Writing well is important

You might look at the title of this post and then higher up at the masthead of this blog and think, “Duh!”  Well, yes, a literary agency blog post that states something as obvious as “writing well is important,” would seem to indicate that its author is either (a) simple minded or (b) really, really struggling to find a subject for her weekly rant.

In fact, while idly catching up on my online news, I came across this post by Kim Brooks, who teaches college composition courses.  As I read about Ms. Brooks’ frustration with the papers her students turn in, which show a complete lack of understanding of or even appreciation for correctly written English, I started musing about the countless queries my colleagues and I receive which are peppered with awkward at best, ungrammatical and nonsensical prose at worst.  Then, there are the proposals and manuscripts turned in by journalists and other professionals whose livelihood depends on their writing skills and which make us pound our heads on our desks in desperation.  One can ascribe these sloppy, sometimes undecipherable texts to laziness or haste, but perhaps, as Ms. Brooks suggests, we should be looking at how English is taught in this country and why it is that so many kids are graduating high school without knowing what to do with a comma, much less a semi-colon.

Call me old-fashioned, a geek, or a more colorful epithet, but I think it’s shameful that we are not more invested in knowing how to write well—not imaginatively, creatively, or poetically, mind you, just technically well.   Can you enjoy a piece of writing when the punctuation is off and there are misspellings or malapropisms throughout, even if the subject matter is compelling?

7 Responses to Writing well is important

  1. Lisa Marie says:

    “Can you enjoy a piece of writing when the punctuation is off and there are misspellings or malapropisms throughout, even if the subject matter is compelling?”

    From what I’ve been reading in various forums, a lot of people can – and do. The refrain “I want to read a good story; I don’t care about spelling or grammar” has become a loud and very vocal chorus among readers these days. In my more cynical moments, I wonder if a book could be written in textspeak, pig Latin or “ESL” and still draw a huge audience.

    I believe that it can. When self-pubbed books with incredible flaws jump to the top of the list on Amazon, this sends a clear message that poor writing isn’t endemic to today’s writers; it affects readership, too.

    Writing is my livelihood. Because not many people can, I have a lot of job security. Moreover, my job is to write at no more than an eighth-grade reading comprehension level – in some cases, sixth. All of those arcane vocabulary words in my head and complex, lyrical sentences I learned to construct at university are of no use to me if my audience doesn’t know the meaning of “vermilion.”

  2. Rowenna says:

    I used to tutor writing at the college level. It astounded me how many students simply did not know how to communicate using the written word–not that they didn’t know proper essay formatting, not that they didn’t quite get what a thesis statement was, but that they could not write as a form of communication. They were not stupid kids–they learned quickly, given guidance. But it illustrated to me that writing, in many curriculums, was not and I imagine is still not a priority.

    For me? I do have to see basic mechanics of grammar at work to enjoy writing–if not, I see the writer, not the story. When there are grammatical errors, it pulls me out of the story and makes me want to grab a red pen. But–that’s me, and I own up to being anal.

  3. There is a certain irony in reading American views on correct spelling and grammar. The language is English and colour has a U in it.

    Having said that, there is much to like about the corrupted dialect used on your side of the pond, as it often has a conciseness, even a wit, that cannot be achieved in the mother tongue.

    To take issue that an audience that does not know the meaning of the word “vermilion,” seems a little like shooting yourself in the foot. (I confess I just looked the word up in the dictionary). But to make an issue of the understanding of one word, is to make an issue of the understanding of every single word. Does anybody have a vocabulary that is absolutely faultless? As I have seen lexicographers looking up words in dictionaries, I think not.
    The art with obscure words, (including ones that shouldn’t really be obscure) is to phrase sentences in which they are used, so they are self-explanatory.

    I was not blessed with the best of educations, and even using a spell-check sometimes the odd incorrect spelling can creep through because a wrong spelling of a word can often produce another alike word. For instance, the words anal & anile; which are often confused in conversation; will slip by a spell-check when one is intended and the other actually written.
    Grammar is another weak point with me, but I have a couple of text books on the subject, and I try to improve myself with its disciplines. The problem I encounter with this is; for every rule of grammar there seems to be between fifty and twenty thousand exceptions; so I don’t suppose I’ll ever achieve perfection.

    I can understand an agent’s frustration at receiving a manuscript with poor spelling and grammar and I wonder how many are dismissed for not being up to standard, or rather how high the set standard is for it not to be dismissed without reading. The point is made that books with incredible flaws jump to the top of the Amazon list. Could this be because they are good stories? Is the traditional publishing format, now so concerned with correctness that the worth of a cracking, good yarn is lost?
    Yes presentation in spelling and grammar is important, but so is imagination and the ability to craft a plot. For every poorly written book self-published on Amazon there are at least fifty well written ones in the bookstore that are dull uninspired pap.
    How many old time authors would have been lost to us if, back in the day, they were not paired with an editor who would make the work properly readable? Agatha Christie for instance, was a notoriously bad speller and I doubt very much that she would be published if she were writing today.

  4. Donna Hole says:

    Even knowing in high school that I’d like to become a writer some day, I didn’t pay enough attention to proper grammer and punctuation. And I thought analyzing a story to figure out the author’s deeper meaning was stupid.

    Well, now I’m much older and wish I’d paid more attention. .

    Yes, bad grammer and spelling will eventually force me to put the novel down. No matter how engaging the story. If the lack of basic writing skills pulls me out of the story, there’s no point in finishing the novel. I’ll be too distracted by the structural errors to be fully entertained.


  5. Julie Nilson says:

    “Can you enjoy a piece of writing when the punctuation is off and there are misspellings or malapropisms throughout, even if the subject matter is compelling?”

    Yes, absolutely. I’ll forgive a few errors, especially in a blog or other source that isn’t formally published. But if something is *rife* with errors, then that tells me that the writer is not a frequent reader, and I don’t believe you can be a good writer unless you read.

  6. There are only two things that will make me stop reading: The misuse of “it’s” instead of “its”, and the frequent use of a homophone instead of the correct word. (If I read about someone “pouring over a book” ONE MORE TIME, I may retch. That particular error always leaves me with an obscene mental image.)

    Misspellings, punctuation mistakes, and malapropisms make me twitch, but I don’t actually stop reading the entire work unless the mistakes are numerous enough to confuse the narrative.

  7. ChemicalLove says:

    great stuff but you missed a couple (minor) spellin mistakes near the end lol and my comment from earlier hasn’t shown but hey…..

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