I have written before that in literary circles it is widely accepted that a good story can be told so badly (lousy writing) that the effect on the reader will be poor. But what is less discussed is that a story can be so good that it can overcome non-optimal writing. The truth is that if readers are enthralled by the story they are less likely to notice flaws in the writing. I even hear this from professional editors who sometimes have to force themselves to “disengage” from the story in order to perform their job. And there is a reason for this that is grounded in the very way our brains recognize words, which is based more on patterns and context than in the individual sequence of letters in the words. To see what I am talking about read the following paragraph of garbled words. The Sun Zbera is a coclletion of stroies aobut the advtneures in liivng of an uunsual litlte gril naemd Nlel, her moethr, Ronhda, and Nlel's ftaher who is the narrtaor of the stroies. The storeis dael wtih how the wrlod of audlts and its hrad reialites intsreects wtih the magacil caererfe wolrd of chdilren. To quickly recognize a word the brain requires only that the first or last letters (or couple of letters) be the same along with, a resemblance of the garbled world to the original one. This is why the average reader often doesn’t notice a few typos or spelling mistakes while reading a page turner of a story. But this natural wiring of the brain can be overridden. Editors and others with many years of training in spotting errors in the grammar and other aspects of stories can often train their brain to automatically detect these imperfections. If you are a writer, having your brain “trained” this way can be a blessing but it can also be a curse. Before I explain this let me state that I applaud the labor of editors and I am all for improving our writing. In fact I feel mortified when a reader points out a mistake that I overlooked. In this aspect I am a perfectionist. But even while I learn more about writing English, I willfully try to avoid developing this “analytical” mind for the writing craft. Why? Many self-published books on Amazon that have numerous five star reviews also have, as one would expect, a few one star reviews. When I check these one star reviews I invariably find some people that complain about the bad quality of the writing and bemoan the English illiteracy of those that give the books glowing reviews. I once read a one star review by someone who complained about finding five typos on a 500 page novel! This is the danger. When you override the natural wiring of your brain and turn it into an error spotting machine you may find yourself in a situation where the majority of the books written by your fellow human beings will not satisfy you. The smallest imperfection will cheat you out of the enjoyment of the story. The life-changing narratives that razzle and dazzle everyone else will turn into your slush pile, and you will spend the rest of your days grumbling about the "trash" people like to read. Very bad writing can spoil a story; we all agree on that. But the point of writing is not achieving perfect grammar, writing structure, and so forth. The epicenter of writing is the story, the adventure and beauty it represents and the effects it has on us. Our brains are wired to “extract” these items from the narrative for our pleasure and personal enrichment. Do not tamper with this process by setting the bar so high that you effectively kill your chance to enjoy the story. ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
I must begin this post by stating I am a hard core Harry Potter fan. How strong a fan am I? Well, if you come up to me and tell me you don't like Harry Potter I will look at you with a pitiful expression and reply, "I'm sorry, but you know, there are support groups out there that can help people like you."
As it turns out there are quite a few people in need of these support groups judging from the many one star reviews that the Harry Potter books have accumulated at Amazon. Consider the numbers:
Sorcerer's Stone: 81
Chamber of Secrets: 33
Prisoner of Azkaban: 37
Goblet of Fire: 77
Order of the Phoenix: 161
Half-Blood Prince: 161
Deathly Hallows: 97
Of course these one star reviews are but a mere "blip" if you compare them to the combined thousands of 5 and 4 star reviews. But I was curious about why these people gave these great books one star reviews. The majority stated they didn't "like" the books for various reasons.
Now, all kidding aside, I can understand someone not "liking" a great book. I can respect that. I have not liked some great books. For example, although I liked the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit, I did not like Tolkien's "Silmarillion". For me it was very slow and boring, but I still recognize it's a great book in its plot and scope.
However, the one star reviews that puzzled me were those that claimed that the books are not great because they are poorly written. These people wrote that the Potter series suffered from mediocre, careless writing, poor editing, bad grammar (e.g. run on sentences and overuse of adverbs), dreadful prose, shallow characters, and bland descriptions. Someone wrote: "The adults who like these books are the ones who didn't pay attention in English class." And these comments from readers are no different from those I had read that came from certain literary critics.
So let me get to the crux of this post. Even if we assume the Harry Potter books are not well written, I want to ask: what is the function of good writing? Are people supposed to learn to write well to better communicate with their readers or are people supposed to write well just because they should blindly follow a set of rules? My opinion is that it is the former that is important. Let me put it this way:
Effect on the reader = story + how you tell it
In other words, the "effect" the story has on the reader is due to the combination of the actual tale itself and how well you tell it (grammar and writing technique). In the literary community it is accepted that a good story can be told so badly (lousy writing) that the effect on the reader will be poor. But what is seldom discussed is that the story can be so good that it can overcome non-optimal writing.
