As another round of student papers (the final set for this year) gets ready to come at me, I’m gearing up for looking at more careless mistakes: seemingly random uses of their, there, and they’re; sloppy pronoun references; uses of “now and days” or “now in days” instead of nowadays. Then there are the students who seem to have a bucket full of commas beside their desks and who just seem to fling them at the page, letting them stay wherever they fall without careful (or any) consideration.
It’s to be expected, I suppose. They’re students, after all. They’re still learning (things they should have learned in elementary school, but that’s maybe beside the point for now). And I’m supposed to have taught them something–which, in most cases, I’m sure I have. I just haven’t been able to get through to most of them that they need to learn not only how to write correctly, how to tell the difference between correct and incorrect, but also how to build up good habits as writers. Many haven’t learned yet that they need to read what they’ve written more than one time before submitting it to a reader. Many don’t proofread at all.
For one reason or another, many haven’t made the connection that readers pass judgment on writers. In this case, it’s the professor assigning grades. But in the real world (I think there still may be one beyond academia, but I’m not always sure), readers pass judgment on writers all the time in the form of reviews, word of mouth, sales, or rejection–depending on who makes up that audience.
When we move beyond the realm of students and teachers and think about people who call themselves writers in some sort of professional sense, it becomes even more important that one consider audience awareness and develop some skill as an editor. I know a lot of indie authors hire editors, and that’s fine. But I still can’t help feeling that writers should be able to edit their work themselves. They should be able to craft each sentence and shape it the way they want it shaped just as much as they shape their plots and build their characters.
Okay, I know I’m biased as an English professor. Some very talented writers struggle as their own editors, and as long as those people have enough self-awareness to hire an editor, it’s okay. Unfortunately, with the indie movement, a lot of people who think they know what they’re doing are putting out books and novellas and short stories without properly editing. For a lot of readers, myself included, those careless mistakes are a turn-off. They send a message (unintentionally, I know) that the writer does not care enough about his or her readers to present the best material possible. If the editing is sloppy, I ask myself, what else will be sloppy? Do I want to invest time in this plot and with these characters only to find huge holes in the story later, or terrible inconsistencies that will take away my enjoyment of what I’m reading?
And while I wring my hands about these things and carefully consider the placement of every comma, every passive construction, every balancing of independent and dependent clauses, I know there are also people (both writers and readers) who just don’t care. Several years ago, when the whole indie and print-on-demand thing was just getting started, I picked up a zombie apocalypse book for my wife. While she enjoyed the story, she was appalled at the number of grammatical errors. How could something so flawed get into print, she asked. I took a look at the book and the publisher and realized it was a print-on-demand. That explained it, I thought. A good story, but the writer would never go anywhere.
When she was finished with the book, she gave it to me to sell on eBay. It sold for more than I’d paid. I checked Amazon and found it was now out of print. I felt vindicated. But my curiosity was piqued. Every now and then I checked eBay to see if the book was still selling there. Before long, copies were going for $80. It was the subject matter, I realized. The zombie crowd didn’t care about the mistakes. Even though several reviewers echoed my wife’s irritation, the demand for zombie gore outweighed the criticism.
Now that same book is in print from a major publisher, and there are several sequels. It has hundreds of positive reviews. I haven’t looked to see if anyone laments the grammar. I assume the major publisher had a team of editors take their electronic equivalents of red pens to the thing and clean it up.
So that’s the way of it. In the end, it’s all about storytelling. Some readers will, apparently, forgive just about anything if the yarn is spun well enough.
Maybe I should let my students write about zombies. I’ll still be cringing as I imagine that bucket full of commas, but at least I’ll be entertained.