Invisible mending

8 Nov

“Most writers I know have tales to tell of being mangled by editors,” writes the esteemed academic John Gross,*

“… and naturally it is the flagrant instances they choose to single out – absurdities, outright distortions of meaning, glaring errors. But most of the damage done is a good deal less spectacular. It consists of small changes (usually too boring to describe to anyone else) that flatten a writer’s style, slow down his argument, neutralise his irony; that ruin the rhythm of a sentence or the balance of paragraph; that deaden the tone that makes the music.”

Here at the Tribune, we are a “writer’s paper”: that is to say, we allow our senior writers – and especially our columnists – not just their own opinions, but their own style as well.  Of course, in theory we edit everything perfectly – we intervene whenever it is required, and keep clear whenever it is not – but to the extent there is an institutional bias, it is to be hands-off: not to flatten a style or ruin an argument for the sake of enforcing “good English”. So we are, one would hope, less likely than some of Gross’s targets to “pounce mercilessly on split infinitives … and all the other supposed offenses that are often no offense at all”.

But hands-off editing comes with its own set of hazards. Specifically, it can create a culture of under-intervention: we do basic editing, correcting spellings and checking dates, but perhaps decline to step in when a columnist has mixed a metaphor, or written a sentence so long that it provokes amusement on Twitter. In the worst cases, faced with something notably angry, funny, colloquial or emotional, we can become paralysed: confronted by a confessional tour de force or celebrity stream of consciousness, we freeze, run a spellcheck and send it through without doing the whole job.

So, bearing the countervailing risks in mind, where you would you step in, and where you would you step back, here?

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This is Laura Craik’s “Upfront” column in the Evening Standard’s ES magazine. She is a fashion and trends commentator who writes in a  chatty, informal style typical of that genre: even if you don’t know her, that much becomes immediately apparent when you read the copy. The tone and register are easy to grasp, and so are the editing parameters: you instinctively allow “mahoosive”, “yada yada”, the sentence fragments, or “Soz” in a way that you wouldn’t if they cropped up in a Telegraph editorial.

But I’m not so sure about “pontificating”. Given the context (“I say ‘rushed’, but really I’d been pontificating since May”),  I strongly suspect what’s meant is “prevaricating”. Even if the intended sense is something closer to “I’d been talking about it to everyone for months”, “pontificating” still isn’t quite right: it carries the sense of speaking (like a pontiff) from a sense of real or imagined authority, and the whole point of the piece is that the author didn’t know what to do. In a piece where nearly everything should be allowed to stand, this is something that needs to be changed: the one reason in 600 words not to step back and wave the copy through.

Intentional malapropisms are funny. Unintentional ones on the way to making a different kind of joke are just distracting. That’s where the kind of invisible mending that broadsheet subs do comes in. Tone is exclusively the province of the writer – there is a lot of truth in the columnist’s weary complaint that “it’s my column, not yours” – but sense and cogency are the business of the newspaper as a whole, and particularly the copydesk. Making a change like that doesn’t “flatten the writer’s style” but enhances it, by removing a distraction over which a literate reader might trip. Editors shouldn’t do too much, but we usually have to do something.


* Editing and Its Discontents“, in The State of the Language, edited by Christopher Ricks and Leonard Michaels (University of California Press, 1990)

10 Responses to “Invisible mending”

  1. Steve Dunham November 10, 2016 at 6:54 pm #

    I agree, though I can’t say I understood all the Britishisms and slang. Sometimes I just hope a writer knows what she’s talking about. But “pontificating” didn’t sound right. I do know what it means, and I couldn’t grasp what she was trying to say in this context. I suppose I would have had to query it, because I don’t think I could have figured out the intended meaning on my own.

    • edlatham November 10, 2016 at 10:18 pm #

      Yes, exactly – once you’ve adjusted for the tone, it’s the one bit that still doesn’t sound right

      • Jeff November 16, 2016 at 10:02 pm #

        To me the “namely” was a bit of a bump. It’s hard to say exactly why but somehow the thought isn’t ‘tight’ enough, as the explanation (using hands) doesn’t relate literally enough to the scenario (surreptitious measurement). Something like “It didn’t help, namely because surreptitious measurement is rarely accurate” may have been OK, but as it is I think the “namely” should just be dropped. The “because” is doing the work of linking in the explanation and doesn’t need help.

      • edlatham November 16, 2016 at 11:22 pm #

        Yes, actually I started thinking the same after I’d written the post. ‘Namely’ doesn’t sit well when nothing is actually being named

  2. Picky November 17, 2016 at 12:10 pm #

    Would you leave “like most people” — given that it is annoyingly untrue? Although, I suppose, being annoying is part of the shtick.

    I agree that one trips over “namely”.

    • edlatham November 17, 2016 at 1:16 pm #

      I think I would, if only because that ‘we’re-all-in-the-beau-monde-aren’t-we’ rhetoric is such a central part of the Standard’s spirit. (I think that’s why they insist on showing £2000 ‘winter coat ideas’ to first-jobbers on the District Line)

  3. Theophylact November 28, 2016 at 8:38 pm #

    I’d say “procrastinating”. “Prevaricating” suggests falsehood.

  4. Theophylact November 28, 2016 at 8:39 pm #

    (But perhaps “putting it off” would be less off-putting.)

    • edlatham November 28, 2016 at 9:19 pm #

      Yes, I think it would!


  1. Vague impression | Ten minutes past deadline - October 1, 2019

    […] in terms of tone, register, syntax, hyperbole, and even decorum, in their reviews, as part of the wide range of voices contained every day in a newspaper. A quick bit of neologising is hardly out of the way in the music […]

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