Have you ever been so moved by a piece of literature or so persuaded by an essay that you immediately changed your own views either of the world or regarding the topic it addressed? Have you ever re-read something just because it was so wonderful that you couldn't get enough of it?
To tell you the truth, I often re-read my favourite books for just that reason -I know that I am guaranteed a certain level of emotional or spiritual engagement no matter how many times I read them. New books or writings are always a risk to some extent: can I spare the time without knowing the result? If a book takes on average two minutes per page to read, a 600-page novel is going to take me about twenty hours to complete. Is it going to be worth it?
I’m sure I’m not alone in that approach to new work -can the time be spared when the outcome might be disappointing? The important thing to remember, though, is that even this question is based on a fundamental underlying premise, which is the principle upon which this article is based and which can make or break your work even at a late stage.
Most readers really want to enjoy what you’ve given them to read.
Your audience, whether made up of examiners or potential publishers, does not want to tear you apart; it is made up of people who are seeking something. Only one thing can stop them finding it: your writing.
Now that you’ve brought your readers this far -grabbing their attention with your gripping opening, compelling them to turn the page, refreshing them with your clarity and emotionally involving them with real characters in real situations- you’re on the verge of providing them with stellar rewards. But there are traps for the unwary, things that you can still do to “blow it”.
I’ve culled through considerable amounts of material to put together a list of what editors, teachers and writing professionals consider gets in your way even if you have all the other things in place. It mainly boils down to “disjointedness”.
The main way to spoil things for your reader is to throw around their attention and disconnect them from what they are reading.
You can do this in a number of ways. These can be divided into two broad categories:
1. Misdirecting their attention with failures in pacing or plot or character -i.e. the substance of the story. Spoiling the rhythm, in other words.
2. Errors in language or expression.
We’ve largely covered the first of these already with our discussions of rhythm and pacing in earlier articles. If you can keep up an effective rhythm, built from word level up, and if you continue to walk your reader through events using convincing characters to get emotional responses, you’ll probably make it to the end without mishap.
(Try to avoid something that occurred once in a detective story I read many years ago in which the convincing, entertaining tale ended up with the hero’s final words as he “pushed his spectacles up”. Never at any point earlier in the story had the fact that the hero wore spectacles been mentioned -I had to go back and swiftly “re-imagine” every scene in which he’d appeared!)
So it’s mainly the more tedious area of errors in expression that we have to watch out for. What are the main deficiencies in English which lead to a reader’s attention getting thrown around?
Often the largest single editing task is turning semi-coloned sentences into two sentences. Writing is like thinking, remember -long rambling thoughts can be better expressed as two sentences.
But one of the biggest factors is spelling. It just so happens that, by actual survey of examiners and editors, spelling seems to equate, rightly or wrongly, with intelligence. Personally, I’ve known many highly intelligent students who have had a serious problem with spelling; I’ve met some not-so-intelligent ones who could spell perfectly. So the two things are not really linked in reality. But they are psychologically in the minds of some readers.
Every spelling error you make reduces your apparent IQ by 5 to 10 points in the eyes of some examiners or editors.
That means that by the time some writers get to the bottom of the first page, they’ve been graded low or rejected out-of-hand by some readers by the spelling. A computer spellcheck will catch 90% of your spelling errors, but usually these are just the typos. Meanwhile, the other 10% can still erase your chances of a higher grade or easier acceptance. Computers are not very good at spotting context: “they’re”,”there” and “their” are all spelled correctly but how does the computer know which is which? Some computers have grammar programmes too, but computers simply can’t understand English, they can only read code based on the programmer’s knowledge of grammar. A friend of mine with a Ph.D. in Computer Science, whose thesis was about Artificial Intelligence, showed me his work in this area, and I would have to admit I was shocked by the lack of basic English grammar knowledge that he discovered in the field of computer programming.
(How do you check spelling if a dictionary requires that you know how to spell a word before you look it up? Type what you think is the correct spelling into Google -if you’re incorrect, it will probably answer you with "Did you mean...?" and give you the right spelling.)
What’s the solution to long-term spelling issues? Two things: look up and fully clear up any word you don’t understand in a good dictionary; and read more widely.
Spelling competence is simply about familiarity with words.
There’s an attitude that it doesn't matter how many rules of grammar and spelling are violated “because it's just e-mail”. But if you actually want to be a better writer, every time you write you need to try to be better each time. Read people who write well: look to see how they do their writing -how they craft sentences, use punctuation, break prose into paragraphs, and so on. If you can see what they're doing, you can try to do it too.
Readers want to know what you're saying. This is another reason why you should read everything aloud -if you can't make your writing understandable to you, you can't make it understandable to someone else.
Surely publishers, editors and readers generally make allowances for errors? Unfortunately not. There is no leeway when it comes to grammatical and spelling errors. Read, re-read, and have others read it also. No matter how good you think you are, check and re-check. The final piece is your responsibility. Make sure it is error-free, presented in a professional manner and that it follows all these guidelines.