Your editor and your anachronisms

Fiction writers: how can you tell when you’ve found a high-quality editor?

There are a lot of different answers to that question which will combine to give you a good picture. You might like an editor who’s really good at cleaning up your ambiguous commas around dependent clauses and within dialogue. Maybe you need someone who catches missed (or extra) words that you can’t see on your own, because you’re too familiar with the text. Perhaps you need an editor who’s very sharp when it comes to tracking the personalities of your characters, to keep them distinct. Of course, there’s the always important issue of personal chemistry.

But one of the many things you might want to be alert to is how well an editor catches anachronisms. For example, do you have a character using a cellphone in 1989? That’s not an impossibility, but it’s unlikely: cell phones were bulky, expensive, few people had them, and the networks were barely functional outside most major cities. Or, do you have your plugged-into-pop culture heroine listening to Madonna’s Holiday in 1987? By then, that song was so yesterday.

I was thinking of this recently while doing some reading related to psychology. Autism, in particular, was being discussed at length. While the word autism was occasionally used in psychology at least as far back as 1912, it was used in a different context. It didn’t have the definition we’re familiar with, or a reasonably agreed upon diagnosis, until papers published by Leo Kanner in 1943 and Hans Asperger in 1944.

The Asperger syndrome (or Asperger’s syndrome) variant of autism was not labelled with the phrase before 1971, and that label was not used commonly even among psychologists before the early 1980s.

While it’s possible you’d catch one or even both of these, especially if you have some background in psychology or neurology, you might easily make a mistake with a much more ‘old-timey’ sounding label: idiot savant. It sounds like the kind of phrase that’s been around for centuries, doesn’t it — the sort of thing that might have been current in Colonial America or Georgian England. In fact, it dates only to 1887 and is credited to John Langdon Down (the man who gave us Down Syndrome a couple decades earlier). OED has a citation from 1870, but it seems that the term probably wasn’t in the popular lexicon much before the 1920s (and possibly much later).

So if you’re writing a novel set in the 1930s, for example, it would be unwise to refer to a character as autistic. For that matter, since the term was primarily known only to specialists prior to the 1970s, you’d need to be careful even if the story were set several decades later. Anything else would be anachronistic. You certainly wouldn’t want to use Asperger’s terminology in the ’30s, especially considering that the man who loaned his name to the diagnosis hadn’t yet published the work that would eventually earn that result. Your medieval epic certainly shouldn’t reference idiot savants.

I’ve been showing the idea of anachronisms using specific examples, but it translates to a general idea, which is that one of the things you should expect in a really good editor is their breadth of knowledge — or at the very least, their eagerness, willingness, and ability to delve deeply into the specific details of the setting and time you’ve chosen. A good editor will already have a large personal knowledge base. But, more importantly, they’ll have access to references and research material that let them very quickly check mounds of facts, in context, and keep you – or your writing, depending on how you want to look at it – honest.

In my post about cows and kine, I cited a story in which a word that was probably already long obsolete was used.  Anachronisms: yes, they can be a problem, whether you’re talking about autism, idiot savants, or herd animals.

I’d already drafted this post about a week ago when I heard the tail end of this segment on NPR (specifically the “when push comes to shove” portion). It shows a lot of things, including (but certainly not limited to) the fact that it’s easy to make this kind of mistake, and that people will notice when you get it wrong. Here’s more detail from linguist Ben Zimmer.

(Disclosure: While sometimes it feels like I’m a continuous PBS viewer, I haven’t watched Downton Abbey and have no plans to. Watching the promos convinces me that it’s ‘costume drama cliche density’ is far higher than I can stomach. I’d quite literally rather watch paint dry.)

While the problem of anachronisms might not be something that has crossed your mind before, perhaps it should be. Is this kind of correctness that matters to you? More importantly, does it matter to your readers? If the answer to both questions is “no,” then you won’t need to worry. But if the answer is “yes,” or even “I’m not sure,” then you should use an editor who will try to ferret these things out. No one is knowledgeable enough to ever catch every issue, but you’ll find that (shameless plug ahead) the better editors will catch most of them.


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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