Someone recently sent me a Twitter DM saying they had read a ‘very poorly edited book full of grammatical errors and awkward prose’ and wanted to know why self-publishers would want to put out ‘sub-standard’ books.
It’s an important question that is not as straightforward as answering:
They should’ve used an editor and been more professional.
Sure, my knee-jerk response was pretty much the above.
But as a strong advocate for self-publishing, it’s not as simple as that.
No one should be put off from self-publishing.
If it wasn’t for Kindle, Createspace, Nook, Kobo etc. I wouldn’t be an author today.
And my gut response to all writers is to write and self-publish.
Getting your writing out there will get a response, good or bad.
That’s a million miles away from sending away your manuscripts to publishers and agents and getting the inevitable rejection six months later with no explanation as to why.
If you publish, it will be read by… readers!
And any criticism, either praising or damning is better than nothing at all.
Quite simply… it’s gold dust.
This is the way writers learn their craft—by suffering the horrors of readers disliking their work.
But if they don’t know what readers dislike, how are they going to get better?
Writers need to get their work read by as many people as possible and must take any and all criticism on the chin.
All the slaps on the back are nice, but authors only ever grow from negative criticism.
I dislike it intensely, but I never ignore it.
But my question was: what is a poorly edited book?
To answer that, I’m going to look at the most important aspect of any story.
It beats bad punctuation, grammar and even misspelling.
I’m talking about flow.
What is Flow?
We intuitively recognize flowing prose when we read it. But what is it?
- sentence structure and length
- paragraphs and pacing
- rhythm and syntax
- sections, chapters
- the finished novel.
Think about how the story flows.
In its simplest terms, flow is writing that does not jar.
It has an ease of movement from one word to another, from one sentence and/or event to another.
How is flow relevant to grammar?
The flow, pace and style of a novel will dictate how it is received by the reader.
Sometimes authors feel the need to discard certain grammatical conventions and rules to do this.
This is perfectly acceptable.
Indeed, by adhering too strictly to the rules of grammar, their writing may suffer.
Flow and meaning must come first.
If they are writing a ‘naturalistic conversation’, grammar can and will get in the way.
In this instance, it’s far more important to get across meaning.
This is the same for more informal narratives.
If they are telling the story in the ‘voice’ of a character, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be colloquial and all over the place grammar-wise—as long as the damn thing flows.
What is ‘bad writing’?
There are grammar experts out there who can pull apart any great piece of literary work and expose its grammatical flaws.
Writing that does not follow the rules or conventions is not, per se, ‘bad writing.’ Far from it.
Writing should always come from informed choice.
Often stylistic concerns and sentence flow will dictate the words you use rather than grammatical rules and convention.
This does not mean that authors can abandon grammar altogether.
Instead, writers must strive to understand these rules and conventions and make informed decisions about when to ignore them.
Their work is still readable and engaging, they are possibly very successful authors…
And so we get to the nitty gritty… Just what is ‘bad writing?’
For me bad writing is writing that:
- contains unacceptable or poor grammar (grammar that does not work in any context).
- uses extra and unnecessary words
- repeats the same phrases
- has weak characters or characters who act ‘out of character’
- has a poorly realised plot
- unintentionally puts the author in a bad light.
By disregarding the basic grammar rules and conventions—or being ignorant of them—writing can become unreadable and jarring.
What is poor editing?
There are three main types of editing.
A line edit addresses the creative content, writing style, and language use at the sentence and paragraph level.
It focuses on the way authors use language to communicate their story to the reader. Is their language clear, fluid, and pleasurable to read?
Does it convey a sense of atmosphere, emotion, and tone?
Do the words they’ve chosen convey a precise meaning, or are they using broad generalisations and clichés?
A developmental edit is concerned with the structure and content of the author’s work.
It is to improve their story—not their writing.
If their manuscript lacks focus, a developmental edit will help the author find the right direction by suggesting fixes and changes to make their work more marketable.
Proofreading is quality check and tidy-up.
A final set-of eyes to give the author’s work the once-over before publication.
It checks for typos/text accuracy, consistency and presentation.
Poor editing is:
- a lack of any editing (under-edited/unfinished)
- over-editing (grammar is more important than meaning)
- lazy editing, where not all issues/problems are properly addressed
Editing is another set of eyes.
It gives the author direct feedback on their work.
I would always recommend that everybody gets their work read before publishing.
But not everybody can afford an editor.
I’d suggest all new writers to join a writing group, either locally or online.
Or to find beta-readers—wonderful people who will take time out to read new stories and give feedback 🙂
My reply to the Twitter question was this:
Contact the author or leave a review explaining, as best you can, why you didn’t like the novel.
They may not like your feedback, but they may come to respect it, as long as the criticism is given respectfully.
As for other self-publishers out there…
If possible, get everything professionally edited.
If not, join a writers group and find beta-readers.
Remember that flow is king.
And if you are going to break the rules, first make sure you know what they are.
Please take a look at my handy grammar guide.
“Easy to follow and packed with usable tips…well worth the few dollars.”
“It has given me a lot more confidence in my writing and helped me identify some schoolgirl errors. More than anything, it helped me clarify what is good and bad writing.”
“I’m now happily writing with confidence in my own style. A very useful guide I’d highly recommend.”
An essential companion for an effective writing process.