Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Sloppy editing

Every now and then you stumble across a site you can't help going back to--again...and again...and again. One of those sites is A Newbie's Guide to Publishing, the blog of J.A. Konrath, writer of the Lt. Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels series. Konrath tells it like it is, enlightening both the pros and newcomers of the writing world.

A recent post of his that garnered a number of comments was based on his recent experience judging a writing contest, and how he can tell how good a story is by the first sentence or two. He goes on to instruct in the proper formatting of a story for submission, whether for a contest or agent/publisher. Having experience as a newsletter editor, I know where he is coming from, and can only agree with what he says. Some of his advice is common sense, such as making sure there are no typos or spacing issues, and that your first sentence--heck, the entire first paragraph--grabs a reader's attention, but it never hurts for even the more seasoned writer to be reminded of some things.

Like Konrath, I have trouble reading past the first sentence if there are a lot of errors. I used to feel bad about this, particularly on message boards, but--in my opinion--there is no excuse for lazy writing. Especially on a website or blog geared towards writers. Writing properly at all times improves one's writing, one's grasp of language and grammar. If you claim to be a writer, use proper English, capitalizing the pronoun "I" as well as the first word of any sentence, at all times. You will garner more credence as a writer, whether you have been writing for years or have yet to publish. First impressions truly are important, and if you can't be bothered to write a proper paragraph on a message board, how is anyone to believe you are a good writer, that your book is worth not just buying, but reading and referring to friends?

During my stint as a newsletter editor, the submissions I saw ranged in various degrees of polishing. One regular contributor never sent me an unclean article. In over a year of working together I questioned only one word in one submission--and she agreed that my suggested change was better. Other writers would send material that needed only a minimal of editing, a typo here or there. The submissions I received from a multi-published author, however, were horrifying.

This was an author published in both fiction and nonfiction, and her submissions were so riddled with typos, spacing problems and inconsistent formatting that it would sometimes take hours to clean them up. I refuse to believe that any professional author, especially one with as many books out as she, would ever think of sending something like that in to an editor, yet she apparently thought so little of me--so little of our publication--as to consistently submit unpolished material, and usually past deadline as well. I will not lie in that it lowered my esteem for her considerably. In fact, whereas I was once a huge fan of hers, I will no longer even look at one of her books, let alone buy it. How can I be sure of getting a quality product when I have seen the lack of quality in her submitted work?

It isn't solely this one author, however. I've become equally less enamored of an entire series put out by a publisher. Why? Because in two different books, one published in November and one in December, I found the same type of error that 1) should have been caught by the author and at the very least 2) should have been caught by the editor or copy editor. I know that, as a writer blessed with an internal editor, it may have been more obvious to me, but I cannot believe I am the only person to catch these mistakes. Readers are very astute, and I can recall a discussion of a mini-series on one message board in which the method of how a bracelet came to be lost was different in two back-to-back episodes of the series. In one, the bracelet was stolen; in the next it was lost and recovered by a suspicious character. Readers picked up on this immediately and railed on it.

In the case of the more recent incident, the error involved who was performing an action. I will not embarrass the writers or the publisher by naming names, but am sure anyone who has read these books will recognize them immediately. In the first book, a husband and wife are in a truck listening to a news report. The husband snaps off the radio and exits the truck. Not more than a page later, the wife reaches over to the radio--which had not been turned back on!-- and shuts it off.

In the second book, a couple enters a diner and places an order, including coffee. The waitress leaves to submit their orders, and it says, "It was the owner who brought their coffee." They talk for a couple pages, the owner leaves, and suddenly the waitress appears with their coffee. Not with a refill, but with the initial cups of coffee!

This kind of mistake is inexcusable.

With the first book, I was especially disappointed as it was a local author I have met and whose books I have always enjoyed. When the same type of mistake occurred in this series of books by a different author, I was angry. I felt betrayed as a reader and a book buyer. When you lay down money for a book, whether in print or ebook format, you do so with the expectation of receiving a quality product. It is first up to the writer to submit the best book she can, smoothly polished and with a gripping story. It is next up to the editor to make sure that the material submitted is as good as it can be. Anything less than that is a betrayal to the reader, and can only reflect back on the publisher (and the writer) in the form of fewer sales. I know I personally have reservations about ever buying this series--and even from this publisher--again.

Inconsistency can be a major story killer, and reading for it should be an integral part of the editing process. I've heard of books where the hero's name suddenly changed. Not just from a given name to a nickname, but from Bob to Ted with no explanation other than a writer changing the character's name and not fixing it all the way through the manuscript.

Not too long ago, a friend was asked to review a book for her website. Though she eagerly agreed, she found herself unable to write a favorable review. The reason? Sloppy editing. Both the heroine's skin and hair color changed throughout the book, with no apparent reason other than the writer possibly writing the heroine initially as one race, then changing her mind. While a white character becoming black during the story might have worked in John Updike's BRAZIL, it is not advised for the average writer. Readers will notice, and be quite disgruntled with the error.

As writers, we have an unwritten contract with the reader to deliver a quality product: a good story, clean copy, and consistent and believable plot. When these criteria are not met, we risk alienating, and even losing, the reader. Not only will she not finish this particular book, she will be unlikely to read another, and will suggest her friends avoid you as well.

Few writers actually enjoy the editing process, yet it is an integral part of the contract with the reader--and the publisher. It begins with you, writing the best product you can and making sure that it is clean and consistent before submitting it. It next becomes the editor and copy editor’s obligation to make sure that the story is clean and accurate. When editing and proper formatting become inconsequential, an injustice is committed towards the reader. You owe it to your readers--be they judges, publishers, or consumers--to submit only the highest quality of work you can produce.

