Don’t let bad writing mechanics diminish good storytelling.

I keep telling myself, I shouldn’t care… I shouldn’t care… It’s none of my business, and NO ONE else would even notice…

Nope, not working.

This novel I’ve started reading is really good in terms of story and the art aspects of how the words are strung together. There’s nothing wrong with the book that a thorough round of editing — proofreading, actually — couldn’t fix. That’s the thing, though: it still really needs a thorough round of basic proofreading.

Every writer makes an occasional typo, and every editor occasionally misses an error in the manuscript. (Full disclosure here: A couple of mistakes slipped past me when I edited In Siege of Daylight. They still haunt me… However, since the “industry standard” allows for up to one mistake per page, a couple of them in a 244K-word epic tome of epic-ness is nothing to be ashamed of. Nevertheless, this is me admitting I miss stuff, too, in case you missed the last time I said so.) I’m not going to complain about a novel because there was a misplaced hyphen once. (Note to self: look it up sometime to see if that misplaced hyphen really is on page 47, or if I just chose that number for other reasons.) On the other hand, if I see missing commas, and added commas where none ought to be, and missing hyphens all over the place, and improper capitalization, and wonky homophones (the expression is make do, not make due, and realizations dawn on a person, not don), there’s a problem.

(The editor’s name is listed in the front of the book, by the way. I’ve seen that a lot in indie novels. I wonder if it’s from the author’s desire to prove that, yes, their book was professionally edited. Alas, when the editing isn’t nearly good enough, saying, ‘Hey, look — my book isn’t like all those other indie books, because mine was professionally edited…’ Well, it tends to backfire.)

As I said, the story is good; I’ve been finding the plot and the characters quite interesting. In most respects, the writing is good, going beyond the merely utilitarian, tell-the-story-and-get-on-with-it, to something I can enjoy for how the story is told. I have my doubts about some of the science-ish stuff, but I’m reserving judgement on that. (Why’d they have to go all the way to other galaxies to colonize planets? On the other hand, when the narration says galaxy, it actually means galaxy. That’s a nice change of pace from bad-science SF in which other stellar systems are called galaxies.) I got this book through KU, and I intend to read the whole thing despite the, um, technical difficulties. Hopefully the money the author receives will take some of the sting out of what I may have to say in any Amazon review I write. (Surely This is a really good story, but the editor dropped the ball, big-time, and he/she needs to go back and clean up the punctuation and grammar and such so the author can release a new-and-improved edition is better to see in a review than This book SUCKS: there are comma glitches all over the place, words are capitalized that shouldn’t be, and the author doesn’t know to hyphenate ‘thirteen-year-old.’)

[Hundred-word sarcastic tirade deleted…]

If I often seem “too harsh” toward others in my profession, it’s because I know how easy it is to fix the mere mechanics of writing, as opposed to things like plot consistency and pacing and characterization and how much info-dump is acceptable/necessary. They actually teach comma usage to teenagers, who are assumed to be capable of learning this skill. (At least they did back in my day. I remember reading several years ago that some schools somewhere had officially stopped trying to teach grammar and punctuation to students, because ‘the kids aren’t learning this stuff anyway.’ *rolls eyes* And while I’m typing this aside anyway, I’d like to point out that at least is TWO words; there’s no such thing as atleast. Seriously. You don’t want an error like that in your back-cover blurb!) Comma usage has rather clear-cut rules. There’s a lot of opinion about how to plot a novel, and several formulas, if you like that sort of thing, but there are no rules –it’s all a matter of personal preference and hoping one’s own preference is in synch with what the majority of one’s readers want. Having rules for punctuation and grammar means, however, there’s no excuse for someone who edits/proofreads professionally not knowing the basics of comma usage, or why thirteen-year-old is hyphenated but thirteen years old is not.

Dunning-Kruger effect… Explains much, y’know? *shakes head* In this kind of situation, it means Those who lack competence in the mechanics of writing don’t know enough to know that they don’t know enough. Nor is the author who doesn’t know enough about the mechanics of writing able to tell whether the editor he/she hired is competent to do the job. This is why authors — indie authors, anyway, who are responsible for hiring their own editors/proofreaders — cannot rely entirely on editors to correct any errors in the manuscript. What if the person you trusted to do that turns out to be frakkin’ clueless? Ideally, the editor should just be a reliable — and thorough — second pair of eyes to find thing the author overlooked due to being too familiar with the manuscript after, y’know, writing it. (Don’t rely on spell checkers, either; WordPress’ built-in spell check still doesn’t recognize comma as a real word. I’m not joking. Doesn’t recognize WordPress, either.)

Also, even the best editor in the world cannot, as the saying goes, polish a turd well enough to make it into a diamond. If the editor cannot even find the plot and characters under all the inept mechanics, she/he cannot help the author clean up any weak plot points or characterization inconsistencies. I know you don’t want to hear this during November, but if you’re up to your round human ears in NaNoWriMo right now, hopefully you take writing seriously enough that you intend to, y’know, fix a few issues with your manuscript yourself before sending it to your beta readers and/or editor of choice. Not editing during your month of frantic novel-making means you’ve got to edit afterward. Do your betas a favor and don’t send them anything until January, at the soonest…

Anyway. For those of you doing NaNo, I wish you success in reaching whatever your writing goals are for the month. For those of you not doing NaNo, I also wish you success in reaching any writing goals you may have for this month. (My own writing project right now is getting GGOMGG finished — that’s The Grumpy, Grouchy Old Man’s Guide to Grammar, in case you’ve forgotten.) If your inclination is to say, ‘Screw this marathon and it’s not-so-subtle use of peer pressure to make me to write every single day — I’m gonna write without stressing about word counts!’ well, good for you. (Speaking for myself, a combination of “peer pressure” — you should be proud of me for NOT snarking about that term, because I really could — and close, inflexible deadlines would make the creative parts of my brain, and indeed even the simply thinking parts of my brain, shut down. I know this from decades of experience. NaNo is not for the likes of me.) Don’t forget to give your brain fun/interesting stuff — relaxing fun/interesting stuff — to feed it and keep it in top working order. Since you’re working with words and plots and such during NaNo, I recommend something that isn’t about words: photos of places that look like your story’s setting, for example. Try Pinterest — they have lots of boards full of landscapes and architecture, and lots of boards with imaginary locations, too. Just don’t overdo that, because then you’ll have images of Tuscany flashing before your mind’s eye every time you blink. Or is that just me…?

About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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3 Responses to Don’t let bad writing mechanics diminish good storytelling.

  1. thebookgator says:

    Should I ever write a book, you would be the editor I would approach first, as I rarely remember how to deal with any-year-old and often scatter commas indiscriminately. Your curmudgeonly rant is entertaining.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I wonder if some of those editors listed at the front of books are fictional.

    I usually overlook a few errors, but if there were one on every page, I might find it too distracting. I get extremely frustrated when the grammar is so bad I can’t determine which character is performing an action.

    Don’t get me started about public schools. I spent a year teaching in them. Whether it’s official or not, they’ve stopped teaching English, math, science, and history. They would be thrilled if they could teach the kids “stay at your desk and don’t scream curse words.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fictional editors for fictional authors? 🙂

      During my own year of teaching, I had a student who’d sometimes drop his pants in class, and one who would lay on the floor and flop like a fish, and one I couldn’t even speak to, because he’d become violent if anyone so much as said “good morning” to him. And since I was teaching art, I wasn’t supposed to have an opinion about whether the students should learn grammar and algebra and science — I wasn’t supposed to know such things myself, either.


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