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The mark of an absent editor

The Baltimore Sun

Patricia Cornwell is generous with acknowledgments in her novels to the assistance people have given her in medical and technical matters. In Port Mortuary she also expresses gratitude to those who advised on military matters. There is, however, no gesture of thanks to an editor, and I think I know why.

She draws out at painful length the setup for the action, focusing with excruciating repetition on the turmoil within her central character, Kay Scarpetta. The denouement, when it finally arrives, is dispatched almost mechanically. Evidently, no one was around to suggest to the author that Port Mortuary would be a stronger novel if it were cut by a quarter or a third. Or more.

Yes, yes, I know, we need to see the inner workings of the character, the psychology. Dr. Johnson said that a man who read Richardson for the plot would hang himself; you have to read for the sentiment. Well, my mind turned to rope more than once as I essayed Clarissa, and the same impulse recurred during Port Mortuary. You might need to tell me something twice, or even three times, but ten is excessive.

I thought less of Richardson while reading Cornwell than of J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows similarly takes up, what, half the book with Harry wandering in the wilderness awash in adolescent angst until we finally get to the Battle of Hogwarts, the part everyone was waiting for. Be grateful that Ms. Rowling did not take on an account of the Hebrew people's forty years in the wilderness; the Book of Exodus would be too heavy to lift unassisted. 

I very much enjoyed the earlier novels of Ms. Cornwell and Ms. Rowling. But I suppose that once one is a big-time best-selling author with readers who will snap up anything with one's name on the cover, there is no thought of consulting an editor. One is beyond all that. I've known reporters who, on a smaller scale, harbored that ambition to be beyond the reach of the editor's hand.

This is the point that people who dismiss editing as fiddling with commas fail to grasp: A competent editor is someone who can look at the whole article, the whole manuscript, and tell you where you have gone off the rails. Who can take on the reader's perspective and tell you, tactfully but frankly, what works and what doesn't work. Who can tell you, gently but firmly, that you have spinach lodged in your teeth.


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