October 22nd, 2010 / 11:00 am
Craft Notes

Do Mechanics Matter? Get Off My Lawn!

In my writing classes I often tell my students that I’m teaching writing, not grammar, that there’s a difference between the two. I talk about how I’m more interested in how they express themselves and demonstrate critical thinking than I am in grammatically perfect prose. I also tell students, however, that grammar does matter—to be well versed in the mechanics of writing can only strengthen their work and, where applicable, their argument.

In creative writing, the same thing is generally true. I can forgive unpolished prose if I’m reading an amazing story or poem. At  the same time, I’ve seen a rash of work lately where writers have clearly not taken the time to read their own work. I’ve seen missing words and characters whose names have changed mid story, sometimes more than once. The quality of writing is just terrible at times, so terrible that I cannot focus on whether or not the story, creatively, is something I am interested in. It’s quite difficult to take a writer seriously if you cannot really read their writing.

No writer is perfect and no matter how meticulously you pore over your work, there may always be one or two things you miss before you send your writing out into the world. That’s more than understandable. What troubles me is when I am confronted by writing where there are so many mechanical issues, issues that aren’t stylistic choices, the prose or poetry becomes unreadable.

One of the PANK readers is a bit of a tyrant when it comes to mechanically sound writing. She notes every inconsistency, error, and otherwise grammatically troubling instance in a given piece of writing. At first, I thought, “That’s not the point,” but the more I’ve worked with her, the more I’ve realized she has a point. When a reader has more to say about the mechanical quality of the writing, there’s a real problem.

I was feeling servicey and recently forwarded one of this reader’s notes, with a selection of comments about all the sloppy writing, and the writer wrote back, “Yes, I knew this story was a bit rough. Sorry about that.” They were being sincere.

I’m a big advocate for Internet publishing and online submissions but I worry that the instant gratification of being able to submit, and in some circumstances have your work accepted and published within the same week, and once in a while, the same day, has led to a climate where we don’t put as much care as we could into our writing. We talk about how we had 70, 90, 120 stories and/or poems published in a year and I think, is that admirable? Were those 70, 90, 120 stories and/or poems memorable? We write and submit our work without taking the time for reflection, revision, or even reading our work to make sure it’s ready to be read by others. Why? Because we can. The system sustains these bad habits and, perhaps, encourages them.

Before this digitial age we’re in, writing was a much more laborious process but I am not waxing nostalgic here. I have no desire to return to those dreadful times when novels were written by hand with a quill and ink on parchment or typed with an actual typewriter and you had to photocopy your work to retain more than one copy. I love writing but I would never have succeeded as a writer in that day and age. I don’t have the stamina for it. At the same time, we do have to look at how the material circumstances of writing before online submission managers practically demanded more care. I do not miss printing out copies of my writing, placing stories in envelopes with an SASE, applying postage and waiting long months to hear word of how my work was received. I obsessed over my writing because I was a broke ass college student and the $3 it cost to send that story to The Whatever Review meant something. I still obsess over my writing and the long waits sometimes occur but that gravity is missing. I wonder how we can maintain an appropriate level of care for our writing while benefitting from more convenient ways of submitting our writing to publications.

At PANK, we recently transitioned to Submishmash and the system has a function where writers who withdraw their work can tell us why they’re removing their work from consideration. It used to be that when a writer withdrew their work, it was because it has been placed elsewhere. Mazel tov! About a month ago, I started reading the withdrawal messages and 7 times out of 10, writers note that they want to edit their work further. Since I started writing this post, two writers have withdrawn their work to fix “typos and such.”  One day, a writer submitted and withdrew the same story five times. That is, I think, a bit of madness. I read these Reasons for Withdrawal messages and think, “If your work isn’t finished, why are you submitting? Why are you wasting your time and mine?” It makes me question the value of the expediency and ease of use provided by online submission managers which are convenient and practically a necessity these days but which also seem to encourage writers to submit sloppy and/or unfinished work. I am troubled by the idea that writers continue to edit after they submit their work. Even writers who have had work accepted will often respond, “I’ve been working on this piece since I submitted it to you. Can I send you the new version?” Well, no. We accepted the version you sent us. Logistically, it really slows us down to have to review new versions of accepted work.

