Friday, June 21, 2013

Are You a Bad Influence?

I’ve been doing lots of reading lately. I’ll read almost anything. I’m not picky about genres. I read self-published, traditionally published, and books published by small presses. If you write it, I’ll read it.

When I first began writing, I had a hard time reading for pleasure. My writer’s eye kept scanning the pages as I compared my own writing with that of other authors. My editor’s eye kept tripping over repetitive words, weird sentence structure, and grammatical errors. It’s only been recently that I’ve been able to turn off my author-vision and read a story for pure pleasure. Yet, there are things that still trip me up. I recently read a book by a traditionally published author that had such poor e-book formatting and so many punctuation errors that several members of our book club discussed it at our meeting. In self-published books, errors seem to be a bit more prevalent, particularly in cases where the author has been unable to afford to hire a professional editor.

I’m able to overlook a few errors. I understand that some errors slip through the cracks. The author can’t catch everything. Trust me. I can self-edit my book fifteen times and still miss errors. For the most part, a few errors do not ruin my enjoyment. Many authors would argue with me. Some authors believe it’s the story that counts. They would argue most readers don’t notice grammar and punctuation.

As an author, do you want to take a chance? Do you want to send your poorly edited book out into the world and hope readers don’t notice? Maybe the next person who reads your book doesn’t really care about grammatical nonsense and just enjoys your story because it’s a darned good story. But, maybe the next reader won’t read past the first chapter because those errors are too distracting. As Kate Jack, author and blogger extraordinaire, has pointed out numerous times, though some authors claim the story is king and little things like grammar don’t matter, writers are obligated to learn the craft. While the story is important, so is the delivery.

Still not convinced grammar and spelling are important? Well, read on…

I have four kids ranging in age from twelve to twenty-three. I try to avoid telling their personal stories, but today, I need to use one of my children in order to make a point. My twelve-year-old is a horrible speller. Why? Because his school doesn’t administer spelling tests.

Back in the dark ages when I was a kid, we took spelling tests until we were in high school. I mean, they drilled those words into our heads. On Monday, we had to write each spelling word five times. On Tuesday, we had to define each word. On Wednesday, we had to use each word in a sentence. On Thursday, we had to study for our spelling test on Friday. As a consequence, I’m a damned good speller.

Nowadays, people rely on spell check. So, why have many schools discontinued the use of traditional spelling tests? As more than one teacher explained to me, kids learn vocabulary, sentence structure, grammar, and spelling by example. Kids learn by reading.

As a child, I always had a book in my hand. I loved to read. While I almost failed Language Arts in the sixth grade because I couldn’t diagram a sentence, I was able to read and comprehend Gone With the Wind in the seventh grade. My eyes glazed over when the teachers droned on about sentence structure, but I was still one of the best writers in my class. Why? Because I learned by example. Reading enhanced my understanding of proper sentence structure. Reading made me a rock-star of a speller. My vocabulary was advanced because I read all the time. And though I’m sure I learned a thing or two by sitting for hours in Language Arts and Spelling Classes, reading helped all those lessons stick.

If teachers are relying on reading to help kids learn to spell, what happens when those same kids pick up a book riddled with misspellings? If kids are expected to learn by example, shouldn’t authors try to set a good example? Readers of all ages deserve well-written books; children need well-written books in order to learn. As an author, I wan’t to be a good influence on any young readers who happen to pick up my YA novels. As a mother, I can only hope my children are selecting books that are well edited and well written. I want the lessons I teach them, or the classes they take in school to be reinforced by good examples in their chosen reading material.

I might even go as far as to say this: Poorly written books and sloppy authors have a bad influence on our children. Not just children, but all readers.

For writers out there who might not have mastered all the tools of your craft, I would say, “congratulations.” If you’re able to admit you still need to grow as a writer and are willing to challenge yourself, you have what it takes to be an author. It’s only those who refuse to grow and learn and change who will never, ever make it. As writers, we are always evolving. As an author, I have lots to learn. I can learn from other authors. I can learn by example–by reading masterfully written books that make me sigh in amazement at the author’s talent. Reading amazing books gives me something to strive for.

So, for all you writers out there–what are you? A bad influence? Or a good influence? Have you mastered your craft, or are you still sharpening your tools? And to all those readers–how many errors are too many? Are you willing to look past glaring errors to get to the heart of the story?

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