Plot 10, Writing 3

With apologies to A Chorus Line, “Plot 10, Writing 3”…

Thanks to an initial subscription given to me by my daughter and son-in-law, I have for several years been receiving a monthly publication featuring science fiction short stories and novellas. As one might predict, the quality of the stories varies, with some being very creative and engrossing, and some being significantly less so. What is disturbingly pervasive across the magazine’s creative spectrum, however, is some terrible writing and editing. To wit: the editor of the aforementioned sci-fi magazine, in responding to a letter from a reader complaining that he hated two recently published stories, wrote, “I actually feel like only hating two stories out of the year is pretty complementary, all things considered.” Clearly, the magazine’s editor needs some remedial work. (If you don’t see the error, you do, too.)

This particular magazine is not alone in the bad execution department. It exists in many self-published books as well as newspapers and magazines, and don’t get me started on club and other organization newsletters. I’ve written briefly about this before, but recently have seen so many good plots and articles marred by stupid writing errors that I’m motivated to address the problem in more detail, now.

Some of the problem, of course, can be attributed simply to lousy writing skills. There are a lot of folks who simply find it beyond their skill set to write a simple declarative sentence without error(s). The problem is exacerbated when they try to be creative. Disagreement between subjects and verbs; dangling constructions; tense discordance; the list goes on. What were these people doing back in grammar school? Obviously, not learning English. (Where’s grammar? Upstairs, sleeping.)

Most writing for publication these days is done on computers. You’d think people would use spell check before submitting a piece. But you’d be wrong. Why don’t they? Who knows? Grammar check? Ditto.

When pieces are submitted, they are often sent as e-mail attachments. This has led to carelessness in the editing process. Publications are no longer typeset and may receive no more than a cursory review by a nominal editor before being transferred directly from the submitted file to the actual document for publication. In other words, the role of the editor has become markedly diminished and apparently, in some cases, nonexistent. This is how idiotic errors on the order of, “John slipped behind the wheel and they put the key in the ignition,” can and do occur. With poor or no editing, we see things like there/they’re/their errors, the frequent “could care less” instead of “couldn’t care less” mistake, or the abominable her’s instead of hers. Read critically and you’ll find all sorts of execrable stuff like this.

So, what’s the answer? Unfortunately, I’m not sure there is one.

We don’t teach English usage well in our schools. Multiple choice testing and the lack of assignments requiring writing are major contributors to the problem. Worse, many teachers, being recent products of our faltering educational system with its lack of emphasis upon the acquisition of English skills, are simply not equipped to teach current students. The prevalence of texting is another problem that has received much attention. To say it’s ungrammatical would be an understatement.

Does any of this matter? Perhaps not for idiomatic, everyday communication. But I think it does matter for more formal journalistic, nonfiction, and creative writing. Maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but nothing ruins my mood while reading a terrific article or story quite as much as coming across an “irregardless”, a misuse of “begging the question”, a dangling phrase, a homonym error, a misplaced or misused apostrophe, or any of a large number of other errors that should never occur.

Call me a curmudgeon, but I think there’s beauty in our language, and I hate to see it butchered.

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