The Editor's Work

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In a recent piece of light reading, I stumbled, almost literally, across this sentence.

"A stink beetle marched purposely through the dust on some mysterious errand, becoming a little black dot as it went off and disappeared. "

Let us leave aside for the moment the question of whether any animal, let alone an insect, can be said said to have, in any meaningful way, purpose in what it is doing. Surely, if it cannot, the anthropomorphic sense of the human intellect can impose purpose on what is seen. It is a sentence like this, random, perhaps a little lazy, that disrupts what John Gardner was wont to call "the vivid and continuous dream." Indeed, upon stumbling over it, I came out of the description of the scene (so thoroughly that I had inordinate trouble relocating the sentence in the book) and thought for a while about "purposely." Is that even a word? If it is a word, should it be? What purpose does it have as a word that "purposefully" does not fulfill. Is it an adverbial appendage to indicate "on purpose," in which case, why? The fewer adverbs, the better in most prose, and this one strikes me as particularly pernicious, seeking to circumvent clearer and more careful articulations of the same idea. Adverbs reek of lazy writing. And in this case, after questioning "purposely" I had to wonder about a stink beetle marching. Had I not stumbled over "purposely," that stink beetle could have marched into the obscurity so richly deserved, as his only purpose was to give us an indication of passing time. But now, I wondered whether it was possible for a beetle to march, and if one could march what might that look like given six legs, and what might be the beat of such a march, "hut, two, three, four, five,six" or more waltz-like with a rhythm that doesn't seem to trial off to nowhere, "hut, two three, hut, two, three."

And so I was drawn out of the scene and into the world of bad grammar and its surreal possibilities.

It is the careful editor's work to assure that this does not happen to the reader. I don't care how popular, how influential, how best-selling the author, they can all use help from time to time to reshape the prose and make it meaningful and powerful. And in this case, all that was required was to use the proper adverbial form--"purposefully." By this simple alteration the beetle marches his way off the page and out of the reader's mind. Oh, perhaps the real pedant and stickler would question the marching, but for that person there is nothing to be done but to encourage him to retire to the well-padded chambers of the prose of Henry James where every article is fraught with meaning, every comma considered, withdrawn, reconsidered and inserted again. The dutiful editor need not trouble him- or herself with such a reader--they are self-selecting and would not choose a book of modern prose in any case.

I have now raked poor Preston and the momentary inattention of his much-overworked editor sufficiently to make the point. It takes only a small slip for the reader to be drawn out of the vivid and continuous dream, and if your story is not compelling, they may never be drawn back in again. I only hope that when my book goes to press I have the most vigorous, meticulous, and careful editor available. There is much to be said for the naive eye that sees what is written, not what is meant.

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Or perhaps you are a bit too persnickety regarding the use of the english language? Until you hauled me out of the "vivid and coninuous dream" I was happy enough reading about the little stink bug and its personal journey that posed a mystery to its author. I didn't care much for "as it went off and disappeared." I agree, that was weak and perhaps lazy, at least by my reading of the line, but then I only had this fragment of the text. The equation of "going off" with "disappearance" seemed too pat and used as a set phrase...but I would have granted the writer that much room.

Did the weak construction really warrant so much of your time, your wrath? I doubt it. It probably hasn't warranted mine either. -- I came her hunting for Henry James, instead I found one of those fussy pedantic copy editors who seems to prefer pulling apart another person's prose rather than putting their own together to a purpose (as the vernacular speech used to put it....) Best of luck finding that vivid dream again. It's a happy place than the critic's chair. Cheerio.

Dear Kathryn,

The written word conveys only so much of our intent. I'm sorry you saw wrath, where what was written was written more in amusement than anything else. The overblown and orotund rhetoric should have been one cue.

But perhaps I expect too much of my reader.



There's something wonderfully interesting about coming across an isolated example such as this.

"A stink beetle marched purposely through the dust on some mysterious errand, becoming a little black dot as it went off and disappeared. "

Actually, now that you mention it, it seems to me that a stink beetle is unlikely to become a little black dot and disappear. Perhaps his motion will eventually blend in with the blowing sand, or he will become but one more speck among the rocks and pebbles that strew the landscape, or perhaps the viewer's eye will be drawn suddenly to some other object more worthy of notice.

Hugo watch a stink beetle move, with seeming purpose, across the rock strewn floor of the tomb, until it vanished among the pebbles and detritus of the years.

Claire lay on the floor of the tent, watching as a stink beetle ambled slowly through the dust outside the open flaps and wondering what errand could give the small creature the movotivation to move about in this oppressive heat.

John lay still, and tried to listen. His own breathing sounded loud in his ears, and he could even hear the pattering footfalls of a stink beetle which moved slowly across his path.


Y'all are missing the point. What would bring me out of that "vivid and continuous dream" is any mention of stink beetles. Somebody pass the RAID. (Just a joke; beetles are people too. Well...) :-)

Dear Darwin,

Magnificent transformations--I really like the pattering footfalls.


That hadn't occurred to me. Living as I do with a 10 year old, stink beetles are the least of my worries. But you do have a point!

Thank you both, you really made my day this morning. I needed a good laugh and got one.




When I read that sentence (before reading the rest of your post, Steven), I thought of the intersection of two stories: the plot of whatever it was you were reading and the plot of the stink beetle's story. It was a "meta" thing for me, whether that's a good thing or not. I'd feel the same way even without the adverb, I think, because of the "mysterious errand." =)



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on August 12, 2008 7:37 AM.

Two Matter of More than Passing Literary Interest was the previous entry in this blog.

Foresight and Eternity--from Michael Novak is the next entry in this blog.

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