Where are the editors, or Why all the damn similes?

Note: I do not use red pen on student papers as I have found red ink makes them feel they did worse than they actually did. Like employees given pink slips, students are immediately on the defensive.

Pop Culture Nerd and I had a brief exchange on Twitter last night wherein we discussed our picky astute observations regarding grammar-ly matters. (Yes, I totally made up “grammar-ly” so as not to sound incredibly high-handed). I was bemoaning the overuse of similes, she, adverbs, i.e. he demanded forcefully. You see, when you read as much as I do (and as much as most book bloggers do), certain trends begin to stand out. PCN has a great post up about the tics that bug her the most.

Today, I want to go into a full-fledged rant on the simile. Similes are great. “A comparison using ‘like’ or ‘as.'” Excellent. Fourth graders often employ similes in poetry. Adults, however, tend to have a greater grasp of the English language and should not need to rely as heavily on them for description. Notice, I use the word should in that last sentence. Unfortunately, everything I read lately seems to have an overabundance of the darn things. The one that stands out the most: They folded into the booth “like two spoons in cake batter.” Ugh. I get it; they were tired or comfortable or whatever. I really didn’t need the foodie image. Really. Now I’ll tell you, this came from Adriana Trigiani’s book Rococco, but I’m not picking on her alone. This afternoon, while teaching a class, we were discussing paragraph organization, and here’s a quote directly from the textbook: “… the line of thought in paragraph B swerves about like a car without a steering wheel.” I honestly had to pause to let that one take effect. Like moths to a flame, writers seem to be drawn to similes, and if even the textbook uses these (in my opinion) ridiculous analogies, who am I to complain?

My academic background is in English and technical writing and editing, so these choices get my back up. Once or twice, I guess they’re ok. Any more than that, and the writing is lazy. The opening to Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits is one of my favorite, so let’s look at it in all of its simile-free glory:

Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy …. Barrabas arrived on a Holy Thursday. He was in a despicable cage, caked with his own excrement and urine, and had the lost look of a hapless, utterly defenseless prisoner; but the regal carriage of his head and the size of his frame bespoke the legendary giant he would become.

How different would that phrase ring if we changed it:

Barrabas came to us be sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy like filigreed gold …. Barrabas arrived on a Holy Thursday. He was in a despicable cage, caked with his own excrement and urine, and had the lost look of a hapless, utterly defenseless prisoner like the image of Jesus walking to Golgotha. Like a king, the regal carriage of his head and the size of his frame bespoke the legendary giant he would become.

Like a fly in the ointment, Allende’s lovely passage is, well, less lovely. The imagery and the symbolism in the real excerpt are certainly there (interpret as you wish), but if you make it explicit, the words lose their impact. No more interpretation. Less beauty.

So why are authors still doing it? In PCN’s post comments, many blame the writer, and yes, the writer should be held accountable. However, as an editor (in name only, not career), I cringe to think that a professional editor lets manuscripts slide from her desk with these sorts of stylistic choices. The job of an editor is to take what the author created and make it better – grammatically and stylistically. One of my categories on this blog is “where are the editors,” and I’ve started using the tag whenever appropriate. I mean, I get it: Writers tend to use similar words and word phrases and may not always pick up on them. Editors should.

Stay tuned for more “Where are the editors?” posts…


22 responses to “Where are the editors, or Why all the damn similes?

  • Natalie @ Coffee and a Book Chick

    I could not agree with you more and I think the passage selected is a perfect example. The same question has cropped up as I’ve read certain novels, and the one that comes to mind recently is The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova, which we’ve discussed following your review in May. Sadly, the editor wasn’t there to help back up Ms. Kostova at all. I sometimes wonder where the editor for Kate Mosse was in Labyrinth as well.

  • Natalie @ Coffee and a Book Chick

    I’ve yet to listen to an audiobook that I really could get into, unfortunately. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that I come across a good one.

    I think it may have have just been me when it came to Labyrinth. I still question why I didn’t like it. It had all of the elements that I enjoy — flashbacks to a previous time, archaeological hunts and discovery, a strong female lead…but it left me truly indifferent. Essentialy, it lacked the “thriller” side to it and I wasn’t motivated to crack it open.

