Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Everyone’s A Copyeditor

Grammar. You would think something so fundamental to our language would be easier to parse, to critique and to use correctly. Oops, should there be a comma after “critique?” Does that question mark go inside the quote or outside?

We can, of course, turn to our trusty style manuals when in doubt. Except my manual may not be the same one you consult, and they may not jive in their advisement.

Problems arise when people think they know grammar but instead know only one style guide or philosophy and assume all writing should follow suit. You run into these folk in critique groups: the grammar nazis who believe all writing should follow formal rules and be bound by the wisdom of Chicago or AP or Strunk & White.

In the wild, you run into folk sure they remember every last grammar drill from school, not realizing they are mis-remembering what was taught or accurately remembering the lesson but not its spirit. I used to get this type of para-grammarian frequently at work. I’d present them with a perfectly good sentence and they would change it around into a perfectly wrong one, somehow believing they’d “fixed” it. (Hmm, comma before and in that sentence or not?)

A few years ago, I submitted 25 mss pages to a contest being judged by published authors. The author who landed my mss went through the first 7 pages marking all the “errors” then wrote: I won't be pointing out any more errors. I suggest a book on basic grammar or a course at your local community college. Erm, I taught freshman college comp while I was in grad school and, at the time this happened, I had spent 20 years as an editor in the corporate world. The "errors" he'd pointed out were all stylistic choices. THIS from someone who purportedly knew enough to be pointing out errors.

Why do I bring this up now? Because yesterday I heard an author had been contacted by Amazon to clean up the grammatical errors in his ebook and republish it. Before you applaud, let's look at the request and the book it was requested of. The email the author received detailed just three errors. Two of the errors were comma-related and the third was a word choice.

To start with, three errors in a full-length novel may or may not pass your individual quality assurance test. (It passes mine.) But the “errors” Amazon was asking be corrected were 1) an unnecessary serial comma, 2) an unnecessary comma between unrelated adjectives and 3) slang in dialog.

The book, Hunter: A Thriller, is here. For the record, the author is a professional writer and professional editor, the book is selling well and it has a number of really great reviews (60+), none of which mentions any egregious issues with grammar and spelling. From the sample, serial commas appear to be used consistently throughout. The offending comma between adjectives occurs in this sentence: ... a high-velocity, 400-grain, solid-brass, boattail spitzer bullet. Did you catch the extra comma there? Thought not. And the slang was a character using the phrase “J school” to refer to “journalism school.” Amazon advised: an appropriate word could be used in the place the letter "J" [sic].

It’s not clear whether the directive from Amazon was inspired by a customer complaint or not, though the odds are that it must have been. Why Amazon would rely on one customer’s evaluation of the book to influence its actions is a mystery. And if Amazon acted on its own, then seriously, they need to find another editor to comb through the books.

I have glanced through the sample and I'll admit I would have made some different choices in comma placement here and there, but they all fall into the gray hole of comma use and not the black hole of comma splices and run-ons.

There are plenty – plenty – of books on the virtual shelves with shoddy formatting and shoddy proofreading. Targeting those books would be doing readers a customer service. Still, individual complaints about books need to be validated by professionals who understand the trade. There are too many people with agendas not in the best interest of the overall reading public leaving reviews and making complaints. And there are too many people out there with no agendas who, while earnest, are simply not credible copyeditors.

I’m currently reading Zoo City, a multi-award-winning book that was released this year in both print and ebook formats. It has some formatting issues and I’ve spotted a couple of typos – true errors such as misplaced apostrophes and quote marks in place of apostrophes. I expect to find a couple more errors before I’m through reading. That’s the nature of both the self-published beast and the traditionally published one. Do movie-goers demand scenes be reshot because of continuity issues or ask for their money back because a character is wearing a black tie in one frame of a scene and a dark blue one in the next frame?

I’m willing to ignore a handful or dozen of typos and even a comma splice or two in any novel – not that I’d be counting them up, but maybe one every 25 pages or so. And I certainly wouldn’t count editor’s choice stylings as errors.

How many formatting or copyediting (gee, is that one word or two?) errors do you let slide before you throw the book against the wall, mention them in your reviews or refuse to recommend a book to a friend?


