Errors and Expectations

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.

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28 Responses to Errors and Expectations

  1. willaful says:

    I truly don’t get it. Good storytellers surely aren’t that hard to find…

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I don’t think so. But I do think a quest to find something fresh is one reason people read these books (a lot of them are not the fresh I’m looking for. If I found one that pushed good buttons for me as well as bad, I might feel differently).

  2. Cecilia says:

    “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.”

    Right there with you in Unfair Territory. As a reader, I don’t trust writers who don’t know those basics, because I assume they don’t read much. Not necessarily a fair assumption, and for that matter I’m not sure it’s fair for me to insist that a good writer needs to read a lot, but there it is.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I do think a writer needs to read. Not reading can be one cause of these problems (and leads to the kinds of howlers teachers pass around, like “escape goat” and “low self of steam”). But there are also people who are not visual learners, for instance, and who won’t necessarily pick these things up from seeing them.

      My understanding of why people make these kinds of errors has changed a lot since I began teaching at an open-access college. Some have not been well taught or asked to write much in school. Some did not have a reason to care about learning. And I get some really smart students with learning disabilities that cause problems with writing. My son has a written-output disorder. He is super-verbal and his writing is witty and stylish. But he can’t spell well and has a lot of trouble with stuff like capitalizing initial words and punctuation. He has to work extra hard at fixing that stuff (he can see it when he edits).

      Still, if you are asking me to pay, I expect professionalism.

      • Okay, I’m going to make an effort to kick the assumption that writing mechanics and reading go hand in hand. (My daughter is a voracious reader and can’t remember “i before e” to save her own life, so I really should’ve let this one go awhile ago.)

  3. mezzak says:

    As someone who is the Queen of run on sentences and stream of consciousness paragraphs I probably shouldn’t comment. Except to say yes; I am taken out of story by poor grammar, typos, etc. yet I will persevere with a read – if the plot and characters pulls me in. There has to be something in a story to make me choose to read on and the author has taken me out of the story enough that I have to think about it which puts my experience of the book at risk and leaves me thinking twice about investing in her future works.

    I won’t recommend these sort of book to friends though. I can recommend lots of WTF books when it comes to plot and characters because there is always something to take away from the story even if it is only rubber-necking a train wreck. That isn’t so when it comes to these sort of problems, so these authors are affected not only by a single reader response but the lost opportunity for their work to be supported by word of mouth. They also become known (not in a good way) for something other than their stories.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      This is where the “expectations” part comes in. What’s your audience? If I’m writing something just for myself I am also the queen of rambling and guilty of using the dash as my main punctuation. If I’m writing for an audience–at work, on the blog, whatever–I am more careful. And of course my tone is more formal when I write for work than when I write here.

      I tell my students that grammar and other mechanics are not important in and of themselves (if your paper has perfect grammar and no argument, you will not get a good grade). They matter because they help readers understand what you want to communicate. The more you meet reader expectations for the kind of writing you are producing, the more they can pay attention to your ideas (or story).

  4. I commit comma atrocities regularly. I also confuse my semicolons for question marks (that is what they are used for in Greek punctuation) so I rarely use them. However, I am not a professional writer and nor do I aim to be one. If I am reading a story, I don’t want to be yanked out of it and poor editing will distract me. Unless a self-published book comes with the highest of recommendations (from a trusted reader – never from the author) I will not read it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I go on trusted friend recommendations, too. Or if I have read and enjoyed the author’s traditionally-published work (so many authors are doing both) and know that person cares about the quality of her prose.

  5. This really is about professionalism. I’m quite good at grammar and punctuation, yet when I’m writing, I make an appalling amount of mistakes because my brain is in creative mode. And like most people, I don’t always see the mistakes in my own work. But I would never publish something without having a competent person edit it for me!

    In any field, selling your work without some sort of quality control is disrespectful of the consumer. Wen we buy some cool product, but then find we got ‘a lemon,’ aren’t we angry? The same is true here.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I agree about professionalism. I think some authors don’t entirely see self-publishing as a “professional” endeavor, while at the same time wanting to charge for their work and hoping to make a living from it. There’s a contradiction there! There’s also an issue if the author can’t tell what is “competent” editing and what is not.

