Some Humble Advice for Writers Lacking “Style”

There’s an epidtypo graphicemic of “stylelessness” invading our literary shores affecting both newly published and established authors who release e-books. The style they’re lacking is “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. Nearly every good writer (and every copy editor/book editor) will tell you that “The Elements of Style” should be read, re-read, and read yet again and, presumably, put to work in your novel or short story. But if that were happening, I wouldn’t be so…well…appalled by the number of spelling and typographical errors I have seen in the e-books I’ve downloaded lately. “But wait,” you say. “You’re probably downloading self-pubbed e-books!” Unfortunately not, dear reader. The books I’m downloading come from traditional publishing houses. I’m not downloading the riveting self-pubbed autobiography of my-neighbor-Joe-Smith-down-the-street.

You, dear reader (er, writer), should know that the only person who looks bad when there are errors in your work is you. No one (except perhaps your fellow writers) is going to say, “Oh, they just had a crappy editor.” They’re going to think less of you as a writer because you confused “wear” and “where” or “it’s” and “its,” or you forgot punctuation, or simply misspelled words….and it made it into the released copy!

Here’s the real problem with having a bunch of silly mistakes in your published writing: it’s a distraction. It creates confusion. It takes away from your story. It’s also unprofessional and I don’t know about you, but I want to be taken seriously…I’m a writing professional (note I didn’t say “professional writer” — that’s a whole different ball of wax).

If you’re being published through a traditional publishing house, try to make sure your e-book gets the same copy writing attention as your printed book…if possible, someone should be copy editing the e-pubbed version in its medium (Kindle, Nook, iBooks, etc.), not simply the text before it’s exported to e-pub format. (I can hear you saying “Yeah, right!” about now.)

If you are self-publishing, please, please, please spend the money for a professional copy editor! This was reiterated again and again by successful self-published authors at the 2013 RWA Conference in Atlanta a few weeks ago.

If you don’t know a good copy editor, here are two places to start:

Also, make sure you’re hiring the right editor for the job. Check out Nancy Peske’s awesome page about the Seven Common Myths of Editing.

If you can’t afford a copy editor, then go back to your old high school English teacher and ask them to help you. You can solicit a professor at your local college and ask him or her if your work can be an exercise for a technical writing class. If you know someone in your critique or writing group who has a particularly good eye for grammar, ask to trade services (you’ll critique their book, they’ll edit yours). In other words, ask around until you find someone to review your work!

I can hear you grumbling. “Who are you to be getting on your high horse like this?” Before turning to fiction, I was a technical writer and copy editor…for a long time. I have spent years crossing ts and dotting is. I have an undergrad degree in English with a minor in tech writing and a Masters in Information Design and Communication. So yeah, I know a little bit about proper grammar.

I have an immense amount of respect for my fellow tech writers and copy editors. It’s a very arduous, detail-oriented, and sometimes mind-numbing task, but for you, the writer, it’s necessary (even I have a copy editor! I don’t trust myself to find all of my mistakes). Remember, though, that copy editing takes time. I know you’re excited to get your book published and out the door, but please don’t skip this step. (It’s even a good idea to do this before submitting your ms for consideration by an agent or editor.)

So remember, fellow writer, before you allow your work to be e-published (by yourself or your publisher), make sure the e-version of your book has gotten the same attention (or more) as your printed version. And if you only have an e-pub version, then give it two sets of eyes (not yours!), if possible…one before formatting it and one after. It seems like a lot of work, but it’s worth it. Because the only thing a mistake in your work will do is discredit you in the eyes of your reader…and that definitely isn’t stylish.

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