Why book editors should NOT be a dying breed

Cover of "Anna Karenina (Barnes & Noble C...

Cover of Anna Karenina (Barnes & Noble Classics)

The best way to learn English used to be to read books. We got some beautiful turns of phrases and excellent English from the classics.

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” ― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

A woman after my own heart, there!

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

Words that hold true even to this day, don’t you agree?

“If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.” ― Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

What a beautiful, beautiful thought!

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

Then there are books like Prince of Tides, a story of a destructive family relationship, where a violent father abuses his wife and children. But the language – it’s sheer poetry!

“…the moon lifted a forehead of stunning gold above the horizon, lifted straight out of the filigreed, light-intoxicated clouds that lay on the skyline in attendant veils. Behind us, the sun was setting in a simultaneous congruent withdrawal and the river turned to flame in a quiet duel of gold…”

The first tenet of writing well is to reduce adjectives and keep descriptions sparse. But if an author can write such sublime prose, words that paint pictures in a reader’s mind without taking away from the overall story, I say go for it!

Cover of

Cover of Book of Clouds

Even books that you don’t really like leave you with some profound thoughts. Like The Book of Clouds by Chloe Aridjis, which I didn’t like much. Maybe I just didn’t “get” it. Maybe if I read it a few years later, when I’m an even more mature reader, I might “get” it. Then again, maybe not. But despite the fact that I didn’t like the book, I enjoyed the writing.

“…even the most impoverished of souls, my mother always said, have an inner landscape, and I concluded that hers would have been an empty lot with tennis balls scattered like boulders, punctuated by the occasional peak of a NordikTrack or StairMachine.”

And then there’s this absolute beauty from Julian Barnes’ Pedant in the Kitchen:

“Why should a word in a recipe be less important than a word in a novel? One can lead to physical indigestion, the other to mental.”

This is one sentence publishers would do well to take to heart.

But not all beautiful prose is restricted to the classics or to literary fiction. Mass market paperbacks, pulp fiction, and genre fiction can teach you a lot! If you, like me, are not a big fan of non-fiction, you’d do well to pick up a Wilbur Smith or Leon Uris. I learnt about bushmen and spoor and how to trail big game from Wilbur Smith’s swashbuckling adventure stories set in Africa. Pulp fiction it may be, but its brilliantly written, with a deep understanding of the continent, of its indigenous tribes and culture. Leon Uris’ books also are meticulously researched and very well written. I developed a lot of interest – and understanding – about the IRS and the Palestine issue through his excellent novels. They’re fast-paced, gritty, filled with excellent characters, and deliver a crackling history lesson to boot!


p1160736_c (Photo credit: generalising)

Books can also make you, for a little while maybe, like a sport you hate. Like cricket. I hate the game. But Tushar Raheja’s Romi and Gang could have changed that. It is a simple story of a group of young cricket-obsessed boys. Of gali cricket. Of growing up. A book that could have been so much more than it was, if only it had received some TLC from an editor. Reading it made me want to bring out a red pen and get to work editing it. And that’s no fun. Especially when you really want to like a book. But you can’t. Because the language makes you want to cry.

“No cricket ball could be found out in the open. He searched behind the heap of old pads and stumps. There was a box full of racquets and other sports equipment. He put a brave hand into it and rummaged about.”

How, pray, can a hand be brave?!?

Horrible language aside, it wasn’t developed well either. There was an allusion to someone called Kim, someone who you could make out was of particular importance to the protagonists. But who was he? Why was he important to them? None of these questions were answered, and you felt like you were in the dark about something important. And that, dear publishers, is a big disservice to your readers.

I recently also had the misfortune of reading Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken. Reviewers go ga-ga over his books, calling them little masterpieces. But don’t fall for the hype. Because none of the characters are properly developed and none of them have an original voice. All the dialogue in the book sounded stilted. All the characters talk in a similar manner – in atrociously similar English. In fact, they all speak Hinglish (a mix of Hindi and English) ALL THE TIME! Really Mr. Hall, and whoever edited that book, all Indians most certainly do NOT talk with na (no?) and yaar (dude) strewn through each and every sentence that comes out of their mouth. Especially not cricket bookies who catch the detective red-handed. He will not say “Shut up, yaar.” He will let out a stream of abuse so colorful your ears will turn red. So please, give the reader, and their intelligence, some credit.

