Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Don't be sloppy with the tool of language

The barriers to publishing novels electronically are being smashed. As a result the number of self-published books available is going up all the time. This is a table from the Smashwords blog showing the increase in the number of titles they host (the graph shape is similar for other platforms e.g. Amazon's Kindle).


It can be difficult to stand out as part of that sheer avalanche of digital words. The other day I had a comforting thought, which I'll get to in a minute.



Recently I have been reading lots of free e-books. I had optimistically stocked up on them prior to a holiday, and (typically) only got through a fraction of the reading I took with me. Since then I have been working hard to read them all, and clear my smartphone's memory for new ones.

The thing I've found, consistently, is that although the blurb for the novel sounded good, with an interesting premise and tempting hook, the quality of the writing in the ones I selected is poor. To put it plainly, the authors in some cases just don't understand how to write properly. This is something that always irritates me. Even in work I see misuse of apostrophes, grammar, punctuation, mixing up sex and gender, capitalising unnecessarily, mis-spellings. In these novels and short story collections these basic things are in an even worse state, to the detriment of the story. For example, I'm currently reading a book where it's ('it is') appears every time for the pronoun its; and vice versa. Every time! Did no-one at all proof-read this? I find myself mentally tutting at each occurrence, and suddenly the suspense is lost. One-off typos are to be expected; but continuous sloppiness about the basics of punctuation and grammar is just careless.

We need to trust an author. Trust that they are professional, understand their craft, and can take us on a journey. The trust is weakened by bad writing. And it is such a shame! The author has spent time creating a story. They obviously love it, this fictional world they've created. It deserves TLC. It doesn't matter if the book is free - it should still be cared for if the author wants it to be read. And if they are going to write further books, and hope that the free title leads readers to purchase the newer works... Well, it won't happen if the free work looks uncared-for.

The good news, the comforting thought I referred to earlier, is a win-win scenario. If the general standard of writing improves and everyone upped their game, then great! Every book we read can be indulged for the story without distractions.

If, as is perhaps more likely, the standard of writing for many people continues to degrade, the silver lining there is that the books that are correctly punctuated and spelt, with correct grammar, will stand out as being professional. The book will take the hand of the reader and say, "Trust me: I know what I'm doing." Obviously the books still require a good story, conflict and so on, but they already have a head start and stand out. It is like a pile of job applications where most are messy, coffee stained, badly spelt, with inconsistent formatting. In that pile the clear and cleanly neat one will stand out and get a second look. As long as the qualifications are up to scratch it will be seen more favourably.

So when writing, don't be sloppy! We all make mistakes but we should correct them in the re-read, or get other people to help. We shouldn't make the same mistakes on every page. Writing is a craft, and it's vital to know how to use the tools.

I enjoy reading Query Shark; in a recent post I came across these relevant comments:
"Typos are one thing; mistaking words that sound alike means you're not paying attention, or you don't know. Neither are good things in a writer."
"Misused words are an automatic rejection. I can and do overlook sloppy proofing and mistakes and typos but not this. Words are your tools. If you don't use them correctly, it's like a mechanic doing an oil change with a garden hose."
And from the comments for that post: 
"if you don't polish your language use to as near perfect as you can get it, your query will give the impression that you don't care all that much... which I'm sure isn't true."
When serving a meal the flavour counts. However, if you serve it looking a mess then it puts people off before they get to the flavour. It is worth investing in, or borrowing from a library, books such as Eats shoots and leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, or My Grammar and I (Or Should That Be 'Me'?): Old-School Ways to Sharpen Your English. Please recommend any other good books or sites in the comments below!
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