Thursday, April 28, 2011

Thoughts on Grammar and Style from a Reviewer's POV -- c.anne.gardner

Writing isn't about words; it's about sentences. Sentences are made up of two parts: vocabulary and grammar. The Words = The Idea, and Grammar = The Tone, The Mood, and The Inflection, or rather, the grammatical choices you make directly affect how the idea moves through the words.

There once was an author who had taken to rant on their personal blog. Nothing unusual there, writers tend to rant, and I do it all the time, but this was a rant specifically leveled at reviewers, and this particular rant specifically addressed the question: Why can't we [the reviewers] be more specific when we mention editorial issues in a review?

As a reviewer, I can be blunt and simply respond to that by saying: Reviews are for readers, not for authors.

Too blunt? Ok, I will elaborate then. It is not generally a reviewer's job nor is it generally their inclination to proofread and/or to edit a book for an author via pointing out all the grammatical and/or structural problems in a review. Potential readers want a book review; they want to know how the story and the reading experience affected the reviewer. They don't want a list of all the errors that the reviewer caught while reading. Simple as that. That sort of detail is best left for the workshop or for the beta read, not for the review. A review is an overall critique of the reading experience, not a copy edit. If I stumble during the read due to grammatical and structural issues such as poor punctuation, missing words, homonyms, poor sentence structure, etc. I will just say "editorial issues" in the actual review. I will also let potential readers know if they were pervasive or not and whether or not it affected the read for me. Sometimes, if I am reviewing from a PDF and the file isn't locked out, I will highlight the issues and make comments during the read, and in some cases, I will share those with the author privately if they ask. I prefer not to make a nitpicking spectacle of a book in a review. Some things should be left only with a mere mention. The rest can be taken offline.

This is not about style here. This is strictly about grammar, and there is a huge difference between the two. A missing comma here and there isn't going to rock a reviewer's world or even reduce a review score, but if they cannot deduce what you are trying to say because they have stumbled over your ineptly placed clauses and your litany of redundant adjectives and adverbs, then yes, there is a problem, and they will probably mention it. Readers don't give a rat’s ass about statistics; they don't want a laundry list of your faux pas; they want a review. If you want to pay a reviewer for a comprehensive copy edit along with your review, then by all means, I am sure they would be happy to do so, but when someone is reviewing -- FOR FREE -- they normally note the errors and move on. Sure, there are typos and errors in traditionally published books too, but they tend to be an occasional thing. That, unfortunately, isn't the case with some self-published books.

Now, you can call the reviewer a grammar Nazi if you want to. I am sure they don't mind or care. I know this because I've made my own share of mistakes over the years and have gotten slammed for them. I still trip over my words sometimes, but I am not going to take a lackadaisical attitude towards grammar and say it doesn't matter because grammatically and structurally sound writing makes the writing virtually invisible to the reader, as it should be. Again, I am not talking about style here. Style is subjective. Grammar is not. I love the language, and I respect it, as well. It can take a bit of manipulation, but when it comes to clear and concise thoughts, you need to follow some rules. Personally, I don't care if you use an extra period or not, or put in extra spaces or not, when using an ellipsis. Both are acceptable. I do care if you use a hyphen instead of a proper em-dash because the two are not interchangeable and it makes the read confusing when you mix them up. Most reviewers expect authors to take care with word usage, punctuation, and spelling. If you practice lazy writing, then the reader/reviewer has the right to feel as if you don't respect them, more so if they paid good money for your work. Now, I am not talking British versus American English either. I have mixed the two deliberately with little complaint. I am not talking about adverbs, or first person/third person head hopping shit, or present, past, future, and infinite tense nonsense. Those are stylistic choices, not language issues. Push the boundaries at will here; you'd just better know what you are doing before you decide on anarchy. Some reviewers out there don't appreciate anarchy, and some don't even know what anarchy means. Yes, that was a shot at those fly-by one-line Amazon reviewers who can't spell.

I also realize that our language is ever changing -- the lesser/fewer debate rages on -- but the way to express clear and concise thoughts has not. Verb tense and placement, dependent and independent clauses and their placement, the use of participle phrases, and all the wonderful bits of punctuation at our disposal help us say what we mean in a universally understood manner. Language is a glorious thing, and you can get as simple and/or as complex as you want. Even so, there is a little something we call Basic English, and with that comes a few basic rules. Learn them, love them, and live them.

As for style, I've spoken at length about the so-called style-guides and the mainstream writing conventions/fashions of the time. Writing should not, and in many cases, cannot always be confined to traditional structure. In this case, writers and critics can take the style guides too literally. I have seen stories suffer due to hack and slash editing based upon misconceptions and misunderstood principles, many of which were gleaned from the latest and greatest Writing for Dummy books. Maybe the confusion lies simply in the definition of the word guide. Guide and Rule are two completely different animals, and in the case of writing tutorials, they are often used interchangeably, so the confusion is understandable.

Grammar has rules. The art of writing is a wondrously different beast, well beyond the basic physics of the see-spot-run sentence construction. The only rule is concise thought, and grammar takes care of that. You have to know proper grammar. Everything else is open to manipulation. Strong writing has a strong foundation. Grammar is that foundation. Great writing goes beyond just being well written. Great writing is beautifully written. Great writing is where the author has been able to combine grammar and style. Grammar works from a set of logical principles; style is where the basic mechanics are put aside for more poetic and experimental construction, where the focus is on the underlying theoretic principles of literature and not just the physics of a story. Every author would be wise to understand both and the distinction between the two.

And not all literature has to fit traditional convention. I think Kafka would agree with me on that one. Standardization destroys original thinking and thus destroys art. So how seriously you take style guides and the conventions of the day really depends on what you are writing. How seriously you take grammar depends on how seriously you want to be read.

Cheryl Anne Gardner

Note: I have not read Mr. Fish's book titled How to Write a Sentence and How to Read one, but it is getting rave reviews across the net. The equation in the beginning of this article is not from the book; it's my own theory. However, the basic premise of the book is: In order to learn how to write a great sentence, you have to read great sentences and understand what makes them great.


Elisabeth said...

I'm with you here, Cheryl.

Thanks for a thoughtful review of the role of the reviewer, and your ardent plea for structure. Blogging however seems to offer bloggres ermission to brweak all sorts of rules and give preference to style over them.

It's funny, as I write this, I suddenly feel self conscious about my word choice, my sentence structure, my grammar and my writing.

The trouble with rules and even with their more benign brothers, style guides, they can intimidate.

We need therefore to hold to them lightly.

LV Cabbie said...

Very, VERY nice!

I loved the part about "Reviews are for readers, not authors."

That hit the nail on the head. A review is probably the only way a reader has to know ahead of time whether the work of an unknown or "indie" author is worthwhile.

If an author wants someone to edit or make suggestions on his/her work, there are more than a few places out there to find beta readers.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Thanks Elisabeth and LV. I'm an author too, but in this case, I had to take the reviewer's point of view. I review a lot of Indie books, and sometimes we get way too much crap thrown at us from authors who don't understand that we are not reviewing for them.

I am also sick to death of novice authors saying that grammar doesn't matter anymore.

And Elisabeth, if your self-conscious about your writing then it means you care about what you are doing. You care about your art. I always feel that way too, and I think it's helped me improve along the way.