Horrible grammar and stilted dialogue are not the sole fault of the author. A large part of the blame is to be borne by the editor, and even the proof reader.

Joyce Carol Oates, 2006

Joyce Carol Oates, 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Author Joyce Carol Oates says it best in this tweet: “It is not generally known that brilliant editors can make successes of manuscripts too unwieldy, too amateurish to be published as they are.”

To which author Lesley McDowell replied: “Indeed – success of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies largely down to his editor at Faber, Charles Monteith”

So this is a humble appeal to all the publishers out there – please, please, please, invest in a good book editor and in a good proof reader. And when you find them, never let them go! They are the people who turn an ordinary manuscript into a work of art. They are the ones who polish and burnish and hone the creativity of authors into shining brilliance.

And to all the readers out there – here’s a humble appeal. Let’s make our voices heard. Let’s ask for well-written (and edited) books. Books with words that will send our hearts soaring, our minds racing…words that we would want to read again and again and again.

So share this post with your friends, fellow readers, and publishers. Let’s get our voices heard. Let’s ask for more books that we want to read and savor, not throw across the room in frustration.

Please tell me I’m not the only one who is frustrated by the recent spate of horribly edited books out in the market. And before you go, do tell me which book(s) you love – for the language, the story, the brilliance.

And if you’re wondering what to read next, do take a look at my bookshelf. I’ve rated each book that I have read, and linked all the ones that I’ve reviewed on the blog.

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  1. Just looovveed this post. No, you are not the only one, let me assure you.

    “Maybe I just didn’t “get” it” – Murakami’s 1Q84 left me with exactly the same thought. I had no clue what the story was all about, but just could not put it down, the imagery and language was so beautiful.

    Julian Barnes’ Pedant in the Kitchen:” – goes straight to my ‘should have read it yesterday’ list. Have you read his ‘The Sense of An Ending’? If not, grab it now!

    “Reviewers go ga-ga over his books, calling them little masterpieces.” – alas, that’s the spate of all the mediocre ‘best sellers’ that seem to come out by the dozen.

    Now , as for the books that I love , you know the link I guess 🙂

    Sharing this post rightaway 🙂

    • Murakami’s a brilliant writer! I read Dance, Dance, Dance – loved the writing, but it was really esoteric and yes, I didn’t really “get” it either!

      Do read Pedant in the Kitchen – it’s hilarious! Loved it! And yes, I’ve read The Sense of An Ending – very good!

      Yup, I know the link. And i enjoy reading your reviews. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  2. Loved this!! I recognize and love all the quotes at the beginning! The day I started reading Chetan Bhagat was the day I first visibly cringed at the language and grammar of any book!! It’s just amazing how some books are approved for printing with the excuse that it was written ‘straight from the heart’!! 😀

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  4. I adore your post. Please, publishers, I beg you–read and heed this post! The publishing industry is more concerned with marketing than turning out well written, beautifully edited literature, which is shameful. (A necessary evil, but shameful.) I can’t wait to explore your bookshelf–you have a new fan! There are several current authors I love for their language and character perfection, but this summer I turned back to the Bard for sheer joy of language and poetry. It had been awhile.

  5. While I’m not a native English speaker, I can certainly agree that the best way to learn English is by reading English books. And if it perhaps isn’t the best (anymore), it’s certainly my favorite. My writing in English improved a lot after I bought Kindle which forced me to read more untranslated works. I love about Kindle that it includes integrated dictionary, which makes translating unknown words really quick. My English is far from perfect, but much better compared to two years ago. 🙂 I’m currently finishing Bleak House by Dickens and I’ll continue with his other works later. I love his writing style!

    • Dickens is excellent! And yes, reading is the best way of learning the language, how to play with words and expressions, idioms and phrases. I’m so glad reading helped you become a better writer – that’s the power of good books!

