The Lost Art of Editing

John T Kuehn's picture

Handgrenade of the Month

June 2016

The Lost Art of Editing

John T. Kuehn


Exhibit A for the prosecution:  Army History Magazine, Winter 2016 issue, published by the Center of Military.

This is a fine magazine/journal and almost always presents high quality scholarship and book reviews in its issues, but…

One finds the following on page 32-33 about the operations of Nathanial Greene AFTER Yorktown and after his own battle at Eutaw Springs (a tactical defeat but an operational victory).


“Greene had also received reports of a South Carolina Loyalist militia raid from Charlestown into western parts of the state.  Lead by Loyalist militia Brig. General Robert Cunningham, Col. Hezekiah Williams…were formed with British license to raid deep into South Carolina’s backcountry.” (32-33)

See it?   Okay, yes, passive voice is present, but the verb/noun LEAD represents the real problem, the most egregious error.  It should be led, the past tend of the verb “to lead.” Certainly the author and the editors did not intend for the element lead (Pb) to be used here.

One reason I recognized this so quickly---I see this particular error all the time in papers I grade.   It is an easy mistake to make but a very easy one to fix given that the syntax for the verb form should be incorrect and picked up by most grammar or spell checking programs.   I think it represents a trend of shoddy editing throughout the historical profession.   Authors, of course, are ultimately responsible, but good editors at big publishing houses, and not so big, should catch these sorts of mistakes, it is part of what they should get paid to dor.  I say should, because more and more the publishing world has eliminated, marginalized, and minimized editorial presence in published works, whether books, online, or in journals.  The public is also to blame because they accept, more and more, this sort of shoddy work.  Ah for the days of being able to read grammatically correct text for pages and pages, and sometimes for the entire article or book.  Maybe this is one reason students make these errors so much, they see it in their reading so why should they write any better?




Categories: Editing

"paid to dor". Dor? or do? Hmmm . . . .

It does appear that "shoddy" editing is becoming a norm with on-line publications. Sentences and paragraphs are incorrectly composed; some following journalistic editing while others having no formal logic to their composition. Ultimately, it is up to the writer to make sure that the article submitted is composed correctly and has a logical flow to the argument set forth.

Ralph Davis

Thanks for giving this some attention. I give my undergrads at Norwich a little lesson on lead/led usage in my military history survey course, but who knows if it sticks. I always figure they don't get it because they read so little. It certainly doesn't help if our own journals perpetuate the problem.

And not just online publishing. The hard copy world is increasingly guilty as well. Recent case in point, Martin Kitchen's new (2015) Speer biography, Speer: Hitler's Architect (Yale U Press [!]). Lead sentence to chapter 3 (p. 57): "On 30 January 1937 Hitlar appointed Albert Speer as Berlin's General Inspector of Buildings." You can look it up.

At least they got the date write (that's deliberate). To my dismay, I've seen the same in print volumes by Princeton, Harvard, U Cal, even Oxford. Sorry about the pressures scholarly presses are forced to work under, ever accumulating. But there's no excuse for sheer laziness in the editing process. Even the spell check here is catching "Hitlar."

Interesting comments from the Center for Military [...?] about Nathanael Greene's actions in command! [sic] And elsewhere in today's daily plug from H-War, a book reviewer notes that sticklers for grammar, spelling, and punctuation will find that particular book somewhat irritating. I found a similar problem in another book that I just read, in which obvious spelling errors appear repeatedly in the text. That one should be a book prize contender, and hopefully those won't hurt it too much in any judge's eyes.

I certainly share the impression that such sloppiness has become more frequent, but that is just an impression that is not based on any systematic study. I usually do catch and snicker at other people's spelling errors. But having just gone through the process, I recognize that it can be difficult to catch an error in something that one wrote, rewrote, rewrote again, edited, and then is proofreading. [Shameless act of self promotion follows.] I think that SUNY Press served me very well at every stage in the production of my own forthcoming book, and so some outfits are still doing it right.

