The quality of editing in some self-published books is a perennial topic of discussion among those who read them, as is the question of whether it is reasonable to expect correctness or “professional” standards in a 99-cent novel. [Pause for obligatory disclaimer that not all self-published books are poorly edited and that there are some badly edited traditionally published ones too.] Earlier in the summer, Sunita told authors, “I Didn’t Sign Up to Be Your Beta Reader.” More recently, Jane’s Dear Author review of R. L. Mathewson’s Playing for Keeps and her comments on the editing issues provoked some complaint from Mathewson fans, as well as agreement from other readers. jmc chimed in with a couple of great posts arguing that all published writers need to invest (whether money or time) in editing.
It’s not surprising that there are a lot of poorly-edited self-published books that no one’s buying or reading. What intrigues me is that there are poorly-edited books that a lot of people are reading and enjoying, even though they may hesitate to recommend them to other readers, or do so only with a lot of caveats, because of the errors.
I find myself surprisingly conflicted about this issue, considering that I’ve been teaching introductory-level college writing courses for over twenty years. (The title of this post is borrowed from a foundational text on teaching basic writers by Mina Shaughnessy.) On the one hand, I don’t want to read poorly-edited books. On the other hand, the history of literature, and of literacy, is one of expansion: more and more people/groups learning to read, write and publish. Obviously, that expansion beyond a handful of aristocratic men is a good thing, allowing more stories to be told and more voices to be heard. I think the rise of digital self-publishing allows that too. Opening publication to new groups has always been accompanied by controversies over “quality” and attempts to push the gates closed again, so there’s nothing new there, either.
Still, when people like Phillis Wheatley or Stephen Duck published their poems, they strove to meet the standards of their day so that their abilities would be recognized. It’s stretching a point to compare today’s self-publishers to former slaves or threshers from the eighteenth century, but I think today’s writers should emulate that desire to produce good work if they want strangers to pay for it. I’ll read a good, well-written story however it’s published. I’m not willing to accept less, even at 99 cents.
Rather than sticking to generalizations, I decided to download a sample of Mathewson’s Playing For Keeps and see for myself. I thought a lot about whether to name the book. It isn’t my intention to call out a particular author; this is one example of a more wide-spread phenomenon. But since I’m going to quote from the book, I felt I should name it.
I highlighted a problem on almost every page I read. Only one of these errors was clearly a typo (“or” for “of”). The rest were formatting, grammar and usage errors:
- Paragraphs are indented about 1/3 of a line. This was really distracting for me and made short lines of dialogue harder to read.
- There is a fused sentence on the first page: “She was going to kill him this time there was no doubt about it.” That’s two sentences. I’d use a semi-colon.
- There are a lot of punctuation errors, mostly comma problems, as in this phrase: “a one level two bedroom ranch” house. (That’s “a one-level, two-bedroom ranch”).
- People are who, not that: “she was excited to have a new neighbor, one that wasn’t elderly.” (even a good writing advice site I was looking at used “that” for people in some of its examples, so maybe the rule is changing; it still drives me nuts.)
- There are some verb tense errors: “Over the last five years she bit her tongue” should be “over the last five years she had bitten her tongue.” Why? The narrative is past tense, so when in that narrative you’re referring to something further in the past, you’d use past perfect. (I looked up the tenses to make sure I was naming them correctly; you don’t have to know the exact rules to realize when something sounds funny).
- Longer descriptive passages tend to have trouble with grammatical parallelism or other syntax errors, and thus are awkward and a bit confusing: “She looked so damn cute standing there with her long bronze hair pulled back into a twisted pony tail, green eyes full of fire hidden behind large glasses making her look adorable, and of course her rather tight black tee shirt with the word ‘Nerd’ written across her very decent size chest made her look hot.” My students write sentences like this a lot and get things like “you’re trying to cram too much into one sentence here” written on their drafts as a result.
I think that’s enough to make the point that this isn’t “a handful of errors,” as some Amazon reviews describe it. They aren’t horrible errors, in the sense that I can understand what the author means just fine. But the frequency of errors is distracting. They are also–in my professional experience–the kinds of errors made by people who do not realize they are errors. Everyone makes mistakes when writing a draft, but generally people with a good grasp of grammar and usage rules do not make a lot of these kinds of errors. They make typos. That doesn’t mean that an author who writes like this is stupid or that there’s nothing good about her book. But if she wants to fix these problems, she’ll need help.
I won’t read a book with this many errors. No matter who publishes it. First, I spend a good bit of my working life both trying to help people avoid such errors and trying to read “past” the errors to see the good ideas in students’ papers. In my leisure time, I’m not willing to read past errors to find a good story. It feels like work. Second, I don’t see why I should pay for work by someone who has not mastered the basics of her craft–or found someone to help her with editing if she can’t. I don’t see someone who doesn’t care enough to get this stuff right as being truly serious about creating good stories, unfair as that may be.
I realize that not every reader shares these views. That’s fine. They can make different choices. I have some theories about why they might, but those are for another post.