  6. I agree that certain books out there could have used a bit more editing, grammatical errors should be non-existent nowadays. However, I do think for every “poorly” written book, there is an audience for that book.


    • Yes, it’s true – there is an audience for “poor” books too. An occasional error here and there may be ok, but when the entire book looks like a rough manuscript, that’s a problem, in my opinion.

  7. “I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” – I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. I understand the frustration that you’re feeling and wish there were more captivating and beautifully written work out there. I’m tired of wasting my money and time on bad literature.

  8. Wish I had gotten the gene that makes you love to read. I was passed up when those genes were handed out. My mother however, got a double dose. She was a Librarian too…. sigh.
    Long live good books.

  9. Very nice quotes. I am a stay-at-home mom of two, and most of the time I read homework and school newsletters. But I do remember those college days, and the wonderful books I read!

  10. Great post. I love to read and find myself enjoying all types of books – and I agree that sometimes even if I don’t particularly like a book, I can find myself enjoying the writing itself.

  11. Loved that quote from Book of Clouds!! I know many people like that. There is truly something to say about an individual that can use the most unlikely descriptions of life’s situation and still be able to create a vivid image in our mind and connect with us on a personal level. I know you said you didn’t like the book but I may have to give it a whirl!

  12. I agree with you totally. An editor is sooo important. I self published my own book, (A Life Without Borders http://amzn.to/15m4LsL) and splurged on a good editor. She really sharpened my writing as well as caught grammatical errors. (Sometimes she would edit my emails!) It’s a tough job being an editor but the difference it makes is outstanding. I too love Wilbur Smith and Walt Whitman, Robert Frost poetry.

  13. I agree; a well-written book stimulates the mind and is a thing of beauty. It’s easy to forget the important role an editor plays in this process. I guess you could say that behind every great author is a talented editor! One of my favorite authors is Francine Rivers.

  14. Loved all the quotes! I love to read (and write) and I know how distracting errors can be. As someone who freelances as an editor, even I know that I can’t possibly edit my own work – it takes a second (or third) pair of eyes. But people forget that in their rush to publish…

  15. I used to read constantly, anything I could get my hands on. I’ve been letting the habit slide lately. Need to change that as my tbr pile is about a mile high…

  16. Funny you bring this up, I cannot believe how many poorly edited books are in circulation. As part of a book club, I often read “unedited proofs” so I expect a mistake now and again, but with a mainstream book that has been through the editing process?! Come on!

  17. I adore books. I do allot of book reviews and actually started a new blog because it took over my main one. It does amaze me how many mainstream books are not edited well. I actually see less in Indie books than I do by the ones that are traditionally published. Love this post!

    • Surprising, isn’t it? A lot of people think indie publishers are the culprits for badly written books. But a huge number of terrible books are pushed out by big publishers as well! Kinda makes you wary of all the marketing sometimes!

  18. I love that Barnes quote! I read excessively and am willing to run the gamut from mediocre to good, but I am willing to drop a book if it isn’t good in the first third. Life is too short! I’m going to take a look at your bookshelf and add some to my to-read list.

    • I agree with that – but there are are times when I have to read a particularly horrid book just because I have to write a review for it. Sigh!

      Hope you find some interesting books on my bookshelf 🙂

  19. I’m a reader too. I still enjoy reading BOOKS. There’s something about their smell and turning pages. My favorite book is The Alchemist. I’m inspired every time I read it.

  20. I completely agree that editors are very much needed in this day and age. When I am buying books for my kindle I often search to see if the book is available in a hard-copy format for the very reason that if it is it’s more likely to have been edited properly.

  21. I think that indie authors with limited budgets can take credit for the ill edited books on the market today. I used to edit other peoples work and do proof reading but now I can’t even correct my own writing and grammar. It horrible because I write for other people – which means I should look into hiring an editor of my work.

    • Oh, you’d be surprised at the number of badly edited books that major publishers release {seemingly} every day!

      Having someone else read over your work is always a good idea in my opinion 🙂

  22. You are not the only one disappointed in the literature released these days. I used to teach grammar to second graders, and most of my students would have been able to find the mistakes. I’m concerned with how much worse the situation will become as the ease of digital publishing increases!