I also wonder if such problems are really becoming more common. Are we just seeing them more, or perhaps complaining because "things are not as good as they used to be." I recently read a book published by the Naval Institute Press back in the 1950s that had an astonishing set of errors about ship classes and technical details. Ships of one class were listed as being of another one. I have read and owned many NIP books over the years and have always thought very highly of them. I am still wondering how that one got past the editing process because it seemed so far out of character. The author of course bears the ultimate responsibility, but I still wonder how it got past the press. And that one was from the "good old days!" Then I have another book, from Oxford University Press no less, in which they put the cover upside down when they assembled the signatures into the binding. I mean...really?

With more facilities for self-publishing and electronic publishing, I suspect we sticklers can look forward to many more years of stickling. On balance, I fear the problem is, in fact, getting worse.

Bruce Castleman

I heartily agree that editing seems to be a lost art...fact-checking seems to be gone, too. I just got a copy of the second volume of William Manchester's biography of Winston Churchill, and in the endpapers, it tells us that in October 1939, the British aircraft carrier Ark Royal was sunk in Scapa Flow. I nearly hit the ceiling, as the book's text tells us that it was the battleship Royal Oak, as most historians of World War II would know very well. This is not a trivial error.

I'm constantly making marks in history books on misspelled words, wrong names, erroneous information, and other such editorial pratfalls, and wondering, as a former newspaper copy editor, who's in charge and who's asleep at the switch here? I've seen people flayed alive for copy-editing screwups in the newspaper business. At United Press, misspelling a name was grounds for dismissal. At the Defense Information School, which churned out mildly capable 18-year-old journalists in 15 weeks, misspelling a name was automatic failure. I guess it's grounds for promotion in the civilian world.

It's not limited to the copy desk...a friend of my wife wrote a vegetarian cookbook. The design geniuses logically created a book cover with a beautiful plate of meat loaf greeting the reader. The author exploded and demanded the cover be changed. The publishers said there was no time to do so, and said some smooth Latin words about the contract. The author threatened a breach of contract lawsuit, citing the good grounds of false advertising. The publisher said, "Hey, wait a minute," and changed the cover.

I have seen books that mis-identify warships and historical figures, with astonishing regularity and incompetence.

I blame many things, including our alleged school system, which does not seem to be properly training people who want to go into the publishing and communications fields. After 36 years in the latter business, I find myself working with communications people who are barely out of college, equipped with perky smiles, perfect teeth and hair, complete knowledge as to social media and the personal life of the Kardashian-Jenner family, but cannot tell me who Nikita Khrushchev was or the significance of the Gettysburg Address. One such practitioner said, "Isn't that the speech that begins: 'Four score and seven years ago?'"

I told her such was the case, and she should read, digest, and contemplate the entirety of the 272-word oratory. I hope she did it...for her sake and ours.

My experience with NIP (now some 15 years ago) was that they paid significantly more attention to line editing and mechanics than to facts and context. Johns Hopkins' line editing was as good, with more effort on checking facts and examining interpretations.
Bob Brugger at JHU Press was a master of the art of asking seemingly simple questions that required two months of research and thought to answer.
Bill Roberts

Very well said, David Lippman! I'm going to quote you to my class, along with Kuehn's original hand grenade. My students seem to think I'm the only person who cares about such things. When they throw out the appalling phrase "grammar Nazi," I show them this clip from Game of Thrones (the famous Stannis "fewer" scenes:

Too bad they killed off Stannis. No more grammar quips on GOT I guess.

Referring to David Lippman's remark concerning the Young Lady and the Gettysburg Address and his suggestion that "she should read, digest, and contemplate the entirety of the 272-word oratory. I hope she did it...for her sake and ours."

I, too, hope that was the case, but I know she didn't. The 140-word limit ensures no one will ever Tweet Lincoln to her, and she will remain oblivious.