To do less is a breach in contract with the reader.

Recommended reads for strengthening grammar and editing skills:

ON WRITING WELL by William Zinsser
WOE IS I by Patricia T. O'Conner


Jana said...

Oh Heather! I sooooo hear ya on this. I've stumbled across some really annoying stuff in recent publications, too. Most of it was just a misuse of a name or using "he" when it should have been "she". It's like a bucket of cold water to the face. I know editors are only human but it's still bothersome.

I must admit, though, that I too am guilty of not always self-editing stuff before I post. I know my blog is likely chock full of errors. I never claimed to be a grammar genius but I really do need to work on that. :-/

Question though...When writing on a message board or a blog, if you're writing in a conversational style, is ever okay to write like you talk? For instance, my regular speech is very peppered with southernisms and a southern accent so I use a lot of "gonna", "hafta", "woulda", etc. when I talk and thus, when I'm "talking" on-line I use these spellings. Is that an annoyance or can I can away with that as being part of my "voice"? Just wondering from your professional standpoint.

I'm really not ignorant...I just play it on TV. ;-)

Heather said...

Voice and good grammar are two different subjects, and in my opinion regionalisms and accents should come through in one's writing, especially if one is striving to make a character more three-dimensional.

Yes, even I occasionally use 'wanna' or 'gonna' - though it is usually in a sarcastic or playful tone as in, "Wanna bet> Whatcha gonna do about it, huh?"

Voice does not absent one from using proper grammar or word usage - and when I say word usage, I mean not just making sure you use a word right, but use the right word. Don't rely on spell check, either; there's a reason why many copy editors recommend turning it off. Spell check cannot tell if you are using a word right, or using the correct homonym. For example: their, there, or they're. Only a human eye can pick up on things like that.

Not meaning any disparagement, but it has been my observation that Southerners often use 'want' for 'won't' or 'wander' for 'wonder'. Is it the accent - the way they pronounce certain words or letter groupings - that throws them off? I have no idea, but it makes my skin crawl every time I see it.

If you aren't entirely sure of a word's meaning, or whether you are using it correctly, there's this great little book by Daniel Webster called a dictionary. You can even find one online these days. Several, in fact (for example,

And yes, even I occasionally have to check the spelling of a word, or make sure I am using something properly. Maybe not very often, but it happens. ;-)



colloquialism, n : a colloquial expression; characteristic of spoken or written communication that seeks to imitate informal speech

PS. I hope this makes sense and answers your question. I had to reconstruct half my post after Blogger ate it. Bad Blogger, bad, bad!

Jana said...

I don't know if the whole "want"/"won't" "wander"/"wonder" thing is limited to southerners or not. I personally get irritated when I see that. lol I think it's an educational thing. I (and most folks I know) pronounce them the way they're supposed to be pronounced but some folks just don't write them that way. (unless they/we're saying wanna [want to]...sometimes comes out wonna) Not to say that if you get them confused in your writing that you're dumb or uneducated. I think it just means that you weren't paying any attention in English class that day. Or if it isn't something you consistently do, it's just a slip of the "pen."

I've learned the hard way that spell check doesn't catch those usage errors. lol I mainly use it because I stink at spelling. I intellecutally know the difference between their/there and they're but sometimes in a hurry I use the wrong one and, lets face it, the internal editor doesn't always work when going over your own work. You know what you meant to write and so that's what you SEE unless it's hours later and you've already published/posted/submitted it. THEN you see your own mistakes. At least that's the way it works for me. lol

If you aren't entirely sure of a word's meaning, or whether you are using it correctly, there's this great little book by Daniel Webster called a dictionary. You can even find one online these days. Several, in fact (for example,

So that's what that book is fer! I'da never thunk it! LOL

Trust me, and I are great friends...when I remember to visit him. hehe

And yeah, you made perfect sense. Just wondered (and yes, I checked myself just to make sure I was using it right. lol) whether or not me writing like I talk to my friends in RW was annoying. You know, when speaking to a professor/supervisor/other "higher ups" and strangers, I do speak with the proper "want to" or "going to". Just so you know that not all hope is lost with me. ;-)

You'd be horrified to know though that when I'm around my redneck cousins or my best buddies I frequently use the phrase, "I ain't got no" and the likes thereof. hehehehe Kind of like I tend to speak like who I'm speaking with, you know?

Still wanna be my friend? ;-)

Lynn Daniels said...

What a great post, Heather! Sloppy writing and editing drives me nuts, too. I hate it when I'm reading a book then suddenly come upon something that makes me thing, "My CPs would never have let me get away with this!" From that point on, I'm pulled out of the story and paying more attention to the writing.

Definitely not what I paid for when I purchased the book.

Lynn Daniels said...

Oops! That was supposed to read "makes me think!" Sorry 'bout the typo -- that's what I get for not proofing before I hit "enter". Not a smart thing to do when responding to a post with this subject matter, is it?

Heather said...

Jana~ Hmmm...still be friends with you. I may have to think a bit on that one. J/K! You know I'm happy to exchange ideas and impart what bit of knowledge I've retained in the earning of that college degree. Hehe....

Thanks, Lynn! I know what you mean about editing mistakes pulling you out of the story! For example, the two books mentioned in my post. After stumbling across those, I had difficulty fully getting into the story because I was wondering what other errors had been made, and subconsciously looking for them.

Thankfully, I've not run across any editing problems in the current book I'm reading, a nonfic by Jimmy Carter.