    • Plus all the self publishing – a lot of those books aren’t even edited! And for those who read to improve their language – I shudder to think what kind of lessons they are learning from some of those horribly written books!

  23. Thanks for this post! really inspiring actually. Great quotes. I have noticed a lot of mistakes in the books I read and yes, it is frustrating. Though, I admit it’s been a long time since I read any novel I spend all my reading time on non-fiction. I’m going to check out your book list for ideas! Thanks!


  24. Hi there, Great post!

    I have now fallen in love with “Julian Barnes’ Pedant in the Kitchen” quote.I love books, but I haven’t had the time to read much, so I’ve been a kind of book hoarder (instead of reader) lately. I do agree that a good editor plays a significant role in the success or potential of a writing project.

    As a side note, something that has been irking me lately is print journalism. Our local paper is now delivered three times a week, and they seem to be relying more on their online site for getting out the news. I cannot stand it. Where we should find solid news-writing and reporting, there are blog-like pieces of hurried writing (oftentimes with misspelled words, incorrect information, and sparse details). Sometimes, I have come across “articles” that still have the news notes attached at the bottom. Commenters are constantly correcting the journalists, who seem more concerned with just putting something out there quickly rather than accurately. It’s frustrating to read.

    I love reading a well-written, lengthy book because I don’t ever want it to end. Haven’t found one worth devoting my time to since Stephen King’s ‘The Stand.’

  25. I agree with you! Even more irritating to me are all the spelling and grammar errors I find when reading for pleasure. Why on earth do they not catch and fix them before publishing?! I’ve really enjoyed the language in Jane Austen’s books as well as L.M. Montgomery’s stories. Delightful imagery and characters. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is also well-written and really draws you into the story as you read. We need more good writers, and then to make their stories great, we need excellent editors and proofreaders.

  26. I love all those quotes you have posted. So nice. And I totally agree with you about the annoying Deadly Butter Chicken book. The language was so bad, and I hated that na tagged on to everything. I was even more frustrated because I know Tarquin Hall is better than this. His first Vish Puri book was quite charming, and his second was not bad, Butter Chicken though was terrible, and I feel that poor editing was definitely a part of the problem.

  27. Recently I read The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje which is so wonderfully and poetically written. I can’t say the story itself worked for me, but the writing was lovely.

    Another great recent read was The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng – highly recommend for the writing and the story.

  28. Yaar (!) great post. Diana Athill in her great recounting of her time as an editor for Andre Deutsche ‘Stet’ really shows the value of a good editor. MY note to the publishers would be please sack the suits in marketing (sorry, any marketers!) who puff up books which are mediocre at best (and often mediocre is overpraising, claiming anyone who writes a novel within 10,000 miles of a certain time, geography or idea is the new (fill in the gaps) eg a book has a setting in nineteeth century Russia – blurb ‘nameless-author-you-have-never-heard-of-and-never-want-to-have-heard-of writes with the profundity and beauty of Tolstoy, with the character depth of Chekhov, explores themes as profound as Dostoyevsky’ when in fact they have written some which would be only usefully used as an emergency source of toilet paper!

    There are of course wonderful, crafted writers out there, but that nurturing of a gifted writer by an extraordinarily sensitve editor, who can steer a book to fineness, help the writer to ‘murder their darlings’ and mine for the seam of gold, seem few and far between. Instead, book as commodity, the Hollywood lure of (perhaps) a film if the story has a high enough body and bonk count, gets pulp fiction (and poorly written pulp fiction at that) lauded to the heavens, whilst the often excellent barely get noticed.

    And I am NOT a failed, aspiring, would-be or any other variety of writer speaking from sour resentment. Just a passionate, admiring reader of blazingly good, inspiring writing, and deeply grateful to those gifted ones who can produce it!

  29. Enjoyed this.. Atlast i saw someone saying they loved Wilbur Smith cause I love his books too. and the point you make is true. one of the sole reasons that has put me off the Indian chicklit books.

    Can I reblog this on my blog?

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