Friday, 29 January 2016

Thoughts on writing

Recently I came across an author's response to an Amazon review and I have to admit to feeling saddened by the exchange. I have removed names as this is not a personal attack, but a general comment about the use or abuse of our language. 

Here is the review: 

"This isn't a bad story but, like so many books, it is spoiled by a poor understanding of the English language. He was sat should be he was sitting, he was stood should be he was standing. Towards the end this seems to have been corrected so why let it spoil the first three quarters?
Also, every time the word 'yet' appears it is preceded by 'in' which makes no sense.
Possessive nouns and pronouns have no apostrophes and the awful word 'gotten' is used.
Hyphens keep popping up for no apparent reason!
If you can ignore the mis-use of the English language, the book is worth a read though a little slow."

And the author's response: 

"Authors these days are told not to use too many words ending with 'ing'. Such grammatical language alters through the years, but this is something which is frowned upon by editors and publishers, and has been for at least the past five years, so it is abided by at all times. I'm also a little worried having read your reviews, that you are mentioning the same things in each of them. 'The author wrote sat and used the word gotten' is written in all of your reviews on Amazon. These words are acceptable in UK English."

Who is told "not to use too many words ending with 'ing'."? If a writer overuses the continuous tense in her verbs, or peppers her work with gerunds, clearly that is poor style. Any tedious form of repetition may spoil prose. But if a writer needs to be told this, perhaps she should spend a few years reading others who do know how to write, before rushing to self-publish her own work while she still lacks a rudimentary understanding of language? 

It is true that the rules of grammar are constantly changing, but do editors and publishers frown upon the overuse of "words ending with 'ing' " any more than any other poor use of language? I don't think so - and what does "it is abided by at all times" even mean? I certainly don't abide by these dubious ideas about what is "acceptable in UK English".

The author is entitled to criticise her reviewer for repeated complaints about constructions like "He was sat" but perhaps this is a case of choosing your battles carefully. 

"He was sat" is incorrect, and in my view is not "acceptable" from someone who claims to be a writer. 

At the risk of being brought to task for repeating myself, I do think that if you want to publish or, in this instance, self-publish, your work, you have a duty to at least try to write well. For a fellow author to employ such clumsy and inaccurate constructions as "he was sat" and "he was stood" is shoddy. But to then defend such prose as "acceptable in UK English" is shocking. Acceptable to whom? Not to me, nor to several irritated reviewers of her book.  

Several very poorly edited books have famously become blockbusters. We can all probably name at least two. So should we blame writers for throwing their work out and hoping for the best? Am I an idiot to devote so much of my life to agonising over my choice of words, and my sentence structures? Does it really matter? Am I just an old-fashioned pedant to care about the quality of my published prose?

What do you think? 

Links to all my books can be found on my website 


Twoyys4me said...

I'm with you on this one Leigh. Poor grammar, structure and spelling is unappealing and takes one away from the prose itself, which is meant to flow continuously.

I feel that part of the problem is 'wannabe' writers want to make money rather than wanting to tell a story which in the end is the difference between those like yourself who excel at Literature and those who do not.

Leigh Russell said...

I'm glad you agree, Twoyys4me. And thank you for the compliment!