Between You and Me, Grammar Matters

If ever a genie wants to grant me three wishes, I am all set. First, I would wish to always stay at the perfect weight, no matter how much I ate. Next, I would wish for financial security, so that I could quit my day job and never have to take another one. And my third wish would be for Amazon and Smashwords to insist that every indie title be vetted by a competent proofreader before they will publish it.

I admit it: I’m picky. It’s probably because I internalized grammar and spelling rules early. Please don’t hurt me, but I was one of those annoying kids in school who always got good grades on her English papers. I was a spelling whiz, too. One of my college journalism professors gave his classes a test on commonly-misspelled words at the beginning each semester. I had two classes with him, so I had to take the test twice. When I aced the thing for the second time, he wrote on my paper, “People in radio don’t need to know how to spell!” I’m still not sure whether he was trying to recruit me for the student newspaper. (And if he was, then it’s clear that he never saw my grade in photography.)

Anyway, my point is that sometimes these days, reading is almost painful for me. Writers drop so many commas that someone needs to start a home for orphaned subordinate clauses. Writers also use bad grammar or the wrong words – many times without realizing what they’ve done.

Sometimes, the result is really sad. I happened to look at some of the posts on the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards discussion boards after the first round of cuts this year. Submissions in the first round are judged not on the book itself, but on the pitch – the advertising copy, if you will, that goes on the back cover of a paperback and in the “book description” of an e-book listing. It’s also sometimes called a blurb. In one of the discussion threads, some of those who didn’t win had posted their pitches for critiques. Should they cut the sentence at the top, they asked? Maybe move paragraphs around? But to me, it was clear what was wrong, and it wasn’t anything that moving the furniture would cure. One poster’s pitch had her main character quitting her job to “attend” to her ill husband; the verb she wanted was “tend.” Another pitch included a sentence whose syntax was so mangled that I couldn’t tell who was doing what with whom – nor, I suspect, could the ABNA judges.

What’s so sad is that these authors didn’t know they were doomed. An e-book is judged not only by its cover, but by its blurb. It’s been said here before, but I guess it needs to be said again: Your blurb must be perfect. It’s your potential readers’ first opportunity to see your writing. If what they see is that you can’t write a couple of paragraphs without a mistake, they will pass you by.

Indie authors already face an uphill battle for respect. Granted, the hill has recently begun to level out, but for goodness’ sake, don’t make things any harder on yourself. Don’t just rely on Word’s spell checker and grammar checker. Look stuff up if you’re not sure. I took a quick poll of my fellow minions and discovered that a number of us consult Grammar Girl when we’re confused.

Grammar Girl sponsors National Grammar Day, which happens to be this coming Monday, March fourth. How about if we all agree to observe the day by checking and double-checking everything we write for errors, and by recruiting competent proofreaders to back us up?

I can’t tell you how happy that would make me. I’d really rather spend my third wish on a hot guy.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

26 thoughts on “Between You and Me, Grammar Matters”

  1. I tend to not worry about the writers who fail to adequately proof their work. Their work is probably not going to sell; it’s irrelevant on the market.

    It doesn’t hurt me or other writers, if someone opts to publish a book that looks like it was written by a second grader. Readers won’t associate the work from my publishing company with the work some other indie put out; I work hard to produce work that is as good as anything the NYC houses produce, and I think that’s important to achieving success.

    The only person hurt by indie publishing poor work is the writer. I do feel badly for people who want to write, but were clearly never taught the fundamentals of the English language in school.

    1. I disagree, Kevin. The flood of poorly-written indie books reflect badly on indie authors as a whole. It’s what has allowed trad-pubbed authors, agents, and publishers to dismiss *all* of us as hacks. And if that’s the reputation that indie books earn among the vast unwashed book-buying public, then none of us will do well.

      Granted, some indies are making it big. But I’m still seeing too many comments from the uninformed who claim that all indie books are horrible.

      I expect we’ll continue to disagree, though, and that’s okay. 🙂

      1. I’m good with agreeing to disagree. 😉 But hear me out.

        Right now, across all genres of fiction, about 40-60% of the top hundred bestsellers by genre are indie. I’ve been tracking that for a year now. It’s not really moving around very much.

        What has changed in the last year is the ease of telling which books are indie and which are not. It’s a LOT harder to tell which books are indie, these days. Often, I have to do some serious digging on the internet to see if the name listed as the publisher of a book is a regular small press, one author’s small press, or a small press owned by a collective of writers who indie publish together under the same joint publisher name. Today, many books from major publishers are down in the “indie range” for pricing. Indie covers are often as good – sometimes better! than NYC publishers use.

        And that’s me, with a year of tracking these publishers. The average reader today really has no idea if a book was indie published unless you tell them it was – assuming you have a great cover, great blurb, and good editing, anyway.

        Bad books don’t get readers. They have a few people sample them, say no, and then the book sinks deep into the lists where no one finds it, anyway.

