Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Bad editing, academic division

Time to stray a bit from the fields of journalism and look at the broader subject of Editors Behaving Badly. What all editors do, anywhere, is try to make writers sound like themselves, only better. Editors who make writing worse can point to all the rules they want to; they're still bad editors, because however you might interpret the Prime Directive, they've screwed it up. Today's installment is from the depths of academe, textbook department.

Bit of background. I'm looking for a new text, or at least a supplement, for content analysis. The one we used last winter is thorough and easy to follow but very (very, very) newspaper-oriented, and after all, we're a comm department, not a masscomm department. So when the exhibitors' hall at AEJMC turns up a brand-new (2009-dated) content analysis reader from some big hitters at Penn, well -- give me one of those to read on the train, please?*

I like the thing a lot so far, but my chain was severely yanked before I got off the second page of the first chapter. For that, I blame some anonymous copy editor who makes the book look weak and my craft look silly. Appropriately enough for a chapter about 18th-century church factionalism, it's basically a which-hunting tale. And it's a good one! Wait until you get to the part where the churchman Kumblaeus figures out that the cunning pietists have figured out how to cloak their evil ideas "in the ordinary vocabulary of each country's language," so cleverly that the hicks didn't even know "they were being exposed to a new way of thinking because of the familiarity of the words and phrases." I mean, that's some content analysis -- and he's calculating his effect sizes with, like, an abacus and goose quills or something.

But there's a ghost at the banquet.** Four times on this one page, the editor*** has to make a call on whether a relative clause is restrictive ("integrated," for you Log visitors; also "limiting" or "essential," depending on where you went to school and how much you trust the AP Stylebook) or not. Each time, it's botched, because each time, the editor stops thinking at the pronoun and fails to read the rest of the clause before slapping in some punctuation. Here's the evidence:

By this time, however, State Church had become alarmed by the effects, which they believed the Songs were having on the public.

It is apparent from the historical record that the 18th century disputants approached their problem by asking questions, which are thoroughly familiar to present-day students of communications.

Were these publications used only in those circles, which were already infected with the ideas of the Moravians?

It stressed the words and ideas, which referred to the redemption of man by Christ, at the expense of those words and ideas that referred to the efforts of men to live as Christians.

The last one should give you the idea that the writer, or the original translator, uses "which" and "that" more or less interchangeably with restrictive clauses. That doesn't mean the writer can't tell restrictive from nonrestrictive; it means she doesn't mark the difference the way you're told in Editing School. So the editor steps in and -- well, basically screws it up every time. Each of these is restrictive. Don't put in a comma, change the damn pronoun! Or if you can't be bothered to read the sentence, just leave well enough alone.

It's really too bad. The writer has done an outstanding bit of detective work in tracing the roots of this modern research tool in an 18th-century religious feud. If you don't think it's pertinent today, imagine old Kumblaeus as a White House shill, reminding your TV networks of their patriotic duty in the War on Terror®: "This use of language made it possible for the Moravians to conceal dangerous, false doctrines and create 'a state within a state.'" And an editor who could have helped the book read well decided instead to make it worse.

The more time I spend with the book, the more I like it. But I'm convinced that somebody in the guise of a copy editor did the thing unnecessary damage, and I find that embarrassing.

* Song's right. Trains are the only way to fly.
** Well, one of those countries.
*** Fair inference, I think; the chapter is drawn from a 1951 dissertation written in Swedish.


Blogger priyanka said...


We follow your blog and we find it very interesting. We see a great potential in your content, We think it's time you had your own website. Make your own statement by having your website.This independent website will boost your identity and will establish your web presence.

We are a web 2.0 start up who have set out to democratize web space and provide web identity to all on the internet.We realize that acquiring a domain name ,maintaining a website,hosting it on a server, handling technical issues are all a process that costs time and money.

We believe with our idea we can provide all these to you for free, our services include:

1. Provide free website (e.g.,if available).
2. A place to host your website.
3. Easy to use web development tools.
4. Your own email id.
5. Technical support.

We are currently in private beta. Try us out!!!
For more information look us up at

Team HyperWebEnable

6:34 AM, August 14, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I was going to comment on your post, but I have to say I like the spam comment you got. The first paragraph is a bit on the redundant side, and the punctuation throughout is a bit redundant, but I really like "We believe with our idea we can provide all these to you for free" - though I'm not sure how that differs from what you've already got...

Anyway, yes. How on earth could anyone read those sentences and punctuate them as they did? I fear the presence of an automated system that blindly places commas before "which" - a system which might even be human. (or "that might..." if you insist)

9:30 AM, August 14, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Argh. That should read "and the punctuation throughout is a bit idiosyncratic" ... I cannot get used to the publish/preview buttons in Blogger. For some reason I consistently think the red one is preview despite the large friendly lettering...

9:32 AM, August 14, 2008  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home