Wilkins MacQueen said...

I don't mind a gaff here or there. I think kindly of the person this happened to and remember my own bloopers and how cross eyed I was trying to get everything so perfect and didn't.

I worked with a Sales Manager who kept using "irregardless" in every letter he wrote. In the same company the Sr. VP couldn't and likely still can't spell "commitment".

Style corrections are annoying. More so when they are tagged by the unknowing.

Good post. I need to have a fresh flyby of Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss.

Jennifer said...

Interesting points you make here - definitely things I will think about next time I'm writing a crit for someone (or reading a crit of my own work).

The litmus test for me is readability. I'm reading a self-published novel right now, and it is full of grammar errors. It is beyond the occasional comma misplacement. There are grammar/structure issues that make it difficult to understand what the author is saying. I've put the novel down - don't think I'll be picking it up again.

Another self-published novel I read had grammar issues, but I finished that one because I could understand every sentence and the story was engaging.

Sarah Laurenson said...

You should try legal writing. Commas after everything in a list including before the and and/or or. No contractions. No passive voice. There were other interesting differences.

When I was in college, I wasn't doing well with the english tests until the day I walked in on one I didn't know we were having. Got a good grade on that and stopped studying for them.

Reasons I stop reading:
If there are extra words. If the sentences aren't clear. Basically, if whatever is on the page keeps throwing me out of the story. Or if the story doesn't keep me interested.

I'm a fan of putting the punctuation outside of the quotes. I really don't like it inside the quotes, but I'll do it because that seems to be the norm these days.

Matt said...

I'm not a fan of stylistic frags and other risks. It gets annoying to decipher them. The best writing gets out of the story's way, going unnoticed.

Dani said...

If I like a story, I am very forgiving of errors as there is no such thing as a perfect book (or movie, or song, or album for the matter).

But if I am consistently noticing errors, it's only because the book isn't engaging for me to begin with and on that note, I just stop reading.

I read a lot, mostly indies now because I am a fellow indie writer and I love to read other indie authors to show my support. Some have been great, some have been okay, some have been awful. The same with trad pub books. Everything that has a Random House or Viking as publisher hasn't necessarily impressed me either.

Reading is highly subjective and what thrills one person may bore the next to tears. I am highly suspect of some of the reader's motives when doing returns. Some may be legitimate but others treat Amazon like their own personal library; that is check a book out and return when they are through.

Michelle4Laughs said...

I've found my share of errors in traditionally published books. Nobody is perfect.

Carradee said...

I'm a proofreader, and some of my favorite traditionally published books are chock-full of typos. (Ever read the Death Gate Cycle of books? Fantastic stories, but man, those last few read like they skipped proofreading!)

The number doesn't so much matter to me as the storytelling. If the word choice, grammar, or typos distract me, I'll stop reading. Otherwise, I don't mind so much. Sometimes, though, that distracting word choice and grammar reasons has nothing to do with errors and everything to do with style.

Brandon Sanderson is extremely difficult for me to read, because our styles are somewhat similar (or so it seems to me). I keep expecting him to have the same comma and word choices I do, and the differences distract me. But that's a style issue, not a typo issue.

Now, when I review a story, I try to give a good idea of what it's like for those who might be interested in it. That means I mention typos even if they didn't bother me.

Wilkins MacQueen said...

Oh Carradee,
Would you go to my blog leave a comment with an email address and we'll talk? I think I need you.


Sylvia said...

Re: Amazon - I know someone who had this happen to him and apparently it *was* based on a customer submitting edits. Same thing, only a couple of changes and nothing dramatic. But it seems like Amazon are pushing these straight through without looking at the number of changes.

As a sidenote, I got very confused last year. One person asked for comments on a finished draft. Another offered a free copy of her traditionally published ebook for review. I decided to do both and promptly emailed the author of the published book a list of typos and errors.

I stand by my corrections (with UK/US differences and a grammarian for a boyfriend, I try hard to avoid stylistic choices when correcting) but it was hardly helpful and must have looked very nitpicky.


Wilkins MacQueen said...

I hope you were thanked. I hoped the writers took the notes under advisement.You were ASKED and I bet you did did a wonderful job.

Your wince isn't warranted. They should wince.