The illustration above shows that I’m no cabinet maker. I’m slapdash at measuring, hopeless with mitre joints, mortice and tenon, or even worse, bloody dovetail joints. I am not skilled, despite a desperate desire to do a good job, and many years of sawing, planing, gluing, and drilling. It’s not that I haven’t put in time and effort, it’s that I haven’t LEARNED anything.
But you know what? That’s ok, because the stuff I am making is not for sale. It’s not going to be gracing anyone’s dining room, holding their precious heirloom china. When I make a box, it’s because we need a box to put something in, like hatching bees, or nesting birds or juggling equipment. Because I’m aware of my shortcomings in this area, I don’t expect much of my woodwork. If someone points to the barbeque box and says “Hey, this thing isn’t quite straight, and the door doesn’t close!” I’d be all “Yeah, you got that right. And look, it’s not properly weatherproof either.”
Why am I telling you about my inadequacies as a woodworker? Well, it’s an analogy (as well as being true). I spend a lot of time being a proofreader, and that’s something I’ve had to learn to switch off when reading social media. People post on social media (mostly) to get a thought or two off their brains. Pointing at flawed spelling or punctuation is meaningless point-scoring. I know I’m often fumble-fingered when trying to type on a stupid tiny phone keyboard. So, yeah, social media gets a pass. Like my barbeque box, right? It’s not for sale, it’s not polished, it’s not FOR anything, except holding my gas cylinder and supporting the barbeque.
But say you want to be a published writer. Say that’s your aim, your ambition. THEN, I think it’s reasonable for you to take the trouble over your work. Learn how to make dovetails, as it were. Because you ARE selling your work. You are standing up and saying “This is good, this is worth your time.” And if you want me to invest my time, then I think I’m worth proper punctuation, thanks.
Yes, you can point to a dozen or more award-winning novels who play fast and loose with rules of punctuation and grammar and maybe even spelling. And maybe you can find more than a dozen people who say they actually enjoyed reading those novels, and maybe some of them are telling the truth. If those authors are honest (and I don’t know which ones you’re thinking of, by the way), then they have chosen to discard those rules for a reason, for a specific effect. (In the novels I’m thinking of, the effect was to make the whole experience of reading more unpleasant, but that was ok because the stories were rubbish, the characters unlikeable, and the resolutions deeply unsatisfying.)
Let me be specific, and give you an example that turns up quite frequently in the works I proofread:
We all read that the same, didn’t we? It’s the word the Beatles sang in “She loves you”. It’s a lazy agreement, lacking formality. It’s an exhalation, or a shout of joy. Now look at this:
Language is flexible, so you could make that three-letter word rhyme with “pea” and “sea”, or with “hay” and “day”. It’s the second one that I default to, reading it as a medieval agreement:
“Yea, verily my Lord, ’tis true.”
Why does this matter? Isn’t language evolving? That’s certainly what people say over and over when challenged over mistakes in grammar or spelling. And maybe it is, but “yea” is ALREADY A WORD. So when I read this:
Pete slumped back, defeated. “Yea.” he whispered.
Pete is saying a medieval word, which doesn’t match his character or his attitude. It’s wrong, it doesn’t fit, it throws the reader out of the moment into a little heap of “huh?”
If you want to be a writer, make an effort to learn the nuts and bolts (or tools and joints) of your chosen craft. Make sure that, if you’re leaving the nails exposed on your cabinet, it’s because you intended to.
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