        1. *Al does a standing ovation for Lynne’s post*

          Is it okay if I agree with both Kevin and you, Lynne? Because really, I think you’re both partially (maybe mostly) right.

          This particular windmill is one I tilt at every chance I get. It’s also why I have a section to specifically mention formatting and (more commonly) proofing errors in my reviews. It is because that perception that “all indies” have issues with this is wrong. However, it is correct that a lot of them do. if I spot more than a specific number of clear issues in my reading I hit them hard for it in the review.

          But the worst written, non-proofread, and poorly edited books usually fail, as Kevin has said. The absolute worst indie book I’ve read I reviewed about a year ago and checked last night for another reason to see how it is faring. It’s ranked worse than 1.2 million and has my single 1 star review. Possibly I’m the only person to ever read it. Those that are bad, but not nearly this bad, seem to end up with the same happening.

          I think in many cases people buy the good indie books, often without realizing they’re indie, read them, and never consider it again. But when they get a bad one, they look more closely, realize it was an indie, and then paint everyone with the same brush. You can’t avoid the brush, but you can blend in well enough that people don’t bother to wonder if you’re an indie.

          Commas are my big issue, so I’ll avoid the discussion below. 🙂

          1. Excellent post, Lynne, and I agree with you whole heartedly. Kevin I agree with too, but not so much, and Big Al, I think, is around the money. I believe the comma debate is care of the current ‘business-speak’, ‘open punctuation business letter’ trend bleeding into everything. And the whole debate about the substandard editing of indies always omits any mention of the dreadful editing finishes of some of the highest selling, traditionally published books; for instance, ‘Total Recall’ by ‘guess who’. With so much money going into their publication and their returns being, sometimes, off the scale it is, without a doubt, totally inexcusable!

          2. I guess debate can only go so far here, lol — I can’t see a reply button on TD’s post, so I’ll address everybody here.

            Kevin, I grant that you are right — it *is* a lot harder these days to tell who’s an indie and who’s not. And Al, I think you’ve likely nailed the reason why: readers only check when they get their hands on a terrible book. Otherwise, generally, they’re just looking to get lost in a story, and they don’t particularly care who the “man behind the curtain” is.

            I’m less sure about the concept that trad-pubbed books are coming down to indie levels on price. I haven’t done an exhaustive survey, but new trad-pubbed books in my niche (urban fantasy) are still being released at $10+, and backlist books are still around $8.

            TD, I’ve never heard of this “open punctuation business letter” you speak of. But if it’s what I think it is, I’d like to strangle it before it gets too much bigger. 😉

          3. Oh, I agree completely that trad pub books are not “coming down to indie levels”. Sorry – never meant to imply that. But the books readers see – the top selling ones, generally – often include a bunch of trad pub ebooks on sale. Traditional publishers ARE often dropping prices on ebooks to 99 cents, or $2.99. The Amazon imprints even release books at the $2.99 price sometimes, as do many small presses.

            It’s just harder than ever to know for sure which books are indie and which are not. And if you’re writing good books, I don’t think most readers care. 😉

      2. That open punctuation, Lynne, they also refer to as business standard in Australia. I teach various business studies, Certificates I through IV, and open punctuation is a business standard (I refer to it as ‘B Standard’, but I mean below standard).

  2. I agree, Lynne, that consistently poor spelling and grammar can kill an otherwise good book.

    I also know that different countries have different rules, especially for commas, which is one of the reasons I still struggle with them. With my first book, in one editorial review I was told to eliminate a number of them. Later, after it was published another editor told me I ought to have more of them.

    For me, when I read a book I can forgive a few errors in spelling and grammar. That is all relative, of course, If the book has too many I know care has not been taken to have it edited and proofread. That tells me the author is sloppy and destroys my enjoyment of the book.

    1. I
      I’m building up to a rant on the more commas/fewer commas debate. I don’t think it’s that the rules have changed so much as usage has changed, in favor of dropping a lot of commas. I’m sure people think I overuse them, too, but I put ’em in where I want people to take a breath. 😉

      1. Yep. I throw one in wherever I sense a pause if it were to be read aloud. Then I let my editor tell me which ones she disagrees with. Mostly I agree with her.

      2. There are some pretty specific comma usage rules, but at least the Chicago Manual of Style is allowing for some leniency. For example, when the subordinate clause is very short.

  3. Lynne,

    First, I’m stealing those three wishes if the genie asks me first.

    Secondly, I’m completely onside with your grammar points. I’ve never understood why writers don’t want to use their most important tool (aka: words) in the best way possible.

    Thanks, Lynne!

  4. Bravo Lynne! I am one of those people who hates to see grammatical errors in other books and dies inside when I realise that I have made one myself (or a typo).
    I think that we need to maintain high standards and as writers should do our utmost to ensure our work is of an excellent quality.
    Great post.

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