Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Truth About (Old-Style) English Teachers and a Book Reviewer's Dilemma

Do you think those teachers who marked up your school papers in red ink were just being cruel? Did you let them discourage you from writing and make you hate writing? Here’s the truth: we (I was one of them) really wanted to help you learn to write correctly. Another truth: writing errors still can make English teachers (and former English teachers) cringe, at least those of us who belong to the older generations.

So what brought this topic to mind? As you know if you read one or both of my blogs, I am a relentless promoter of personal writing for seniors. I am a strong advocate of sharing experiences and life stories. I advise would-be authors to write naturally, as they speak, and not to let fear of writing errors discourage them. I do advise giving some attention to correctness as a final step: rereading, proofreading, and finding proofreading and editing help, amateur or professional, if necessary. In my "best of all possible worlds," any book self-published and submitted to on-line vendors such as for sale should be nearly error-free.

My ability to recognize writing errors is nearly 100%, while my tolerance for errors in a finished product offered for sale is nearly zero. I just was asked to review a book that created an interior conflict between my roles as writing promoter and reviewer. Should I write a negative or lukewarm review because of the writing errors, refuse to review the book at all, or praise the many good features of the book with just a brief mention of the writing errors? Should I shatter a new writer’s confidence by mentioning the errors, or should I shatter my credibility as a reviewer by ignoring them?

I’m not talking about awkward style or a few confusing sentences here, although there are some examples. What disturbs me are the repeated misuses of lie and lay, like and as, good and well, misplaced modifiers, even apostrophe errors in "it’s." Do these things really matter? They do to me, since they sometimes make reading difficult and rereading necessary to understand a sentence.

On the other hand, I’m sure that the errors don’t matter to, and probably aren’t even noticed by, the author’s relatives and peers. They probably love the book, and they should. The problem, as I see it, is offering it for sale to the general public without the necessary copy editing. Most self-published and small-press books I’ve reviewed have been nearly error-free, but there’s already been too much public complaining about the proliferation of books by incompetent or marginal writers. An error-filled, unedited book offered on Amazon has the potential to give us all a bad name.

So there you have it. What should I do? Blame public education? Despair at the realities of the publishing industry? Not really. Here are my choices as I see them:

1. Keep quiet. Refuse to review the book.
2. Pan the book as poorly written.
3. Write a mostly-positive review (as deserved), but with a caveat about writing problems.
4. Start a small, relatively inexpensive copy-editing service to help as-yet unpublished authors.

Please add a comment. Make your suggestions. What do you think I should do?

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne


Mortart said...

Thank you for visiting my blog. It gave me the opportunity to discover your two highly interesting blogs.
My wife, a one-time high school English and Latin teacher, has been my blog's editor. Blog-editing will be one of her many household functions that I will miss while she recovers from surgery.

seniorwriter said...

Thanks for your comment. My best wishes to your wife as she recovers from surgery. I hope she's writing a "healing journal." That seems to help speed recovery for many people.

storyteller said...

Reading your post this morning brings back my life as a teacher ... the dilemmas we faced in balancing the need to nurture beginning writers and helping them develop communication skills. Errors still jump out at me whenever I'm reading copy, but I try not to be distracted if the content is compelling. Actually, in an effort to release my "perfectionistic tendencies" ... for a long time I interacted online (back in the late 70s/early 80s, before the Internet became the user-friendly World Wide Web of today) purposefully using no capital letters (ala e e cummings) and minimal punctuation (other than elipses for pacing, a habit that seems to have stayed with me). It became so habitual that I gave it up when I enrolled in a graduate program to earn another degree.

I'm not sure what advice to offer you on your current dilemma, but I'm reminded of reading John Grisham's first novel (initially published with so many errors it was almost unreadable) but once he found an audience, agent, editor, etc. the manuscripts got cleaned up for him before publication (and that first novel was cleaned up and reissued). Perhaps the person in question needs a "virtual assistant" to clean up the book before it goes to print. I suspect even the family would appreciate error free text.

seniorwriter said...

Yes, Storyteller, a copy editor, amateur or professional, could have made all the difference. The problem is that the book is already out; it won't find a large enough audience to attract a commercial publisher, and I'm sure the author can't afford to have it edited and republished. I hope this serves as a reminder to other new writers.

Jerry Waxler said...

Oh, I love this topic! I have been writing essay after essay trying to get my arms around it. One thing I find is that habits of being judgmental about writing survive long after people have become open minded about other things. Sure it's lovely to go for a ride with an expert writer, but then that would limit me to only learning about expert writers. By loosening my grip on "rules" I can appreciate the experiences of so many more people.

If it's a good story, I let all sorts of flaws roll past me without worrying about them. By the way, #4, to start an editing service stands on its own merit in any case. The world can always use good editors, who are the unsung heroes of the publishing industry.

Jerry Waxler
Memory Writers Network

seniorwriter said...

Thanks, Jerry. If I were more of an entrepreneur, I might start an editing service, but then how would I find time for my own writing? If someone else just handed me a book or essay, determined the price for editing, and toook care of the business angle, fine, but that's not about to happen. I'd have to charge too much for editing if I had a staff to pay.