Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Knock the Grammar Nazis Down and Make Them Think

Yesterday, I was writing.

Ha, I jest. Yesterday I was considering writing while really reading about writing. Because that’s pretty much the same thing.

Anyway, while “writing” I came across this article by a screenwriter coach who diplomatically entitled his article, “Why Your Screenplay Sucks,” or something equally poetic.

It was a typical blog with the usual hackneyed advice, yet despite the tone of the title, I almost got all the way through it before I found something to complain about—as I am wont to do.

I finally read this passage:

It’s all too obvious when I’m entering virgin territory as a reader.  If mine are the first eyeballs (other than the writer’s) to scan the pages, invariably they’re peppered with typos, incorrect usage of apostrophes, wrongly used words, random character names, formatting errors, confusing sentence structure, and all manner of monstrosities that disrupt my engagement with the text and have me wanting to claw my own cheeks off.

Yeah, these are not problems that come from not getting outside feedback, these are problems that come from not doing a second draft.

“Does it matter?” you say. “You’re agreeing there’s a problem. So what if he’s suggesting a symptom of having no one read it? He’s not directly saying it’s the cause. He’s just offering up (in an offhanded manner) a solution,” you say.

Blah, blah, blah. Yes, that is exactly the problem, I say.

In physics, the definition of probability means that anything is possible, just to an insignificant degree. Therefore, there is a chance that the molecules in my hands will align with the molecules in my keyboard and I’ll fall right through it. If that’s possible, then it is certainly possible to make a great first draft. I’m just not saying we should bank on it.

I don’t think the theory of “all first drafts suck” is a good one, but on the flip side, I think it just makes sense that nothing bad comes from revisiting your work. In most occasions, there’s going to be something an author wants to change, and even if—on the off chance—it is just magically perfect, the writer needs to refresh his memory. A book takes at least several weeks to write, if you are damn fast. For most of us it can be months or years. No one remembers everything they did, and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gotten advice I thought was good until I actually reread and reunderstood my work.

What annoys me is not that Screenwriting Coach judges a book by its typos (I do too. And while misspelled words aren’t directly correlated the author’s inability to satisfy me, it is statistically a good sign that he won’t) but that he says it’s obvious no one else has read the script because of these typos. To which I say, bunk.

You don’t need anyone else to read your script to get rid of typos. And in fact, most of these problems should be solved before we get the beta readers involved.

Here’s what happens when you give out a fresh-out-of-the-mind draft of a story.

1) There will be typos.

How many, however, depends on how much you write. My first drafts now have far less than my earlier novels. The more you write, the more you practice writing correctly, and the more you learn about grammar rules, the less you make mistakes the first time out. But they will exist.

2) People will give all their attention to the easiest, most obvious mistakes. Which will be typos, because you have them.

See the case of Mr. Screen Coach par example. He has every right to complain about typos and is correct in suggesting they’re distracting. The issue is him insisting that “If mine are the first eyeballs (other than the writer’s) to scan the pages, invariably they’re peppered with typos.”

Nope. Catching typos is easy. It’s not fun. It’s tedious for many, but it’s not a complex issue. Sure, it’s inconsistent enough that the computer can’t do all the work, but there’s a reason we have a spell check and not a break in continuity check on Word.

I assure you not only can an author fix his own typos, he should. If only, at least, in a cursory glance sort of way.

As a Grammar Nazi Card Holder since 1999, and yet the least precise person in the world, I can attest to both sides of being annoyed by poor grammar and being a hypocrite therein. Spelling was not my forte when I started writing, and neither is closely checking to see if the words I think I wrote are the ones I actually wrote.

What I learned from my haphazard turning in English essays without checking them is that you will never get in-depth feedback when there’s typos to discuss.

Now, I know that wasn’t Mr. Screen Coach’s point. But the suggestion to get a second pair of eyes to fix “typos, incorrect usage of apostrophes, wrongly used words, random character names, formatting errors, confusing sentence structure, and all manner of monstrosities that disrupt my engagement with the text,” is exactly what some people do. And I think it’s a mistake. He’s implying that you need outside feedback to make sure you didn’t make these cut and dried mistakes, where as I argue these aren’t the mistakes your second pair of eyes should even be seeing. It also bypasses the real reasons we want feedback and exactly what I (at least) don’t want.

Again, I’m good at knowing the rules, and I’m decent at implementing them as I write them. But I do slip up, and when it comes to mistakes that have already been made, I’m really really terrible at finding them. It’s not that I don’t want people to point them out for me—that’s great. You’re sitting there, reading through it, you notice it, it makes my life all kinds of easier—it’s that I don’t want that to be the focus of your criticism.

I’m not getting a second pair of eyes to tell me about my spelling errors. I believe it’s harder to get someone to read your damn manuscript then it is to fix your own typos, no matter how inattentive to detail you (re: I) are. While it’d be stupid to not say something, what I’m looking for is information. More importantly information that I can’t get for myself.

I cannot have a first impression of my own work, even if I let it sit for years. I can’t strip the knowledge of what I actually meant to say to see what I actually said. I can’t see how the order in which I put the information together is confusing, or stop filling in the blanks when I left something out. I don’t know what is unique to me (like laughing at menstruation jokes) until you tell me it’s not funny to you. I also don’t know that most people don’t know what “chagrin” means, or know that most people do know what it means, but my one beta reader was especially sheltered.

If I manage to get someone willing to read my book for free the last thing I want from them is a series of impersonal red lines telling me I need a comma. Or that I spelled “coma” wrong.

I want people point out, “I don’t know what the hell is going on.” Or “I don’t like that character.” Or “I totally thought the community and the union was the same group.”

In my experience, people don’t see past the typos. When a writer gives someone a first draft, the feedback is often what he could have seen for himself after a first read through. And if the author’s lazy enough or has enough friends, maybe that’s what he wants. But getting someone to read the same book once, let alone over and over is difficult.

So, yeah, yeah, ScreenCoach was really saying don’t have typos. And he’d probably agree with me in saying you should get rid of as many of them as you can before giving it out. I’m just saying we shouldn’t perpetuate that’s what second pair of eyes are for.

There are a lot of Grammar Nazis out there with far more interesting opinions rather than not ending a sentence in a preposition. Force the bastards to think for themselves and not allow them to focus on the easy marks, question or otherwise.



I just finished the quilt I will be giving away for the launch of my serial short stories this December.

Here it is:

Edgar and I will set up a raffle in early December. If you are interest in winning this beauty, all you will have to do is find your way back here and confirm you’re following me via Twitter, Facebook, or my blog. It’s free, and it’s a pretty good prize.

If you’re interested in keeping updated when I actually start the raffle, I will be announcing it on my social networks.

So bookmark this page, follow this blog, follow me on Twitter, or like my Facebook page!

(I do reciprocate.)