One of my Christmas presents was a copy of Operation Fortitude: The Story Of The Spies And The Spy Operation That Saved D-Day by Joshua Levine.
Years ago I visited some of the D-Day beaches, and l’ve long been fascinated by the elaborate deceptions that helped the Allies keep their planned invasion under wraps. I dove into my new book right away, and I’m really enjoying it.
But I can testify that copyediting isn’t what it used to be, at least at Harper Collins. Of course the grammar and usage are impeccable. But no one seems to have checked the book for flow and readability. I’ve had to backtrack a number of times to unravel a story that unnecessarily confused me.
Here’s an example – a puzzling story about a German-born man who grew up in England and worked as a British spy:
Along with his brother, Eschborn been recruited as a German agent thee years before, but he now assured Robertson that he had only agreed to work for the Abwehr for fear of what the Germans would do to another brother in Germany. Terrified by his predicament, Eschborn told his interrogator that he was entirely British in his sympathies. He had lived in Britain nearly all his life, he said, and would do anything that M15 asked. Robertson chose to trust him and, codenaming him Charlie, recruited him as MI5’s third double agent, after Owens and Williams. Robertson found Eschborn’s brother and fellow German agent less trustworthy, however, and he was interned.
It would have been a huge help if the paragraph had explicitly said that there were three brothers, two in Britain and one in Germany.
Here’s the problem: the paragraph talks about “his brother,” “another brother,” and “Eschborn’s brother” – always singular. I kept picturing one brother, and I ended up assuming the brother who spied for Britain was the same as the brother living in Germany.
If you’re thinking that I might have been reading too fast, you’re right. It was Christmas, and I probably wasn’t reading with total concentration. But writers need to remember that reading often happens in less-than-perfect settings. The person reading your story might be tired. Or the TV is on in the background. Or the kids in the next room are arguing.
Good writers help their readers along. That doesn’t mean have to dumb down your story or over-explain your ideas. Just remember to throw a little help your readers’ way. Sometimes a simple word (like three!) can make all the difference.