I never thought I would be the kind of person who railed about sloppy writing but I’m losing my patience with the shoddy work writers are willing to send out into the world just because they can; because there are so many magazines who must be willing to publish sloppy work; because all it takes to try your hand at publishing is a few clicks of the mouse. The filters we once had in place are gone and I wonder about the price we will pay for that.

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  1. deadgod

      Didn’t Salter withdraw The Hunters years – decades – ago, and only recently allow re-publication of a redone, (to him) de-cringing-ed version?

  2. Michael

      I draw no distinction between the quality of one’s ideas and the quality of those ideas’ verbal expression

  3. Sorrento

      Isn’t the problem editors who publish sloppy work? Poor writers have always submitted like crazy, but they wouldn’t be published until their writing improved. Publishing sloppy work sends a message that to a writer that sloppy is acceptable and even desirable.

  4. Sorrento

      See? My internal editor should have rejected that comment.

  5. Victor Schultz

      as an unpubbed writer who reads quite a few lit mags, especially online lit mags, i sometimes get frustrated by this too. i’m meticulous with my work to a fault, polish the shit out of it. it’d make me sick to send in something rough. then i pull in form rejection after form rejection and watch the same mags publish stories that are sometimes sloppy as hell. a lotta times it’s a good story that’s just got a lotta slips in it, and rationally i can understand why my stuff got passed over for it, but part of me reflexively just wants to scream and doesn’t get how something so mechanically shoddy can get into print while here i sit.

      that maybe sounds bitter. i ain’t bitter. it’s all love.

  6. Hank

      Maybe these writers would be better off if, before sending their stories to lit mags, they sent them to friends first. That way they get the initial joy of having a story done and can go back to hammering it out (and send their friends multiple emails deploring them not to read yet because they’ll soon have a better copy for them to read).

  7. christopher.

      I admit to working on stories post-submissions, but it’s never huge reworkings. A tweak of a sentence here, a deleted comma there–never something really that if it was accepted in an earlier form I would be upset should the editor refuse my more recent edits. I don’t necessarily believe a work gets all that finished. But, withdrawals the level you’re speaking off here is a completely different monster–caused by carelessness, not carefulness.

      At the student level, I’d say you have the right mentality, Roxane. At that level, you’re fostering creativity more than professionalism. At a certain point though, that professionalism needs to be highlighted. I’m a strong believer that tight mechanics in a story shows the author cared as much about writing the peice as s/he cares about someone reading the piece.

  8. AmyWhipple

      “Do you think it’s possible that bad writing actually attracts a higher incidence of error?”

  9. Tim Horvath

      It sounds like you are decrying two different, almost opposite things, though, at least in some cases. There’s the writer who rushes to submit and hopes for the acceptance regardless of how sloppy and unprime-time-ready it was. Then there is the author who obsesses to the point that even after the work is submitted in its then-peak form, s/he will continue to tinker, to tamper with it. I think the latter type of writer deserves some empathy. We all know those stories about writers who go back and revise or re-release even work that has surpassed the standards for “publishable.” Pretty sure Tim O’Brien did it with The Things they Carried for the anniversary edition (I’m not sure what he actually changed, but it bears noting). Sometimes we see in short story collections, “These stories were previously published in a somewhat different form in magazine x,” where magazine x is very selective and high-caliber. There’s always the risk of messing something up after the fact, like with Wordsworth’s “Prelude” in the later edition–he would’ve done better to leave well enough alone. But I think it’s natural to expect that writers may revisit even highly polished writing after they submit it, even if it is an arse-pain for editors.

  10. Roxane

      I definitely think that part of the problem is editors. I do believe there are certain elements of the indie publishing community that don’t even pay attention to things like mechanics. To each, his or her own, I suppose.

  11. Roxane

      It can be a good idea to get outside feedback on your writing from other writers and/or friends. I find that reading my work aloud helps me find mechanical and creative issues in my work.

  12. Roxane

      I am definitely not immune to continuing to work on a story. I have, as of late though, tried to just slow down a bit and to feel like a story is finished before I submit it.

      One of the things we’re starting to incorporate into writing classes, creative or otherwise, is how to be a professional writer. It’s important, I think, to emphasize that professionalism and creativity are not at cross purposes.

