Thursday, January 27, 2011

More on self-editing

Which actually sounds kind of rude, but is in fact the opposite of any form of self-indulgence; one must be strict with oneself. Here, as of this morning, are the red-pen annotations on the hard copy of what I sincerely hope will be the penultimate draft of the section of the Adelaide book that deals with Don Dunstan and his Pink Shorts, strung together, in the order in which they appear, for your entertainment. Like the parlour game of Consequences, they do in fact provide a surprisingly coherent narrative, thus:

One newspaper described them as 'flesh-pink'. They had a point, and I wasn't sure about it either. CHECK AND FIX THIS. Add something from the PhD on food and drink? You need to paraphrase this info and conflate it with DD's own portrait. MASH UP. Make more of a song & dance about this. Get DJO's permission. There was also a dash of leftover Cold War paranoia, and another of unreconstructed British imperialism. And to have been a little outraged that it was possible for any Englishman to be sacked by an Australian, even the head of the government that had employed him: 'My loyalty,' he said, apparently under the impression that he had come to work in one of Her Majesty's colonies, 'is to the Crown.' NO LEAVE THIS BIT OUT. As Dunstan had written about a different matter. Factor in dates of Royal Commission. ... the reforms in matters of sexual freedom, particularly the decriminalisation of homosexuality ... Say where photo is. Find name of song -- PERMISSION! (Which had made it possible for him to turn up there in shorts in the first place.)


  1. This is really interesting. You say 'one must be strict with oneself.' Yes, because I wonder if anyone else will be? I was deeply shocked to read Having Cried Wolf recently, sucked in as I was by rave reviews. I was pleased to support a small press, Affirm, and interested to see work from it as I've become aware of Rebecca Starford after the discussion on literary criticism earlier this year (the infamous panel with Peter Craven).

    Gretchen Shirm, the writer of Having Cried Wolf, thanks Rebecca Starford for her attentive editing. Unfortunately neither of them were attentive enough and neither seem to understand some very basic grammar. While there are more subtle, more 'literary' problems with Having Cried Wolf it's pretty distracting to come across the most basic, glaring errors of grammar such as, and I quote: "Peter's friends swum in the pool" (p 103) and "Dad took my brother and I out to dinner last weekend" (p 155).

    It's hard to believe this writer cares as much about her work as she needs to.

    The last example above is the thought of a teenage boy narrator so pretentious that he describes rugby tackles as 'rigorous embraces'. Leaving aside the slippage in register (the author is not skilled enough to make us believe this really is the character's thought and not a little showing of plumage by the author) it really seems the basic error in grammar is the author's (and editor's) - not the character's.

    I don't recall these problems mentioned in the glowing reviews of this book. I think it's important that reviewers mention these issues - if it's not noticed I guess writers and editors will not think getting the basics right matters.

    I find it deeply disturbing as Starford is clearly 'a player' on the Austlit scene - she has her blog, her press, her place on critical panels. And yet is unable to either see a problem with her author's grammar or unable to persuade her to do anything about it.

  2. Well, I was one of the people who reviewed this book very favourably so I guess I had better say why.

    First: I agree with everything you say about 'swum' and 'X and I' for 'X and me' and so on, and these things make me bash my head on the desk when I see them, as do 'a lot' spelled as one word, 'infer' to mean 'imply', and countless other things that get past the publishing process on a regular basis. I also agree that writers need to understand their medium, ie language, a great deal better than some of them do.

    But they're not points that I have room to make in a short review, and I think the main point to be made about Shirm is that despite the sort of bingle you rightly bemoan, she is a really, really talented writer. I hope she buys herself a little basic grammar book and I hope she does it soon. One of the many excellent books on creative writing that have helpful, practical chapters about things like narrative point of view (I like Kate Grenville's) is also a valuable addition to one's library.

    But many years of teaching and then several of blogging have made it very clear to me that this is a generational thing. Both Shirm and Starford are of a generation that was actively taught all through school that caring about stuff like grammar and spelling is 'pedantic' and anyway 'language is changing all the time and therefore there's no such thing as correctness' (no, I can't believe this one when I see it either, even now) and 'the really important thing is that you Be Creative.'

    This stuff sinks deep when you get it from teachers year after year. I don't really blame them. But I tried for many years, and I think largely failed, to get through to aspiring Creative Writing students that when they make a mistake with grammar or spelling (and of course they don't know when they've made a mistake), it signals the limitations of their skill and knowledge, and it's going to undermine the reader's faith in their abilities from that point onwards.

  3. When I read a review of a book that we've published that criticises poor or lazy editing, I try to make a habit of firing off a polite email to the critic - or their editor - asking for a list or examples so that we can fix the errors if possible. I rarely get a reply but will stick with it. Nobody's perfect. And, btw, glad I can't be the only one saying to people (sometimes in my mind) 'What did the little fishies do? They swam and they swam right over the dam'.

  4. Pip, you'll be pleased to know I'm working so hard on the book that it's taken me this long to get back here!

    I have indeed often thought about sending the publisher a list of the literals and other bingles of usage and so on in a book that seems particularly riddled with them, because I do know that it would be helpful. The Slap is a case in point; I hope it didn't go round the world in that state. But there are three things about that: (1) it's an implied reproach and one feels uncomfortable about doing it, not least because it's a way to make enemies you didn't even know about and as a critic I do that every week anyway; (2) one does not wish to look like a smartarse; and (3) that sort of work is very time-consuming, and you find yourself thinking 'Hang on, I'm doing work for free that an editor would have been paid to do but manifestly didn't, when I should be getting on with my book or otherwise making a living.'

    Right, back to the serial killers ...