As some of you know, I'm an editor as well as a writer. Getting the right words in the right order is how I make my living. Which is why I get the tiniest bit annoyed when I hear aspiring authors say things like this: "I'm not too bothered about my spelling/punctuation/grammar [delete as applicable]. I know it's not very good, but a proofreader can sort it out."
Great. I'm glad you want to give a fellow professional some work. But at the same time, speaking as a writer … really? You're happy to let someone else decide what your words mean?
Spelling, punctuation and grammar are like the stage directions in a play. Without them, the actors all face forward and speak their lines without any shade of inflection or meaning. If you want to convey exactly what you had in mind when you wrote your words, you have to get these basic things right. It isn't a matter of being pedantic for the sake of it. It's a matter of being pedantic in order to make sure your meaning is understood.
In a similar vein, I've noticed a tendency for people to dismiss errors in their work as 'typos'. Fine, if they genuinely have made one or two spelling errors here and there. Even if you get five different people to read through your work, there's bound to be at least one mistake you and they all overlook. But consistent misspellings or misuse of apostrophes? They're not typos. They're tools being wielded incorrectly. If you met a carpenter who referred to his constant failure to craft a tight-fitting joint as a 'slip', or a plumber who described her recurring inability to fix a leak as a 'minor error', you'd assume they were incompetent. So why is it OK for a writer not to possess the full set of basic skills they need for their own particular trade?
I'm not saying that people shouldn't make mistakes, nor that they should be born knowing everything. Both are impossible. But what I do object to is an attitude that says I don't need to learn any of this stuff, because it's not important. Some people seem to think that an ability to write well is a natural talent and, as such, they don't have to work for it. Yet in taking that approach, they're confusing aptitude and technique. A professional in any craft needs both. You can be born with an amazing ear for music, but unless you learn how to play the piano you'll never be a concert pianist. You can have the potential to be the world's greatest athlete, but that won't get you anywhere without training. And you can have an innate ability to tell a story, but unless you learn how to tell it no-one will ever take you seriously.
I'm aware we're not aided by the world around us. The modern user relies on a spellchecker to point out mistakes and assumes that the computer rather than the human brain knows best. I've complained before about how the auto-correct feature on the iPod (among others) constantly changes its to it's, whether or not it's appropriate – a perfect way to teach an entire generation of people how to use an apostrophe incorrectly. And I'm often amazed by the basic grammatical errors appearing in promotional literature from the biggest and most respected of companies. But we are writers. We, of all people, should be standing up in defence of the conventions that allow us to convey our meaning clearly and accurately.
Yes, we need creativity. Yes, we need brilliant characterisation and a gripping plot and sparkling dialogue. Yet for our own sake, we also need to know how to spell properly and how to punctuate a sentence. If we let these things go then the subtle differences that it's possible to convey by using, say, a semicolon instead of a colon will also be lost. And as George Orwell knew very well, if a language loses its capacity to express particular nuances and shades of meaning then it won't be long before our ability even to think them begins to deteriorate as well.
Write Every Day: tip of the week
Since I've got my editor's hat on this week, this is a tip about editing.
As we all know, writing the words is only half the battle. Editing them is just as important and can often take far longer. In the past I've tended to write a book, then spend the next period of time concentrating solely on editing it. But in fact that's probably a bad idea, for two reasons.
First, focusing on editing means you're no longer maintaining the creative flow that sustained you while you were writing. I'm not saying editing isn't a creative task – because it is – but it's a different kind of creativity. If you spend months editing a book, and nothing else, then when it comes to writing the next one you'll have a hard job getting going again.
Second, you learn things while you're editing. You learn what works and what doesn't, how to phrase things in a tighter way, which words you overuse. If you start writing your next book while you're still editing the last one, those lessons will be fresh in your mind and you can apply them – which means the next time you reach the editing stage, your task will be shorter.
So, in short, I'd suggest that even when you're ready to edit a project, you don't stop trying to write every day. Instead, maintain momentum by writing short fiction or experimental scenes or another book at the same time. Both your writing and your editing will benefit from it.