Reader’s Opinion: Yes, we are judging your book based on form, not function

First off, the following reviews I selected at from books picked at random. I did not read the books. I do not know if they have the errors or problems indicated. My purpose here isn’t to shame those authors or attack their work, it’s to point out what the fickle public is going to do to your book when you release it into the wild. They will savage it if they detect weakness. Read on:

Amazon review from Brian Harmon’s Rushed (Rushed Book 1):

FlashKnickers says:

Totally agreed. OVERLY LONG descriptions of everything, endless chase scenes (also overdetailed and dragged out). Too many typos, non-existent editing–how can you use the word “ghastly” in two consecutive sentences?–and honestly, would someone who died in the 1970s be using “LOL” and saying things are awesome, super-this and super-that? I found myself skipping ahead just to get through scenes that took 10 pages to explain five seconds’ worth of action that really didn’t require so much detail and description.

Amazon review from Jarvis Gatlin’s The Books:

Teresa Rambo
Besides the poor punctuation and senseless conversations, there was no plot development nor did I get a feel for the characters. It jumps around from setting to setting without explanation of how or why. I gave it a try but can’t give it over one star.

Amazon review from Cristin Cooper’s Until Now:

Teresa Rank
Very poorly edited — author doesn’t know the difference between there, their & they’re or your & you’re. I find this very distracting….and NO, I am not a grammar Nazi!!!

No, Teresa, you’re no grammar Nazi. And I like that you capitalized Nazi. We know you’re no grammar Nazi because your ellipsis had four periods, not the requisite three, and I’m wary of the em-dash you put in there. But why would desiring an author to have their homophones straight make you a monster concerned with a strict interpretation of grammar and punctuation and extinguishing entire races of people while conquering all of Europe?

Anthony Vicino at One Lazy Robot discussed why he believes that ratings and reviews don’t matter anymore (sort of!). His post brings up the fact that a well-edited author with a strong following of readers will gain skewed review statistics which makes the review system ineffective.

That may be true, but for the non-edited author, the readers aren’t your friend, yet, and they’re (There? Their?) out for blood. They won’t be leaving you a 5 star, or a 4 star. They’re going to 3 or lower star you.

The above reviews aren’t given to bash those particular authors; I went through the list of kindle books and culled the ones with only a few ratings, as I believe that books fall in to three categories: Well-written with underutilized marketing, poorly written with angry readers, and well-written with a lot of marketing/readers. There’s some other categories, but for today’s experiment, I looked for books with ten or fewer reviews. My assumption is that a sprinkling of poor reviews will cause others to shy away from the book and effectively kill it. If you read a review that describes a book with obvious editing errors, are you going to bother to read it? No.

The main takeaway here is that the book you sweated your way through and wrote in snow, rain, mud, and pestilence, that book you finally capped and told the story with 120,000 words, if you didn’t use editing, it’s going to fail.

For that reason, you need to engage proofreaders. Proofreaders are warm bodies who look for homophones, run-ons, awkward constructions, and tyops and flag them for you. They look at sentences and flag the awkward or wrong ones. They’ll do what Word 2013 does if you turn on the grammar. That’s the bare minimum.

Then we have the other people who will hone your text. Developmental editor? Yeah, you want one. See the complaint up there about Harmon’s book? What flashknickers is pointing out is the lack of a developmental editor, or possibly any editor. The problems that are obvious to a reader were not obvious to the author and you can’t erase 2 star “you didn’t edit” reviews.

Then there’s the story editors who will address your constant waffling on tense. They’ll insert commas where you desperately, desperately, for the love of all things holy, please please please NEED ONE. They’ll rip out your semi-colons and put periods on the comma splices.

Editing Removes Barriers to Story Immersion

Speaking only on my behalf, when I read a book I desire to immerse myself in the world. Immersion means to go under water or to be completely in something. Anyway, I want immersion. I don’t want story sprinkling. I want to be there with your character. I want to see what they see, experience what they experience. I want it to be vivid and interesting and there are setbacks and intense conflict and we are arcing and overcoming and trying and failing and doing all the fantastic stuff that a book is supposed to do. It is a complex endeavor to string 120 k words together in a cohesive fashion and tell a story and make the reader live there.

I heard this quote in church yesterday, from George Bernard Shaw. I think it applies to your writing as much as to anything else you do.

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.

I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

George Bernard Shaw

You want to be a candle or a torch? You’ve done this hard, hard work and then you just throw it out there on the web. $.99, buy my book. Why don’t you finish it before publishing? Spend the money and take your book from the “meh” level to the “ahhhh” level.

Mistakes Eject Your Reader From the Story

As a reader, when I see a mistake such as a missing comma or misused comma, it irritates me for a moment. Normally, my irritation is not your concern. If I’m reading your book, it should be. I’ll grant a few a mistakes and let it go. If you have an awesome story to tell and you’re a great storyteller, I may grant you leniency, but in my head your book still has a “deducted one star for no editing” sort of label.