I want to venture that there is a sizeable group of persnickety people out there who have become so enamored with the formal rules of writing that they have lost the ability to appreciate a good story, and this is sad. If the price I have to pay to become an excellent writer is to not be able to appreciate books like the Harry Potter series, then I don't want to become an excellent writer, period, as simple as that.
Be that as it may, I do think that these books are awesome and I agree with Stephen King who predicted that Harry Potter is destined to join the likes of Alice, Frodo, Dorothy and Huck Finn in the pantheon of the great characters of all time. And if you don't agree with that, well, I can provide you with a list of support groups that can help you.
Humph! ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
In this digital age spell checkers have made typos come to the forefront as the bane of writers. Typos arise when we miss a letter (our massage treatments help relive your pain), replace a letter with another (we feature some-day shipping), switch the order of letters (I know judo, karate, jujitsu and other forms of marital arts), or even when we miss a space (the penis mightier than the sword). Many typos are particular to each author. I, for example, tend to write "bellow" instead of "below", "were" instead of "where", and "of" instead of "off". In my book The Sun Zebra, I caught a typo that I had overlooked despite a few rounds of editing. I wrote "stripped quadrupeds" instead of "striped quadrupeds". Although finding typos may bother some people, I don't mind a few. In fact, I think they are fun to discover. In some books I have read recently I have found some fun typos like "god judgment" instead of "good judgment", "roll model" instead of "role model", and "fir" instead of "fur". But the most unfortunate and hilarious of typos is probably what happened to the hero in a book by Susan Andersen.Leave a comment and share some typos, they can either be your own or someone else's. ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
I had read Stephen King's book "On Writing" many years ago, but since I am now writing, I decided to give it another read. This is how in the chapter entitled "Toolbox" I came upon the following:
Steve states that communication is composed of several parts of speech and it must be organized by several rules of grammar upon which we agree. He writes "When these rules break down, confusion and misunderstanding result. Bad grammar produces bad sentences." He then proceeds to quote his favorite example from the book "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White.
"As a mother of five, with another one on the way, my ironing board is always up."
I scratched my head and grimaced feeling a bit hopeless. After all Steven King is one of my favorite writers and this is HIS FAVORITE example of how bad grammar produces bad sentences. The problem is, I didn't see it. To me the meaning of the sentence is plain. A pregnant woman, who already has five kids, is obviously talking or thinking about the fact that her ironing board is always up due to her situation. I must have reread the sentence twenty times and still I didn't see it. I showed it to several people, they thought it was OK. What is the problem? I gave up and I did what we all do to obtain information in these times: I googled it.
The problem seems to be the following: The segment "mother of five" is a "dangling modifier". This means that it is intended to describe a noun or pronoun that isn't there next to it. Because the closest noun in the sentence is "ironing board" it is claimed that this will confuse the reader into thinking the ironing board has had five children and is pregnant again.
Really? Sorry but this thought never crossed my mind while reading this sentence. When the meaning of a sentence is crystal clear to the majority of people who read it, how can you make the case that it is confusing and wrong? The purpose of grammar is not to follow rules blindly because they are THE RULES. The purpose of grammar is to make the text readable and clear for the reader. With regards to the sentence in question, even though the noun is not next to the modifier "mother of five", its presence is very clearly implied (the woman is talking about herself, not the ironing board). The meaning is so obvious that there is no confusion. If the readers don't see a problem, if the text is readable, if the meaning is clear, why create an issue when there isn't one?
You could argue that the rules should be applied in general to every situation so we can avoid the more obvious cases such as:
"Wrapped in foil, Joe ate the hamburger."
(Did Joe wrap himself in foil before eating the hamburger, or did he eat the hamburger which was wrapped in foil?)
"Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap."
(Who was in a dilapidated condition, the person who bought the house, or the house?)
or part of a funny quote from Groucho Marx:
"This morning I shot an elephant wearing my pajamas."
(Did he shoot an elephant while he was wearing his pajamas, or did he shoot and elephant that was wearing his pajamas?)
I do agree that in many such cases the reading experience can be improved by fixing the grammar. However, I would argue that we have to proceed in a case by case basis because context and implied meanings may trump the mindless application of grammatical rules.
Consider the following sentence found in a New York Times best seller often cited as an example of poor grammar:
“We found the address he gave me without difficulty”.
Again, what is wrong with this? As I understood it, one person who belongs to a group (we) is stating that they had no difficulty in finding an address that another person gave them. Most readers would read through this without blinking. The "problem" seems to be that "without difficulty" has been placed next to "gave me" instead of "found". Thus you could interpret that the group found an address, which somebody had effortlessly (without difficulty) given to one of them. Sorry, but this interpretation never crossed my mind, I had to really make an effort to see it this way.
I am all for improving our grammar, but there is an inherent danger in taking this to an extreme. The more grammar you learn the more you may demand from others that they exhibit the same level of learning you have. Because of this you may end up finding that the majority of the stories written by normal human beings strike such dissonance in your mind that you cannot bring yourself to read them, and this would be very sad. We should not let learning too much grammar spoil the enjoyment of a good story.