Thursday, January 24, 2013

Near enough is good enough

I used to run an employment agency for teachers and I'll never forget a reply I once got to a rejection letter. I think this and the thought processes which lay behind it are highly relevant to the business of writing.

Being in charge of recruitment and also being renowned for speaking plainly, I would summarily reject any teacher whose covering letter or CV (resume to US readers) contained spelling or grammar errors. From my perspective, these people would one day represent us and I felt duty-bound to screen out candidates who didn't meet suitable standards. I also saw nothing wrong with informing the individuals about why I wasn't prepared to consider their applications further.

The reply that I shall always remember was far from being the only one nor was it necessarily the worst - it's just that I feel it epitomises a certain attitude.

"I hadn't realized it mattered."

What an epitaph! A true message to be remembered by.

The point is that it's not an acknowledgement of the existence of errors made nor is it a recognition that the very making of any errors is unacceptable, it's a bald statement which says that the writer of the quote has no concept of standards.

Part of the problem with the likes of Amazon and the 'Gold Rush' that is self-publishing is that every man and his dog thinks that they can write. We all know that's not true, of course, but try telling that to the Hoi Polloi. Deep inside I believe that the would-be gurus are absolutely correct in their statement that the 'cream will rise' but that's cold comfort when you see books that you'd put your eyes out rather than read ranking above something which you know has quality and substance.

I think the real issue lies in how we've been brought up. Parents, for example, often fall into one of two categories - the "Oh, darling, that's wonderful. I'm so proud," (even when the child has only made an amateurish effort) and "You can do better than this!" (when the child has worked hard and struggled). Neither stance is helpful when you’ve become an adult. Public exams further reinforce the idea that there are grades of passing “You got a ‘B’ – that’s marvellous!”

As a writer, you are both employee and employer, student and examiner, leader and disciple. You must set your standards high and live up to them. If, in doing so, the standards become unattainable (for you), then either find hired help (editor, proof-reader, formatter etc) or question whether writing is your bag after all.

Publishing second or even third rate material is going to backfire on the guilty parties one day; that has to happen. Amazon is choked with books and, just like any shop, if it has stock which isn't selling or being returned on a regular basis, what do you think they’ll do about it? Floor space costs money and even virtual floor space isn't free.

Looking at it from my perspective as a publisher in terms of book submissions, I may not understand what you've been writing about nor be able to appreciate the particular genre in the same way as a devotee might, but I can spot spelling and grammar errors and that instantly undermines my faith in the author. I also find it vaguely insulting (just as I did with that job application) because it smacks of "It's good enough for you, mate". Well, it isn't!

Spelling and grammar mistakes are not 'understandable', a 'fact of life' or 'minor details', they say 'I hadn't realized it mattered' which, translated, means "I couldn't be bothered". Be bothered because it does matter!

Clive West (along with his writer wife, Damaris) runs publishing agency, Any Subject Books. He's also author of The Road and the top-selling Hobson's Choice anthology of short stories along with two works of non-fiction. New authors (provided they meet the standards of course!) are always welcome - go to their website or Facebook page for more information.


  1. Great post, Clive, and an excellent reminder for myself to double check myself on spelling!

  2. Wonderful post. Just how I would have put it if I was articulate enough or an able writer. Could you send this to my local newspaper? The editor of which who commented to me that "putting out a newspaper is hard." When I said I preferred not to subscribe as I thought spelling and grammar was an issue with their publication.

  3. There are all kinds of grammar deficiencies. I've always said, "Know your limitations." And I know I have no idea where to put a comma." So, I have editors, not me, who scrub my manuscripts really looking for those punctuation errors. If, I don't do, this, every (sentence) I write would; look just - like this?

  4. Wow, if a teacher doesn't realize that grammar is important, how is that person going to demonstrate its importance to his/her students? Or will that teacher demonstrate it at all?
    I totally agree that there is too much emphasis on self-esteem these days. I work as a teacher, and some students often complain that I didn't give them the grades they "deserved". I tell them that I gave them the grades that they earned.

  5. Hi Everyone.

    NW, I remember another (adult literacy) teacher who (after I'd rejected her for poor spelling and grammar) proudly told me in a huffy email that she'd been 'vetoed by X Local Authority' (I'll keep the name confidential.

    There was another teacher who accused me of being 'unprofesional' for rejecting him ... and it goes on.

    Renee, I'd be delighted to write for your local paper but most of the stuff these days is outsourced to places where English is not a first language and the rates are low - very low. I see this from my work for a commercial writing site. I'm forever being offered stuff that pays 'as much as $1 an hour'. Hold me down, someone.

    Returning to my point. We all make mistakes (goodness knows I make enough) but what I'm really getting at is that all five of us here care. Repeat, we CARE. So many writers just don't give a .... fig and that's inexcusable. Not only that, if they don't care about their spelling and grammar, what does that say about their plot, their characters, their factual accuracy etc?