There is no doubt in my mind that what passes as good writing for the general modern reader is not necessarily very good writing and sometimes it is just plain bad.
What leads me to say this?
The declining quality of best-selling and award-winning books with the following in them:
- Unnecessary adverbs
- Fancy dialogue tags; e.g., he exalted
- Overwriting; e.g., ‘What is that?’ he asked, curious
- Dialogue not fitting the characters
- Passive writing
I’m not just referring to indie books here. Mainstream publishers are adding to the decline as well. I need not name the best-selling books that many authors groan at because of the poor standard of writing. The last mainstream-published books I read had excellent prose, however, with none of the above faults; in fact, that was what marked them. But many suffered from poor conceptual and structural editing. Apparently, mainstream publishers are cutting costs in that area.
I have even heard (via the Shatkzin Files) that their ebook-only imprints, which are designed specifically to compete in the indie market, are not concerned about quality but about flooding the market with a continual stream of new books. Their authors are whipping out a book every two to three months.
The word on the indie block is also that a continual stream of new books is the way to success. Those with the most books out are earning the most money, so many authors are churning them out—even those who don’t write particularly well.
Of course, there are many brilliant indie authors with work every bit as good as and often a lot better than mainstream books. Unfortunately, they bear the stigma of the other self-published and independently published books that simply aren’t very good even for the less-discerning reader. The tricky bit for readers is finding the brilliant gems—that’s the purpose of the Awesome Indies.
But the ereading public is gobbling up cheap books and exalting (giggle) those they enjoy. This is wonderful, except that sometimes, even though a book may appear well-written on first glance, the writing is of a lower standard than it could and should be. Reading a truly well-written book is a delight—good English, even in its sparse modern incarnation, is beautiful. But what passes as well-written in many people’s eyes, simply is not.
What about the book that won a major literary award and the first half of it was all backstory? Nice prose, yes, but … totally boring. The second half was brilliant, but you had to wade through the first half to get to it. Mainstream publishers seem to pass indulgent writing heavy on backstory and unnecessary detail in the name of literature, but literary or otherwise, good writing is never a grind to get through.
The fault is not with the authors unless they really don’t care how well they write, and it’s not with the publishers unless they don’t engage in a full editing process. My experience is that authors do want to write well, they just can’t always find the help they need at the right price. Plenty of editors know about grammar, spelling, and punctuation, but they don’t all know what makes good writing, even if they think they do, and even if they have impressive-looking qualifications beside their names.
Good editing is as much an art as it is knowledge or skill.
Assuming that the publisher (be it self, indie, or mainstream) employs them, the editors are the final quality control. And if they can’t see and correct the problems, and the final product is accepted by readers, then the standard of written English gradually declines.
Unfortunately, I have seen several instances where an author has paid good money for what he or she thinks is a complete editing service, but when I get to work on the manuscript, it ends up with red marks all over it. The copy editors seem to be doing a good job, but in the indie world it’s the line-editing that is often lacking or inadequate.
The decline of written English is sad indeed—and I’m not just talking about indie books. You might not know what’s missing, but it’s still gone, and our culture is diminished because of it.
To end on a more positive note, websites like the Awesome Indies are there to honour the independently published books that do maintain generally accepted standards of written English.
Do you think that the standard of written English is declining and do you consider it a problem?