  • Natalie @ Coffee and a Book Chick

    So many have raved about audiobooks that I’m just going to have to try it again! I fly a lot for work and am so used to carrying a book with me, but maybe I need to try an audiobook. I don’t want to be left out! 🙂

  • Natalie @ Coffee and a Book Chick

    I can’t imagine trying to absorb a story through audiobook and cleaning at the same time, but that’s simply because I’m a clumsy fool trying to make sure I don’t tangle myself up in the vacuum cord! I’ll try an audiobook again soon, although it’s hard to work up the gumption to buy one when I just love the feel of a book in my hands and turning the pages.

    • pickygirlfoodfilmfiction

      Oh, I totally wouldn’t buy. They are crazy expensive. I used to date a guy who lived five hours away. This was back when Hasting’s was open. You could buy and exchange, which was perfect for the long drive.

      I’ve been checking them out from the library. No commitment. If it sucks, I bring it back. Have I mentioned how much I love the library?

  • Natalie @ Coffee and a Book Chick

    No, I didn’t know how much you love the library! 🙂 Kidding. I love the library as well, but I tend to not find what I want and on some days, I have no patience. Which is a virtue I need to exercise more, so perhaps I shall try my hand again!

  • Travis

    Hey PG – It was all I could do making it through ENG 101, so I bow to your expertise in the field. However I almost understood one sentence from this post.

    The job of an editor is to take what the author created and make it better – grammatically and stylistically.

    Really? Maybe. Entirely? Not so sure. I would think a portion of an editor’s job is to help sell the product. Some may get more of a corporate nudge than others of course. When catering to the masses (sales) it’s usually a good idea to KISS. Don’t get me wrong, you are right. Interpretation is where it’s at……it’s just likely to move fewer books. What if you could buy the same book with different levels of reader expertise? You know, like driving a corvette in second gear. Ok, that’s just bad.

    • pickygirlfoodfilmfiction

      See – that’s where you’re a little off. The editor’s job IS to make it better. It’s the publisher’s job to market it and give it a “nudge.” They have distinct functions for that very reason. Now, of course, I’m not naive enough to discount what you’re saying in terms of making the book marketable in a stylistic sense, too. But come on – lazy is lazy however you paint it.

      And actually – you can do that. I taught ESL in the first session of summer classes, and they actually have classic books at different reading levels. I actually thought that would be a pretty cool job to have. I struggled finding reading materials before I realized they do that. Adults – intelligent, articulate adults who are simply learning English would not be too interested in reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or something similar. They want the same stuff you and I want to read. They just want to be able to understand it. And yeah, good try with the corvette example. 🙂

    • pickygirlfoodfilmfiction

      Oh – and thanks for stopping by!

  • Pop Culture Nerd

    Oh, love this. Great example with the Allende excerpt. Thanks for linking to my post.

    I think editors are partly responsible; my response to one of my commenters says pretty much the same thing as your last two sentences.

    I’ve freelanced as an editor and my job has never been to sell. I agonize over every edit I make, focusing only on how to make the book better.

    • pickygirlfoodfilmfiction

      You’re most welcome. Thanks for spawning this one! 😉

      Oh definitely, I think they are responsible. They are the line of defense, so when that defense fails, I get irritated.

      I’ve always wanted to work as an editor. Maybe one day I’ll make the plunge and move somewhere more conducive to that.

  • S/Z

    So, all of this just begs the question: What is a simile like?

  • Eva

    -ly adverbs drive me crazy…I swear the world would be a better place if 95% of them were removed. Love your example! I’d say an over-dependence on similes is one of the main reasons I’ll abandon a book: it’s like nails on a chalkboard! (heehee)

  • Jo

    Too many times authors use simile because they are too lazy to push themselves to what would probably be a better description, explanation, etc., without the simile. That’s another great thing about metaphors: they can be so much more sublte (and my students wonder why metaphors are called implied comparisons)!

    I had to laugh at your example from your textbook because I can’t imagine a simile like that helping a non-native speaker out in terms of understanding paragraph organization…

    • pickygirlfoodfilmfiction

      Well, it’s developmental writing, not ESL, but still… the textbook I am working with is awful. Instead of using the correct words for parts of speech, it improvises. Adverbial conjunctions are “transitional words.” Subordinating conjunctions are “dependent words.” I’ll be the first to tell you I’d rather them write correctly than know the names, but come on! What happens when they go to a class and the teacher discusses those terms? They would be so confused. Teaching English (though I love it) is incredibly frustrating for that alone. There is so much discrepancy.

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