Here’s the thing about writing and editing. Nobody is perfect. What that means is that sometimes, no matter how careful people are, things like spelling and grammar issues and even inconsistencies in plot and character can find their way into a story. A painstaking author will try to fix as many of those things as possible and a skilled editor can often find the ones left behind. But a lot of books still have those little reminders in them that we’re all human.
We all have different ‘pet peeves’ and if editing and proofreading mistakes aren’t a ‘pet peeve’ for you, perhaps those things don’t bother you much. And even if you do notice such things, if a story is well-crafted and has strong characters, you may be willing to forgive them. For one thing, as I said, we’re all fallible and most readers accept that. For another (and here’s the interesting part), research shows that we often ‘fill in blanks’ when we read with what we expect, even if it’s not there. Here’s an example of what I mean:
Read this sentence at your normal pace and see you can spot the word I’ve left out of it.
I’ll bet you know what the word is even though it’s not written. What that means is that some readers may not notice things like omitted words, or if they do notice them, it certainly doesn’t get in the way of following the plot. It’s even more the case with authors, who’ve read their work several times and already mentally ‘filled in’ what they mean, whether or not it’s actually on the written page. On the other hand, some people really do mind things like grammar, spelling and other issues. It makes them very cranky and feels as though someone hasn’t taken any care with the story.
The question really isn’t whether things like non-standard spelling, omitted words, inconsistencies or other things work their way into novels. They do, despite best efforts from everyone. And it’s embarrassing when an author sees something like that in her or his own work. Trust me.
One thing that should provide some comfort is that not even highly regarded authors are immune to those lapses. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot gets a letter from Emily Arundell, asking him to investigate a very delicate matter. But the letter doesn’t specify exactly what that matter is. Nonetheless, Poirot and Hastings travel to Market Basing to look into the situation. By the time they get there though, it’s too late. Miss Arundell has died of what seems to be liver failure. When Poirot and Hastings discover that there was a previous attempt on her life, it becomes clear that her fears were well-grounded. There are plenty of suspects too, as Miss Arundell was wealthy and had several family members who were most eager to get their hands on her fortune. One of those family members is Miss Arundell’s niece Bella Tanios née Biggs. In the UK version of the novel (Dumb Witness), she is referred to twice as Bella Biggs, with an explanation that she married Dr. Jacob Tanios. But in the US version (Poirot Loses a Client), she’s referred to at one point as Bella Winter. I’m not sure whether Christie had originally intended one name and then chose the other, or whether there was another reason for that different surname. Either way it’s an interesting case of something as basic as a name change making its way into the final copy of a novel.
I’m sure you could think of other examples too of inconsistencies like that that in novels you’ve read. And that’s why most respected authors know that their work needs work, if I can put it that way. In one interview for instance, Jonathan Kellerman said,
‘I find rewriting a necessity and I try to be open-minded about editing.’
It’s good to know that even very talented authors understand the value of polishing their work.
That said though, no-one notices everything, and most writers will tell you that even after publication, their novels are still works in progress if you want to put it that way. Here for example is what Ian Rankin had to say about that:
‘If you take it down off the shelf again, you’ll always see things you’d have done differently. That’s one of the things that keeps writers writing: the fact that there’s always more you can do.’
He’s got a point. Writing is a process of continuous improvement (or at least I’d like to think so).
Also weighing in on the topic is Elly Griffiths, whose Ruth Galloway series has won her so many fans:
‘I was an editor for over fifteen years so you would think I could edit myself. Not a bit of it!’
She goes on to say that she relies on her editor Jane Wood to help polish her novels.
But the fact is that editor or no, skilled author or no, it’s very hard to find a completely goof-proof novel. So it’s inevitable that readers are going to find things that got past the editor. If you’ve found such things (and I’ll bet you have), do they bother you? What’s your threshold for things like spelling, grammar and so forth? What about inconsistencies such as names? If you’re an author, what do you to do try to catch those things before anyone else does?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Howie Day’s Collide.