Monday, June 20, 2011

Nerd Alert--Grammar and Editing in Indie Books

The opinions expressed herein are the opinions of one grammar nerd, so please take them for what they're worth.

Hope everyone had a great weekend. I have something I'd like to get off my chest. There's a trend I've been noticing in writing lately that I want to share. A recent, very pleasant interaction with an indie editor prompted this article. I won't name names, because I'm sure they are very good at their job and their website is awesome, so even if I wanted to besmirch them--which I don't--I'd look like an idiot because they're very professional and have a kick-ass website.

What I want to discuss briefly is this: editing and grammar in indie books. Yes, you probably just clicked the back button on your browser. If you didn't, chances are you're a grammar junkie like I am, so I'm glad to have you. And if not...I hope I can convert you! Here's where I stand on this issue: just because a book is self-published or is published by an independent publisher, that does not mean that the text should read like a giant glorified email.

What I mean by this is that your writing should not be filled with "cool-sounding" sentence fragments (a few are OK; lots of well-respected authors use them VERY sparingly so their sentences don't become ossified and repetitive). Too many weird sentence contructions undercut the reader's ability to suspend their disbelief and get lost in your book. You can make as many arguments as you want about how readers care less about grammar and more about plotting these days, especially those with ebook readers, but I have to strongly disagree with you. Readers want smooth-flowing sentences. And it's not about different styles being en vogue at any given time. Sorry, that's just not so.

A few years ago, I was a beta reader for a friend of mine who runs his own independent publishing house. His books were very indie (what I mean by this is they didn't fit into any obvious genre, they were very cutting-edge and different in my opinion), and yet still, he asked us beta readers to read over the manuscripts of his books with magnifying glasses in hopes of catching any little error--sentence fragments, dangling modifiers, plural possessives missing apostrophes--anything at all that even remotely smelled of being incorrect. Why is this? Upon reflection, I think that, even though the content of his book was weird and surreal, he didn't want silly little departures from accepted grammar conventions to distract the reader.

To me, this is one of the biggest hurdles indie authors have to overcome. They (I still don't count myself as an indie author because I haven't decided if I'm going to self-publish, so I'll say they) are already perceived (wrongly!) as being writers who weren't good enough to be noticed by a mainstream publisher. The only way indies are going to overcome this unfair stereotype is by making sure their grammar and sentence structure (i.e. making sure tense is consistent, making sure that if you're talking about two people you say "they" instead of "him", etc.) are perfect.

And I'm not saying you have to adhere to any particular style guide. But we've all read enough by now to realize what a decent sentence looks like and what an incomplete one looks like. Hint: a well-written sentence should have, at minimum, a subject and a verb. I see waaaaaay too many sentences these days with just a verb and no subject. When I taught English, this was one of the top mistakes people consistently made in their writing.


Bad sentence: "Running, skipping, and jumping all the way home."

Why is it badly written? Um, who is doing the running, skipping, and jumping? The invisible man? There is no subject in this sentence. In other words, there is no person who is running/skipping/jumping.

Good sentence: "Terry ran, skipped, and jumped all the way home."

We have a subject (Terry) who is doing the actions (ran, et al.). As an added bonus, we didn't even have to use the "to be" verb here ("was"), which is a great way to keep a sentence active. Stay away from "to be" verbs whenever possible because they make everything passive.

Anyway! I'm just one of many people who are trying to hold the line on quality in indie writing because it matters a lot to the new gatekeepers of the literary world--the readers!

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