Not just that I’m irritated, I’m also ejected from the story by your error. I am thinking, at that moment, about “why didn’t the writer put in a comma” rather than “what’s next? What happens next?” You NEVER want me to think about your craft. The underlying structure of words and sentences, spelling and punctuation, those things the reader should never think about. When they do, your text has failed and you have ejected the reader from the story.

Don’t Ask Me to Proofread the Book I Bought

When you get a homophone error (they’re their there), that’s a sure sign you did not engage a proofreader. Books that aren’t proofread and contain exhortations from the author to “drop me a line with any mistakes,” is a two-fold message. 1st message: “I want to fix my errors and I know they’re in there.” Yep. You won’t see Real Published Brick and Mortar Authors saying such things in their prefaces or afterwords. Why? That sucker is edited, that’s why. There ARE no errors in there.* 2nd: “I want you to pay for my book and then do the work I’d pay a proofreader to do by sending me the errors.” So, Tom Sawyer, you want me to paint your fence for you and pay you for the privilege?

*Yes, I know that errors do creep in to paper books. A majority of them do not have more than one or two nits. Big publishing houses tend to police the stuff they churn out pretty well. At least when I read some work from Penguin, I won’t be critiquing the author’s use of punctuation.

Where is your professionalism? It doesn’t matter that you’re a strong, independent author with a strong independent voice. Your voice has errors. Get a strong, independent editor to help you speak better.

If Someone Sends You a Note Telling You About Errors, Act on it

If you do ask readers to send you mistake reports, then in my opinion you have a short grace period between publishing the book and publishing your revisions. My assumption is that someone will have read it and sent you a list of mistakes. This is a lot nicer than leaving you a nasty review and shooting the book. If they’re right about the mistakes, GO FIX YOUR TEXT. Do it right away. Do not save up the errors for a really big edit. Fix it before anyone else sees that stuff. And by errors, I’m not talking about the endless revisions to your text that you might do to make the story better. I’m talking about grammar and punctuation errors. By the time a few months have passed, your eBook should be free of errors.

In fact, I wonder why Amazon authors who do get bad reviews about homophones or emails with lists of their mistakes don’t fix them, and address their detractors with a rebuttal: “Thanks for pointing out these problems with the text, I did a rewrite and revision and am grateful you contributed to the work in this manner.” It’s that whole idea that complaints allow you to see where your book is not doing the best and fixing it.

Your Text, and Only Your Text, is the Thing We Will Judge You On

I can only judge an author by their work. I don’t know most of the people whose work I read; I have their books and that art has to stand on its own. Errors and mistakes indicate to the reader that this author didn’t think it was necessary to dress up for the wedding, that they could come in ratty short, flip flops, a torn t-shirt, and without bathing for week. “Ignore the stench,” they say, “this is just the real me and you just need to get used to it.” I get that you have a unique voice and that the rules are there to be broken, but what I see a lot are rules that are not broken to create a stronger story, they’re broken because you didn’t have the bucks to hire another person to fix them and maybe you just don’t know that your semicolon habit is aggravating us to death.

Perhaps this is the only book you’re going to publish. If so, you don’t need to worry about gaining future readers to future works, and don’t care if the customer isn’t satisfied and puts your name on a list of “authors I will never read again.” But they’re going to give you poor reviews, and you won’t be read by the legions of readers out there.

“But Pontius, I’m awesome at editing,” you say. Maybe you are. Would you bet a two star review on it? Maybe getting one bad “you didn’t edit” review won’t submarine your book, but two or more of them are like the kiss of death. You cannot fool the reader.

Word Grammar checking

It looks like you're trying to write a novel. Would you like to: o Write it however you please and re-edit it a dozen times? o Write it correctly the first time? o Start and stop without finishing multiple projects?
It looks like you’re trying to write a novel. Would you like to:
o Write it however you please and re-edit it a dozen times?
o Write it correctly the first time?
o Start and stop without finishing multiple projects?

In a fit of pique, and to avoid further writing, I checked my manuscript in Word for readability statistics. To get there, you must set it up first. This is done by selecting file > options > proofing and clicking the box for “show readability statistics.” Run a spell check, and once you’re done hacking through your passive sentences, it’ll spit out result.

  • First impressions: My characters all speak in sentence fragments. I’d like to think that’s how everyone actually speaks. I may be off. Does the dialogue seem stilted or odd? Or does it sound natural and flowy?
  • Second: It hates the colloquialisms.
    Screw it, we gotta go.
    It didn’t like “gotta,” and flagged it as a non-standard word, like ain’t, irregardless, and alright. “…these words are always incorrect in written text.”Hey marines! Word says you’re a bunch of fragment using non-standard word lovers.