  6. kaetrin says:

    When I start re-wording sentences to make them flow better, it means that I’m not invested in the story. Grammatical errors jar, especially when they are frequent. Good grammar and spelling are those things which (I feel) I shouldn’t actually notice, because I’m too busy enjoying the story. It’s not like I ever finish a book and say “wow, great grammar in that one!” but I certainly notice poorly edited work and that will affect my enjoyment of the story. (I imagine it would be much worse for an English/writing teacher) 🙂

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I only want to notice prose in a good way (oh, a beautiful image, etc.). And in genre fiction, my preference is often for prose that gets out of the way of the story.

  7. This book isn’t directly relevant to the post, but I think you might find it interesting: Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction by Rebecca W. Black. It focuses on anime/manga fanfic and talks about writers who use the community format to improve their English.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, that sounds really interesting. It seems clear that some self-published authors regard it this way, posting updated editions in response to feedback from readers or when they have “time.” I’m not willing to PAY to be part of a process like that, though.

  8. Las says:

    I have a much bigger problem with bad content editing rather than copy editing. I always notice grammatical errors, but they have to be constant for them to pull me out of a story, and if the book is otherwise excellent those errors just barely register. Not that I don’t appreciate a clean book. Several months ago I read a few old books I bought at a UBS, and the complete lack of errors–even typos–was striking. I notice grammatical errors a lot more now.

    That I’m not usually bothered by grammatical errors is, I think, due to the fact that I rarely read self-pub/indie books unless they’ve been recommended by people I trust, so I haven’t felt bombarded by bad grammar. Sure, big pubs produce errors, but there’s a difference between a few errors per chapter and an error on every page.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Content editing is a whole other question! I am conflicted there, too. On the one hand, I see problems with character development, pacing, plot holes, etc. On the other, I think readers turn to self-pub looking for something “different” and there is a fear among both readers and authors that editing will polish out the freshness. People accept flaws because they see the alternative as formula. I don’t think I agree, but I do understand the worry.

  9. J Liedl says:

    Just more proof that editors, real editors who engage with your text, review your prose and follow your story, are worth their weight in gold (or at least a payment before you self-publish that book you’ve just completed). I have to read enough unedited prose in my day job. I don’t want to wade through awkward writing for fun, particularly if someone’s asking me to pay for the privilege!

  10. sonomalass says:

    Since I gave up teaching English and only teach communication, I have a different focus on language use. I agree with you that it’s less about meeting standards of “good” use and more about getting your meaning across clearly. Some things that are against the rules, such as sentence fragments, can be very effective in fiction; some characters might use non-standard English speech, and it could be appropriate. Speaking a language your audience understands is important, so you need to know what you’re trying to say and to whom. My sense of most of these error-riddled books is that the author doesn’t know she’s breaking the rules, either because she doesn’t know the rules or doesn’t see her own errors. That is exactly what editors are for, and an author who won’t seek out a good editorial eye is probably one with whom I can’t be bothered.

    I do read past some errors, mostly typos, especially when I’m reading really quickly. If my brain isn’t in “proofreader” mode, I often see what’s supposed to be there. But errors like that last sentence you quote, or where it’s unclear what words go together for the sake of clear meaning, make me nuts. (“Who or whom” for people, “that” for things is a pet peeve of mine, but like you, I’m starting to think it’s a losing battle.) Formatting errors can bother me if they interfere with the clarity of the text — I read one digital book recently where all the dashes were hyphens, and I grumbled about it a lot. If it hadn’t been a book I really wanted to read, I would have stopped in frustration. The better the story, the more likely I can read past minor errors, but I think there’s a point past which I couldn’t read even a masterpiece.

    I just received a notification that a book I was reading has an updated version available, It said “The version you received had the following issues that have been corrected:
    Significant editorial issues were present. Also, new content has been added. ” I had heard through the Twitter-vine that this particular author might be updating her book in response to reader feedback, but it just feels wrong to me. I’m with Sunita; I don’t want to be someone’s beta-reader without volunteering for the job. I hope this isn’t going to become a big trend.

