Phantom Editors and Writing 'Mistakes'

This post, from Marsha Durham, originally appeared on her Writing Companion blog on 3/6/09.

Do you mark errors you find when you read books? If you do correct text, be sure that what you’ve done is . . . well, correct.

I occasionally correct errors in Wikipedia and books, such as dates and people’s names. Sometimes I correct typos, although I’m not really into joining the super-vigilant typo-police. I usually correct a typo only if it’s in a library book and may mislead other readers. For example, a Colleen McCullough novel had a scene set in a royal court. A whipping there was described as a ‘kindly act’ when the story’s context suggested that ‘kingly act’ was probably what was meant.

Recently I borrowed a library copy of a novel called The Writing Class, by US writer Jincy Willett. I enjoyed the book—it covers writing issues but is also a whodunit—but I was also interested to see that a previous reader had inserted three ‘corrections’.

What do you think about what the book’s Phantom Editor corrected?

Interestingly, Jincy responded, and I’ve now  incorporated her comments.

Akimbo: Correct–or not?

. . .[S]ince all they had to tell the police was that some unidentified joker had claimed that another unidentified man was dead, the police wouldn’t be inclined to race to the beach, blue lights and sirens akimbo.

The origins of akimbo were words meaning ’sharply bent’ and ‘crooked’, and anything akimbo should be able to be bent. It usually refers to human limbs: arms akimbo, legs akimbo.

Can blue lights be akimbo? Maybe, as a figurative description of flashes of blue light breaking over the scene. But a sound—the sirens—can’t be. So yes, I agree with Phantom Editor on this one.

JINCY: “Akimbo” was used in a deliberately off way. We’re in Amy’s p.o.v. throughout (that is, 3rd person, single p.o.v., with the exception of the Sniper material), and this is the sort of deliberate odd word choice that she would make (I hope); it was intended to be droll, because Amy is.

Between you and I: Correct or not?

Carla, a member of the writing class, tells Amy, her writing teacher: ‘Everybody understood that piece but me! Between you and I,’ she had whispered, ‘I was just winging it.’

Phantom Editor had a pencilled-in a correction about it: ‘between you and me’.

The correction makes the phrase grammatically correct. But for dialogue, editors should investigate further. Not every character uses grammatically correct speech. Maybe Carla is someone who always uses the phrase ‘between you and I’. Many people do. A good editor would check with the author and examine how characters talk throughout the book.

JINCY:  Carla uses the wrong pronoun case in dialogue, and again this was deliberate on my part, although I can’t remember why, except that I always notice when people do this.

Careen: Correct or not?

At first all she could make out was a small car entering the far end of the lot at an unsafe speed, at least for speech bumps, and sure enough it hit three of them, bottoming out each time . . . with an attendant rattle that sounded like a dislodged oil pan, and still it careened forward, coming straight for Amy.

Phantom Editor changed careened to careered. Which is right? This one is tricky: It depends on the culture the story is set in, the writer’s cultural background, and the editor’s decision to stick to old or changed rules of usage.

Read the rest of the post on the Writing Companion blog.