    “Tell Word to go shove it,” said Yuen. “It’s not as if we’re speaking English in a thousand years. Microsoft will be extinct. Or run the government. Just don’t bring back clippy or I’ll shoot the little ********.”
    Right, then, now that we have that conflict out of the way…

    Another colloquialism it caught and flagged:
    It’s not a good idea to send the most junior member of the squad out alone.
    Sure, that’s a fine sentence, except that the dialogue points out that “certain adjectives cannot be modified.”  Meaning that “perfect” is not modifiable. It cannot be made more perfect. Good point, Word. I’ll take it. Most is deleted. He’s the junior member of the squad.

    Another phrase for in the worst way?

  • Third: Contractions. It hates my contractions. However, contractions are the way people speak.
  • Fourth: Passive voice. I am slowly rooting that out. Word is very useful in finding the problems. Much of it is coming out of Yuen’s thoughts and conversation. Do I firm up her thoughts to be less passive? Or does passive voice reflect the character’s choices (unsure, unable to plan, uncertain)?I’m going to run with eliminating it altogether. Even from the thoughts. It helps readability, hey?

    It hates, “They were sacked.” I flipped it around. “We sacked them.” How active!

  • Fifth: It thinks impacted is jargon. In business it is. Here, it describes the action of the shuttle and the ground. Thus, the suggestions of “the shuttle influenced the ground” may not have the same, ahem, impact. Er, affect.
  • Sixth: It hates my cliches. In a nutshell. What’s another good phrase for that?
  • Seventh: Simplify. I have this word construction in two three places:

    She found the tool and snatched it from the compartment and retreated from the fiery shuttle.

    Word says to replace the extra ands with commas. It’s right on. The end result is:She found the tool,  snatched it from the compartment, and retreated from the fiery shuttle.
  • Eighth: It wants me to use gender neutral expressions. Crew Members instead of Crewmen. I’ll consider it… done. I’ll change it. Person instead of guy. Nope, he’s a guy. I’m not changing that one. I do have a disturbing high usage of guy, and may seek alternate expressions.
  • Ninth: Comma splice. I’ve got ’em. Three, so far.  Two of them I added conjunctions, and one I  changed to a period.
  • Tenth: Half and any word it modifies is hyphenated. So, half-day.

That was depressing. Results:
Words: 15,355.
Characters: 73,093.
Paragraphs: 543.
Sentences: 1601.

Sentences per paragraph: 3.0.
Words per sentence: 9.5.
Characters per word: 4.5.

Passive Sentences: 0% (Yay!)
Flesch Reading Ease: 74.8%
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 5.1

It says I write for a 11 year old?! Harrumph. I looked up what the reading ease and grade level scales are based upon. Wikipedia says:

In the Flesch Reading Ease test, higher scores indicate material that is easier to read; lower numbers mark passages that are more difficult to read.

That seems about right – chewing gum for the mind, but not literary high falootin’ multi-syllabic words everywhere.

And that grade level? Hmmm. Says Wikipedia:

“These readability tests are used extensively in the field of education. The “Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level Formula” instead presents a score as a U.S. grade level, making it easier for teachers, parents, librarians, and others to judge the readability level of various books and texts. It can also mean the number of years of education generally required to understand this text, relevant when the formula results in a number greater than 10.

Do I need to ramp up my literary score by substituting fancy words in place of those simple understandable words?

I hate you, Was.

It’s not a visceral hatred. I consider you to be like a nasty habit, was. I lean on you like a little writer crack pipe, or a nasty gambling addiction.

I’ll write, and you passively creep in, unnoticed. She was this. He was that. There was this. Was was was.

I’ve struck you down. I eradicated you from chapter 1. The stain of passive voice has shifted! It is now awkward voice. What’s wrong with passive voice? Weak writing? Wazzat? Who decided these rules, anyway?

If you haven’t figured it out, I read a top 10 stuff you’re doing wrong in your indy writing OMG!!11 post. I read down it, and I’m all smug, like you do, saying, “nah, I don’t do that. I’m freakin’ perfect. My stuff don’t stink. What are these guys sayin’? Was. Who writes in passive voice?”

As a precaution, strictly a precaution, no reason to panic, I ran a search on “was” in my manuscript.

Aw. Um. Good thing I didn’t tell anyone my thoughts on this, because I’m a passive using fool. LOOK AT ALL THOSE INDIRECT VERBS! The place is crawling with passive language. I blotted out a few extra non-threatening wases just because they looked like unwashed gremlins who’d sneak in a snack after midnight, in the bathtub, and repopulate my novel. The horror! The horror!

My goal is to write as well as Josef Conrad. I, after all, am a native speaker of English. He learned it when he was an adult. I can do better, surely. ;D