    A lot of this, for me, is about respect for your readers and for your story. If you don’t do what you can to give us the best version of your story, then I question your respect for both.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      The multiple editions are a terrible idea. If I have already read and didn’t like the book, I’m not going to bother reading it again. And I’m going to resent the fact that later readers got something better than you asked me to pay for. If I liked the book, I may be annoyed that you messed with it. (I really think all authors should leave their blacklists alone. They are of their time. Don’t be ashamed. Yes, your work may be better now, but so what. As a reader, and certainly as a scholar, I love watching the work of authors I enjoy develop and change).

      No piece of writing is ever perfect. Push publish when it’s as good as you can get it, and then let it go. I guess I’m old-fashioned, but I don’t like the way the digital world seems to make every “book” a work in progress, unless I understand that’s what I’m signing on for and CHOOSE that. There are situations in which I’d do that, I think. But “because the author published something sloppy the first time” is not one of them.

  11. jmcbks says:

    Today my twitter timeline included a link to a blog post in which the reader-blogger seems to be saying that readers should have different (lower) expectations of production quality for self-published books, that it’s perfectly natural to have different expectations based on cost, etc., and really the reader’s standards aren’t the relevant ones: the producer’s are.

    I had to back away from my computer.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Well, to the extent that not all readers have the same “standards” or expectations, I guess it is producer standards that matter. If I see that a producer’s standards differ from mine, I simply won’t buy. And I realize it is not worth my time or energy to lament that other readers have different standards, because I can’t change them.

      If it’s the same post I saw, the comment comparing self-publishing to community theatre made me think. On the one hand, I see the point that we might have different expectations depending on context. But right now, a lot of self-publishers are demanding that they NOT be seen as amateurs (as we all understand community theatre players are) but as EQUAL TO traditional publishing, just a different route. So … then I think you must meet professional standards. And unlike in the theatre, “professionally” produced books are not prohibitively expensive for most people, or can be obtained from a library, UBS, etc.

      • jmcbks says:

        I think all readers have different expectations, and context matters. But the “professional” label is the sticking point for me. To the extent that self-published authors want validation and to be treated by professional organizations, vendors, etc., in the same way that traditionally or e-published authors are, falling back on the lower/different standard argument fails for me.

        I have a post half written about the fungibility of a book buyer’s budget as applied to quality of publication, as well as consumer expectations with the expectation removed from the book realm into another area of consumer goods, but I’m not sure it’ll ever be published on my blog.

      • kaetrin says:

        I’m a bit 50/50 on this. I want all books to be to a minimum standard. I expect good grammar and no or few errors. I do expect higher priced publications to be better though – I’m more annoyed if I spend a lot of money for a bad product than if I spend little. But, my minimum standard applies for all.

        eg, a cheap TV should still work as a TV. I should still be able to watch all my channels and get a decent picture using the whole screen. A Sony or Samsung TV on the other hand, I expect more from. They are a better and more expensive brand. I expect they will have a better picture and will last longer. In this analogy, I’d say the self pubbed book ripe with errors – typos and grammar – would be like getting a cheap tv which has dead pixels on one corner of the screen. It would not meet my “minimum standards”. But I can’t deny that I do tend to hold the Big 6 to a higher (“Sony”) standard than self published at the same time – it’s possible I’m a hypocrite. 🙂

  12. farmwifetwo says:

    All I can say is… if I notice, and comment upon it, it’s really bad. I rarely do, nor do I care. If I’d did I’d be correcting all those missing “u’s” in my books and that’s just a waste of time.

    I blame it on years of French Immersion and the fact that engineering didn’t have an intro english class at Univ. Thank goodness, since I survived my high school one’s. Calculus was easy, English was hard.

    I do get frustrated with poor ebook formatting. Run together words, paragraphs that aren’t separated properly etc. That will get commented on and take me out of a story. Also, poor content editting where I have to go back and try to figure out exactly what just happened. I am reading one right now where there is a * every so often, in the middle of the chapters, and it flips POV. It’s REALLY annoying and I’m just about frustrated enough to quit reading any longer.

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