Author of Science Fiction & Fantasy

Why am I working so hard on my writing skills? The top authors defy the reasons.

Despite the many hours I spend writing, critiquing and editing, I still make time to read the odd book or two every month. It’s my love of reading that brought me into this business of being a writer.

I recently completed reading The High Druids Of Shannara Trilogy, having managed to snag a copy at my local bookstore for the affordable price of $9.99 – a deal, in my opinion, for 1132 pages of epic fantasy written by Terry Brooks, an established author of the genre.

One of the downsides of being an author when trying to read for pleasure is the unfortunate habit of examining the writing for editing issues such as grammar, plot holes, and other kindred issues. When I find them I tsk, tsk away and it deflates the value of the read. A problem I never had prior to becoming a writer. This particular work followed in the footsteps of something I have seen quite a lot of lately – bad editing. In defense of Mr. Brooks, he’s not alone. This problem is widespread across all genres with best sellers.

I took the time to glance through The New York Times top ten best sellers list. The nice thing about online shopping for books is the read me feature at all of the websites. It allows the courtesy of perusing a number of pages to determine whether the book is worth buying. I wanted to see how many editing misses I could discover in the first page of each on this dignified list.

Currently, sitting in the number one spot is All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. With missing commas, sentences beginning with conjunctions, and a penchant to string sentences together with colons and semi-colons, this first page failed my test miserably. A quick examination of the list of 6,392 reviews spotlights the number one comment by 1,863 of them  – “well written”.

At number two, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn features such delights as an errant switch from past to present tense, a plethora of colons – punctuation normally reserved for textbooks, and the insertion of extraneous words such as that. Of course, of the 35,135 customer reviews, the top line by 3,149 reviewers once again reads – “well written”.

Moving on to number three, Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, I am entreated by dangling participles, the use of brackets, and more sentences beginning with conjunctions. Of the 5,018 reviews, the top line by 469 of them is… you guessed it – “well written”.

As I examine number four, Die Again by Tess Gerritsen, my expectations are no higher than the others and the pro forma of what has occurred continues with the constant incorrect use of the word and instead of commas, and descriptive dialogue tags. In fairness, hers is the first where of the 221 customer reviews, in the top three summations, you do not find the words – “well written”. Kudos for that crowd.

Number five is Gray Mountain by John Grisham. More sentences starting with conjunctions and a serious case of talking heads where all the characters are talking in a void – no actions, no thoughts, to accompany the intense lengthy dialogue. A slight drop in the review performance on this one. Of the 9,702, only 641 one of them, the third most popular summation,  included the now famous quote – “well written”.

Yeah, I know I said “top ten”, but I think five is enough to prove my point. Should I commit the offense of any of those writing gaffs my editor would hang me up by my thumbnails.

What gives? Why are these people given a pass when it comes to writing faux pas? It’s because the publishers don’t sweat it. These books will sell whether properly edited or not. Yet when you examine any list you like by literary agents as to why they reject new authors you will invariably find among the top reasons – “poorly written”.

Agents need to re-think their priorities when examining submissions from new authors. Learning the ins and outs of writing is something authors will do when they get to the editing stage. It’s not the attention to good grammar that is the key, it’s the story.

So after my little tirade, where does that leave the novice writer like me? Where else? Working on writing skills. Yep. The truth of the matter is my piddly little blog is not going to change the minds of a legion of literary agents. They will continue to expect par excellence performance from the rank amateur and ignore the small failures of the well known.

Alas, such is the life of a budding author.

2 responses

  1. I think Michael, that we have to remember exactly who is reading all these books. I don’t think I need to dig up statistics to tell you how the general readership is easily less literally educated than the majority of writers and editors.
    I recently re-edited one of my first books after “a few comments” about bad punctuation and grammar. 95% of my readers thought it was just fine. The disappointing thing for me was that my editor/proof reader was a University of Windsor English graduate.
    Need I say more?

    January 14, 2015 at 9:15 pm

  2. I think it’s not just a matter of the mechanics of writing, but the ability to communicate a character to the reader he or she is interested in. For some, that may be more important than getting comas right.

    January 17, 2015 at 4:33 pm

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