OK, this is a bit of a rant. I’ve tried to figure out how to say this without potentially insulting some writers (although not by name) and I don’t really know how to avoid it, but this is something I feel the need to discuss.
I could go on an editor rant here—of course I think all writers should have editors because I am one. To justify my existence, I need to believe in my necessity. But I’m going to go on this rant primarily as a reader.
With Reads 4 Tweens, I’ve been reading a lot of different books, and a few of them have been published through less traditional means. Some of those are great—they’re competently written, interesting stories.
But nearly an equal number of them are not. And it’s disappointing—I picked up those books because they looked appealing; I started reading them really wanting to enjoy them. But the poor grammar, the typos, the clunky storytelling made reading difficult. Just last night I gave up on a book because the writing made me cringe.
Here’s the thing, though—the writing wasn’t bad, at least not irredeemably so. The book just wasn’t finished. It was someone’s first draft. Sure, it was probably proofread by a few helpful people, but it was obviously never seriously edited. What I was reading was a proofread first draft, not a final product. For example, each character was introduced with a paragraph that sounded like it came from an outline—she looks like this, her interests are this, her strengths are this—and each brought the plot to an uncomfortable halt. Combine that with a painful abuse of commas and some uninspired dialogue, and a couple chapters in I just gave up. And you should know that, as a reader, this isn’t something I do easily.
A few months ago I managed to limp through a self-published middle grade novel that I’d picked up because it looked perfect for my daughter and the few reviews were great. I now suspect that most of those reviews were written by friends, because the plot was OK, if predictable, but the usage errors were more than I could handle. Part of what was really frustrating is that the author is also an elementary school teacher. The way she underestimated children by publishing this sloppy work is disappointing. Children learn as much or more from the examples we set as they do from the lessons in the classroom, and I’d hope a teacher would realize that better than most people.
And that cuts to the core of what really bothers me about published writing that isn’t actually finished—it’s insulting to the reader. The author assumes we’re too stupid, too inattentive, too slack-jawed to care that the usage is sloppy and the storytelling is half-assed.
I know it’s easy to assume that things like usage errors don’t matter. That somehow your plot is strong enough to come through without you following the standard conventions of writing. Maybe some readers can see past those things. But a lot of us can’t, and we shouldn’t have to.
And if you don’t care enough about your work to properly finish it, if you don’t respect your writing or your reader enough to pay attention to the details, why should I care enough to read your book? This is making me gun-shy about self-published writing. I don’t want to spend even $0.99 or any of my valuable and all-too-rare reading time on a book that’s painful to read. Too many books, too little time. I can’t afford to waste that time on a book you didn’t care enough to finish writing properly.
I actually like the idea of self-publishing. I’ve read some wonderful self-published or very small press books that might never have seen the light of day through traditional means. I’ve also been working with Jocelyn Koehler who recently started her own publishing company called Hammer & Birch so she can write what she wants. I’ve read a good bit of her writing, and I can’t say enough good things. It’s obvious that she does extensive self-editing before I even see her work, and then she and I work together to make it even stronger.
I’m also looking forward to the books that Evil Hat Productions is publishing for the world of Spirit of the Century—I know first hand that they want to do things right, and I’ve proofread Dinocalypse Now by Chuck Wendig and I know it’s a fun and solid novel. (Do yourself a favor and check out the Kickstarter—only available for 6 more days! Tons of ebooks for only $10!) One of the main things those two examples of good small press editing have in common is that they work with professional editors, in addition to the self-editing I know both Jocelyn and Chuck do as authors.
Forgive me an editing tangent. This week I had an experience that drove home what a difference it makes to work with an experienced editor. A friend of mine asked me to look over a paper she wrote. This paper is a Big Deal ™ as she’ll be presenting it at an international conference this summer. Several of her colleagues read over her paper. One found some typos, others told her she’d done a great job—which she had, for a first draft.
However, together, she and I revamped much of the text and discovered a whole section that had accidentally been deleted. We changed wording, rearranged paragraphs, and strengthened examples. Her second draft was so much better—not because I changed it but because working on it with someone else helped her see changes that needed to be made. Her revisions went well past the things we’d discussed. This is what editors do—they don’t catch errors so much as help the author look at the writing with new eyes, to see things that the writer wants to and often intended to do differently.
There’s no reason that self-published or small press authors can’t do it right, and many do. If you’re going to self-publish your work, please have enough respect for both your work and your potential readers to publish writing that’s actually been finished. Which, yes, typically involves actual editing, which is quite different from simply proofreading and miles away from getting warm fuzzy feedback from your friends and family.
But that’s a rant for another day.