So, you don't think editing is a big deal?
When critics are kind enough to list spelling and grammatical errors, they are often dismissed by authors for their 'misguided' attention to detail. After all, the writer complains, she has presented an imaginative story with colourful characters, and she bemoans the Bozo reviewer, claiming he paid scant attention to the plot.
I am one such writer. I'm a member of an on-line writing community. Authors post and review each others’ work and rate it accordingly. During my first year on site, I wrote an essay entitled 'SPAG Queens.' SPAG is a term used to define errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar. I argued that reviewing should be divided into a two-part rating system, giving equal emphasis to creative as well as technical writing. I suggested that all these critics who continually went on scavenger hunts to unearth my missing commas were all frustrated, retired school teachers who delighted in rapping me over the knuckles with the ruler they brandished when they read my posts.
One very kind and astute woman sent me back a simple review and asked me whether I was willing to settle for mediocrity. "Don't you want to present your stories in the best light possible, show some personal pride in your work?" That stopped me cold.
By nature, I am a stereotypical Aries, the explorer, the adventurer who barges into a china shop with a great idea, but leaves the shattered teacups for others to sweep up. I never agonized over stories. Once I'd written them, after cursorily shooting them through spell check, I cut/paste and released them on-site.
After painful and repeated collisions with the SPAG Queens, I finally came to the conclusion that I can be a literary slob. It's one thing to be on a learning curve, gaining insight and taking advice to heart, it's quite another thing to disregard good advice, make the corrections when they're pointed out and continue without internalizing the lesson. Even while I was diminishing the importance of grammar errors, I failed to acknowledge that I was using my fellow writers as my personal editors.
It finally gelled and made an impression. I discovered two very simple tools to improve my writing. I began to read the stories out loud before posting. The sound of the words had a very different impact than staring and reading the same glaring mistakes over and over again on the screen. There were natural pauses in an oral review that screamed for a comma. I began to improve.
Then, to my dismay, I started to get comments about using a passive voice. What the hell is that? I'd mumble. But then a few charitable reviewers pointed out my overuse of words like had, were and been, and I discovered that my sentences became more effective when I switched them around to avoid these words.
Another reviewer—or maybe several—commented that the first hundred or there about sentences in my narrative started with the word I. “Of course they do,” I cursed. “It's a first person perspective. What do you suggest—using ME?” But of course, the reviewer was absolutely correct and gave me the kick in the pants I needed to pay attention to what was nothing more than a sloppy habit. Ditto for using the same word in two adjacent sentences. For example, I recently read a story with (paraphrased) these two lines: “It was a quarter mile walk to the mail box. As I was walking towards...” First of all, those two sentences can easily be combined and, second, the undue emphasis on walking has no relevance to the story, but the writer seemed to make it a big deal by the way she presented the opening.
By chance I discovered the preview button on the web site submission screen. This option further enhanced the quality of my work. I was amazed at how different my story looked when posted on the official home page. Maybe it was the bold font or the frame of information that surrounded my words, but it looked different and I was to discover that it was. In my cut/paste exercise from my Word program to the site, all my dashes turned into quotation marks. Some people referred to this tool as “Mad Eddie,” a demon editor who garbled the text when translating onto the forum. No matter what my Word document contained when I completed the transfer, my story reverted back to block printing.
I couldn’t assume that the story was ready to be released from the preview mode until I read it one more time. I can't tell you the number of stories I've released after dozens of self-edits, only to begin editing again after I've committed the story to public scrutiny.
I used to think I was a good speller, but spell check humbled me. The option doesn't make it easy for me to disregard errors, boldly underlining the mistake and forcing me to deal with the word. There are times when the option doesn't have an alternate spelling, and though I know it's a real word and describes exactly what I intended, I change it just to eliminate a flurry of finger pointing from the critics. Hell, if spell check can’t figure it out, I’m not so certain I’ll get a definitive answer from my fellow writers.
What spell check can't correct is spelling differences between American and UK language.
Most writing sites have international contributors and stories are posted by people living in Australia, England and Canada who all share a commonality for their love affair with the letter 'U.' These members of the Dominion have squandered millions of gallons of ink in their on-going obsession with that letter. Here is a small sampling of our extravagant overuse of this often ignored alphabet member. Americans will color, the Brits-colour and so it goes on down the list: humor/humour, neighborhood/neighbourhood, odor/odour--in an unrelenting flurry of confusion to the American reader. These are not spelling errors, just regional differences. But, some spelling mistakes are never unearthed, even by the most zealous writer's edit.
Recently, I made a terrible mistake. One would think that a simple spelling error could be overlooked, but it was compounded by the context of sentence in which it surfaced. I've been in sales for thirty years and occasionally I forget that the general public may not understand phrases that are in everyday usage in my industry.
I glossed over one such phrase--killer instinct—a phrase that, in sales, means unrelenting passion, a drive to get the sale and do whatever is necessary to get the purchase order. Of course, I was oblivious that if I dropped these words into a communication with an American who is listening to CNN report the latest shootings at a navy base in Washington they might have a completely different meaning.
To compound this precursor to my BIG MISTAKE, I was discussing a character in the writer's novel, a killer, and the author demonstrated a brilliant psychological intimacy with the man's head space. I related it to my own internal conflict of being passive, but having murderous thoughts towards OBAMA. Just to illustrate the point even further I discussed my tears when spotting road kill despite my ability to put a bullet between the man's eyes. No, I wasn't talking about OBAMA, I was referring to OSAMA, but the damage was done.
He muted me, denied me access to his portfolio, barring me from reading any further chapters to his book. Apparently he replied to my review, sending me a response telling me to absolutely never make any attempt to contact him or darken his door again. This response was likely chewed up and hit his junk box during the muting process. I never received his answer and only discovered the locked door when he posted a new chapter. I admire his passion about the President and it reflects my own—and I'm not even an American.
Somewhere hidden deep in my on-site portfolio on the web site we both frequent, there is an essay titled “Obama,” written by me three years ago. I wrote about a President who fired up America, the like of which has not been seen since the Kennedy years. I talked about the grace and charm and the respect this man brought to the international stage and my own undiluted admiration. My fellow writer obviously never read my heartfelt essay, or perhaps he believed that I was so fickle that I could morph from love to hate in a scant three years. The story is in the general vicinity of my essay “SPAG Queens,” an irony that doesn't escape me.
SPAG does count. For me it meant the dissolution of a relationship with an author I both like and admire. Words are powerful tools, but can easily be used as weapons. We can build walls, or we can build bridges with words that will bring us closer together or tear us apart. We writers need to accept responsibility for the quality of the work we make public and the content as well as the intent of our essays.
The whole thing was my fault. I was the one that wrote the words and I was the one who pressed the release button.
Perhaps someone out there will vouch for me if Homelands Security comes to my door.
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