Nitpicker

I’m beginning to see that knowing too much about the technical aspect of writing–the grammar and punctuation–has screwed much of my ability to read for pure pleasure.

I am a nitpicker, one of those annoying people who doesn’t enjoy a story’s forest for the grammar and punctuation trees. And it’s a bad habit I hope to wean myself from soon.

So why am I a nitpicker? Well, I edit my own work for publication. And . . . well, there’s this review from my first book:

TheBaSSReview

It’s actually a good review on a seminal work. What stuck with me, however, was that second paragraph. I had worked so hard to polish it to perfection before publication that I injected errors and missed things like an incomplete sentence. Back then, I wanted to be a 5-star overnight success. I longed to be discovered and contacted by a film studio.

I thought I was owed fame and fortune because I had invested so much time into Beneath a Sunless Sky.

Today, I appreciate a 4-star review like this. Receiving any review is a gift, and receiving 4 stars instead of 5 stars over technical issues . . . that’s actually incredible, if one considers it. The novel’s story was strong enough to withstand the loss of a single star over real technical errors. (There was a history to the bad feelings on seeing this review, as well. I asked her to proofread the book before publication, but she declined.)

The problem with pushing to reach technical perfection in a novel (none of my books is technically perfect, but I expect they’re getting better) means that my natural writing voice and its cadence can get edited out.  Language intended to be emotionally rich is made neuter. That’s not good.

So this now has to do with a sense of dread I had in proofing someone else’s work recently. Being me, I went farther than fixing punctuation here and there for flow. And that . . . wasn’t what I was supposed to do. It wasn’t, but I did it anyway.

The story I was given is by an author I admire deeply, and even as it was, it’s a story worth reading. The story arc is powerful. The storytelling shows a mastery of the delicate weaving of the unteachable part of writing to a climax and denouement which was both satisfying and powerful. Characters evolved, and the reader got to be right in that evolution. Once it’s published, this book (whether the author uses any of my suggestions) is a recommended read.

I wanted to improve the technical aspects of this story, so the grammar and punctuation was raised to the level of the author’s ability to set worlds of imagination onto paper (and e-ink).

And once I was finished, I began to fret. I began to worry. Will the changes I suggested be deeply offensive? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.

Right now, I’m reading another book, and it’s also a story which has that quality of storytelling with some punctuation issues. It’s clear, though. It’s absolutely clear. What I am doing is all about reading as an editor, mentally putting marks here and there to make it match the punctuation I worked so hard to learn (for my own work).

This nitpicking behavior isn’t ruining the story experience, but it certainly isn’t allowing me to immerse myself in the writer’s rich and fascinating world. It’s ruining my reading experience, and the fault lies fully within myself.

So I am working on abandoning the inner editor as I read, and I am fretting that my nitpicking will hurt another author’s feelings–despite it coming from a place of admiration. Yes, it actually does come from a place of admiration. The writer whose work received a pre-publication run-through from me is better than I am at creating a compelling tale. My intent was only to smooth a few things here and there to improve the reading flow of the story. And my ego got involved in what was supposed to be a quick proofread looking for the really big typographical issues. I worried that I would be blamed if I let something go and it was criticized by others after publication.

So in an effort to avoid blame for passing over infinitesimal technical issues which I caught, I am inviting anger and frustration for bringing those to the fore. I know most of the technical issues I caught are just nitpicking. The read in some of those places is fine; it’s a visual issue, not a clarity issue.

I suppose what’s left is to apologize if my proofing work causes offense and keep reminding myself (while I read this current novel, which . . . oh, it’s so good and I’m not even 1/5 of the way through!) that my inner editor is not invited when I read for pleasure.

I still feel guilt and some regret over my nitpicking behavior. I catch many more issues than some of the editors out there do, which both improves my final product and destroys my prose’s personality. Maybe that’s part of feeling guilty: I worry that in the pursuit of trying to perfect the reading experience of another’s work, I become responsible for the loss of immersion and the deterioration of an author’s voice under the weight of “proper” grammar in this incongruous mutt of a trade language we call English.

And I think I understand why my nitpicking is so damnably ludicrous: to adulterate an extraordinary author’s voice is far worse than sending to publication a five-star story with a smattering of technical issues.

Now, puppies. I think discovering that I’m a nitpicky grammar bitch–and acknowledging that it’s a serious character defect that I need to fix–deserves puppies:

PuppiesForAll

Author: Jess Alter

In 2014, author Jessica “Jess” Alter published the third and final installment in an epic social science fiction trilogy filled with sex, tech, and firearms. Her new Cryptid Series was published on multiple ebook platforms starting in 2015. The first book in the series, ‘Til Undeath Do Us Part, brings cryptid lore and legend into the modern scientific world with unexpected and thrilling results. When she’s not writing, she enjoys collecting folktales from around the world, adapting dessert recipes, baking homemade breads, and crocheting little monsters. You can find her web journal at http://indieimprint.com/alteredstates and find her on Twitter as @Jess_Alter.

2 thoughts on “Nitpicker”

  1. For what it’s worth, I think that there is very little point to making English ‘perfect’. It’s a horrible, flawed, ugly language. It’s used very differently by every country saddled with it, and no amount of tweaking punctuation will please everyone.

    That said, if an error throws you out of the story, fix it. Otherwise, nobody cares. I sure don’t. I find hundreds of minor errors in almost every published work myself, and I just don’t care.

  2. Jess, I am also the dreaded nitpicker with other people’s work and it is distracting. I won’t proofread any more as it’s too mentally exhausting. I love your phrase here, the “prose’s personality”. That’s what I want preserved in my own work when it goes to an editor and what I find professional proofreaders have so much trouble with. My two editors are ex schoolteachers and see grammar and punctuation errors over and above the prose’s personality and style. One of them wanted to change my last book to read like an executive report which would have slowed the pace of the narrative down too much. Every writer has a particular style. If we didn’t, every book would read the same. I’m looking for a new editor who will understand my style of writing whilst keeping the grammar acceptable and the prose intact. And let’s face it – our language is changing rapidly, morphing as the next generation text and message rather than write letters in longhand. Perceptions of acceptable grammar and punctuation vary from generation to generation. We are of the old school, the ones who got their knuckles rapped when they misplaced an apostrophe. Younger readers care more for the story. I LOVE those younger readers! It’s a pity my books are aimed at more mature readers. They’ll nitpick like mad. Oh if only I wrote for the YA market! LOL
    PS: I love your blogs.

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