I understand various reasons for errors but find them annoying and worse, especially when they appear in books from what should be a gold-standard publisher (maybe no such thing anymore). As an example, I recently got a copy of a historical atlas of Islam published by Harvard University Press. I did so because of my own deficiencies in knowledge about the geography and wanted a solid, reliable reference to go along with my self-study on the subject. I was a bit surprised within the first few pages to find an error of its and it's. However, my surprise/amusement/annoyance changed to real unhappiness when I hit dates given for the first caliph's reign as predating Muhammad's death (which was properly identified less than a third of a column earlier, in the same paragraph). This error was too great to account for by something like a simple reversal of digits. With errors like that in the text, my confidence in the maps dropped by some unknown amount -- commensurate with the unknown amount and location of careless errors elsewhere in the atlas. In reading the new revision of the textbook mandated by my university for the Western Civilization course I've taught, I was distressed to find the author confusing basic terms related to the Muslim community -- saying that ulama (scholars recognized as authoritative) means brotherhood or community (umma). This is a widely used textbook, written by a reputable scholar who has more than 20 years teaching this subject at a major university and published by Oxford University Press. With errors like this in what should be reliable sources, how can we expect students and even scholars who're not experts in the specific areas to 'get it right'?

Larry Grant, it's even worse than what you initially feared- Twitter has a character limit, not a word limit. I did a quick character count and see that Lincoln's iconic first sentence wouldn't even fit into a single tweet - including spaces, it'd be close to 40 characters over the limit. If people are restricting themselves to such truncated forms of communication, it's no wonder that people's attention spans are decreasing.

Reina Pennington, I'm glad to hear that I'm not the only one who objects to the phrase "Grammar Nazi". Maybe I'm taking it too literally, but when I read an email that mixes up "they're" and "their", I don't resort to fascism or genocide in my responses.

Reina and Larry, sorry on the extreme delay in answering, but I've been under a vast pile of work.

Reina, I'd like to know how your class took what I wrote. I'm sure that when they found out I was 53 and a guy who reads books about history and writes them, they got bored and lost interest. If you told them I collaborated with Kim Kardashian on a book about nail care and her rise to success, they'd have been riveted.

I am basically a "grammar Nazi," from my journalism training and years on a copy desk, editing 50 stories a night. If we put out improperly-edited and incoherently-written articles to our readers, then they would rightly question our grasp of the more important facts in the story. And our readers could get passionate to the point of marching on the paper's offices and ripping up copies to vent their displeasure about a story. Some of the politicians hated us to the point of harassment. We would have to bring in the lawyers.

Larry and Mark...I don't think that silly little girl ever read the Gettysburg Address. She was too busy reading about Kim Kardashian's posterior, I'm sure. And her suggestions on lip gloss. The ignorance and stupidity in this country about its own history is appalling.

Dick Winters of "Band of Brothers" fame was enraged when he discovered that a high school class in his native Pennsylvania knew less about American history than a similar class in The Netherlands. Immigrants seeking US citizenship study hard for their test and wind up knowing more about US history than the indolent, entitled, lazy people who are born here, and think that George Washington cut down the cherry tree, Betsy Ross sewed up the flag, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock ahead of every other European colonist, and that our real enemy in World War II was Field Marshal Montgomery as portrayed in the movie "Patton."

The only thing most Americans know about the Constitution is the Second Amendment...until they get arrested, at which point they're very interested in the Fourth through Eighth. I doubt anyone but a Constitutional scholar knows about the Third Amendment. Present the American people with the ideals of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Gettysburg Address, they would probably become outraged at such a threat to America. And so on. We now have "idiocracy" at its very finest.

David, I have to know: did you collaborate with Kim? :-o (Does H-Net do emoticons yet?)

I would add to your list that many Americans also know about the First Amendment until it involves someone else saying things they do not want to hear. Then it's (un-)funny how often they forget and "urge" silence on the speaker, often in concert with authorities' willing complicity.

As for the Third, personally, I won't worry much about that until I have to clean out the spare bedroom.

To paraphrase Heraclitus, "A man's culture is his fate." (I know, I know, I shouldn't have said "man"....)