub-editors work on manuscripts and transform them into printed matter that the author often finds puzzling, and at times incomprehensible. The editor on the other hand feels that the chopping and pruning and embellishing that he does are in the common interest of both the reader and the author. Personally speaking, I fear the embellishment more than the chopping and pruning.

Not all editors are equally heavy-handed. Some are in fact patient and solicitous, but the majority of them allow their zeal for improving the copy in hand to overtake their better judgment. I am not suggesting that authorial prose is never in need of improvement. In fact, much of the writing that is submitted for publication is slipshod, repetitive and prolix. I know reputed academic authors who disdain to cross the “t”s and dot the “i”s in what they write because they believe that there are copy editors who are paid to do the job; some write with abandon and at breakneck speed, and then have little time left to read what they have written. However, this article is about editorial vandalism and not about authorial irresponsibility, which is a separate subject.

There are major differences between the editing of newspaper articles and of scholarly books. My tales of woe relate mainly to the latter, but I must first say a few words about the former. Newspaper editors have far less time than the editors of scholarly books to tinker with the matter they have to send to press. In my experience, they tend to go for the title rather than the text. When they feel well disposed towards an author, they accept more or less whatever he sends, checking for length — and frequency of submission — but not always giving attention to facts or arguments. Where they like to have their way is in the invention of a new title. I suppose they believe that no matter what the article says, the title must be catchy. Not infrequently, there is no obvious connection between the title and the text, and title and text sometimes contradict each other.

Editing a book or even a paper for a scholarly journal is a somewhat different matter. It is generally done not by a single person but by a hierarchy of persons, starting with the commissioning editor and ending with the copy editor; even the proof reader sometimes takes a hand at improving the author’s language. The unwary author might feel that his battle is over when he has got past the commissioning editor or his immediate subordinate, but his real trouble often begins with the copy editor. I have passed through the hands of many copy editors, including both seasoned professionals and young graduates fresh from the university.

Copy editing is not about the general structure or the overall length of the work. It is about making the work compact, readable, and as far as possible, free from errors and inconsistencies of language. The reason that copy editors most commonly give for making drastic changes is that the copy they receive is full of mistakes. One has to make a distinction between a work that contains mistakes and one that lacks style. Allowing a manuscript to go to the printers without removing the mistakes in it would be irresponsible. But improving or embellishing an author’s style is a different matter altogether. The problem is that the editor with even a good command over the language may be only vaguely familiar with the discipline the author professes. Then in his effort to embellish the author’s prose, the editor alters his meaning without always realizing what he has done.

Editorial vandalism is not a matter of correcting mistakes, or even of chopping and pruning; it is the expression of an urge to improve and embellish the author’s language without understanding, or even seriously attempting to understand, what the author wishes to say. My impression is that it takes certain distinctive forms in English-language editing in India and that it has become more widespread in recent times.

Part of the problem arises from the peculiar attitude to the English language among members of the Indian middle class. Command over English, which is very unevenly spread in that class, is not only an important intellectual resource, it is also an important marker of social status. Correcting and improving another person’s English is to establish not only one’s intellectual but also one’s social superiority over him. There is no more effective way of putting an author in his place than to show up his deficiency in English. As someone who has published in both Britain and India, I have found that British copy editors are far less anxious to improve and embellish and author’s English than are their Indian counterparts.

The most important practical reason why copy editors make alterations in manuscripts is that they are paid to do so. Here a change has come about in the organization of work in publishing houses, particularly the larger ones. Copy editing has become a specialized job and it tends to be outsourced, that is, assigned to freelancers. I am told that publishing houses find this more economical, particularly when the copy editor is young and unseasoned, and does not have to be paid at a high rate.

In the past, copy editing was mainly in-house work, and even senior editors did not disdain to do it. My own work was copy edited at Oxford University Press by Ravi Dayal, one of the finest editors in the country, and he continued to do the work even after he became general manager, something that would be considered a monstrous waste of resources today. It is true that he took a perverse pleasure in pointing out all my mistakes and infelicities, but he also taught me many things for which I still remain grateful.

Things have now changed. Copy editing is outsourced to freelancers who are paid by the page for the work they do. I am told that the rates are not very high and not attractive enough to induce talented persons to view it as a long-term commitment. When a copy editor is paid by the page, it is natural for him to feel, particularly if he is young and inexperienced, that he should not leave too many pages unmarked. He must give some evidence that he has applied himself to his task, and what better evidence can there be than blue and red pencil marks across the manuscript'

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