  13. Roxane

      Certainly, certainly.

  14. Roxane

      I am decrying two different but similar things. For me, there’s a connection between the sloppy writer and the obsessive writer. I also don’t know that these writers who are withdrawing and resubmitting the same work over and over are obsessive as much as they really are submitting their work prematurely. There are obsessive writers and I do empathize with that, but I’m not seeing much of their work.

  15. Mike Meginnis

      Yeah, every now and then I will tweak a story slightly after submission, but I don’t withdraw when I do that — I figure I can say “hey I changed some sentences here they are” and the editor can say “cool.”

      Other side of this though is that I do send out work in hopes that editors will find ways to help me improve it — not in the sense that I am sending out something bad and unfinished and hoping it will get fixed, but in the sense that I vastly prefer to work with editors who will actually work with me on improving the story. This is generally the exception but the editors who have done it (or are planning to do it shortly) are, not coincidentally I think, the ones with the best-regarded journals.

  16. Roxane

      I don’t mind that kind of work, Mike. I work with writers quite a bit on further developing their writer. It’s one of my greatest joys as an editor, actually. But there’s a difference between great but imperfect writing and writing where the writer has clearly never read through a full draft of their work.

  17. Mike Meginnis

      Yeah, no, I agree with that 100% — I edit and revise my work whenever I’m not putting new sentences in, and then I edit again, and then I show it to Tracy, and then I revise and edit again. I will absolutely reject something based on mechanical errors.

  18. Brad Green

      It’s hard to slow down and spend time with your own work when every time you open Google Reader you see this and that other writer getting recognized. The fast-paced nature of online publishing can make a writer feel like they’re falling behind if they don’t have something out every month or so. The truth is that people do tend to forget your name if they don’t see it every so often, unless you’ve already built up a fan base or reputation.

      It’s a hard thing to put a story away and let it age. But doing that ends up producing better work, I think. That’s what I’ve discovered at any rate. If I encounter a story where it’s obvious the writer hasn’t given it much attention, I tend to counter with the same. Eventually those things end up leveling out.

  19. Roxane

      Brad, I’m glad you brought this up. I struggle with this myself. You look around and see so many writers getting published all the time and I look at people who have three or four books and I think, god, I don’t even have one. It’s not rational but I always feel like I am being left behind. I do think this is a real problem and one that’s not discussed nearly enough.

  20. Brad Green

      My impulse is to stop opening Google Reader and pay attention only to the page I’m working on, but that’s self-destructive in a way too. I try not to be envious, but I fail at that a lot of the time. Deriving more satisfaction from simply putting the words on the page is the only thing that really works. If I’m able to reach that state, then it doesn’t really matter what others are doing, or have done, because I’ve written a damn good sentence, paragraph, page, or whatever. At that point, it doesn’t bother me that I’m the only one to have read it. Eventually that will bother me and that’s when I send it out. I work hard on waiting for that moment to arrive.

  21. deadgod

      a piece of writing :its grammar :: a song : these notes in this order

      A composition or creative-writing teacher who doesn’t find herself or himself ‘teaching grammar’ is cheating.

      There are writers who break rules to great effect: Celan writes German lyric poetry which is the peer of that of Hoelderlin and Rilke – truly, as good as lyric poetry gets. But the beauty and potency of Celan’s poetry depends (among other things!) on his breaking rules towards, on a ‘beyond these words as words’ that the poems disclose or perform or enable one to feel (or feel like it feels). That is not carelessness, and if a teacher shows a student a ‘mistake’, they both should realize – provisionally – whether the piece works or collapses because of.

      I can’t remember where, but (as I remember) Joyce said something like ‘one doesn’t finish a story; one just stops writing it’.

  22. deadgod

      Didn’t Salter withdraw The Hunters years – decades – ago, and only recently allow re-publication of a redone, (to him) de-cringing-ed version?

  23. seventydys

      I’m fortunate enough to have a friend – a translator & editor in his 70s – who will sometimes read my work. Once he read a story of mine and said: ‘Very good. Now put it away for a year.’ I blanched and he said: ‘You can’t see what’s wrong with it can you? Well, you haven’t sufficiently inhabited the world of the story. You don’t know what’s there yet. Don’t fight time.’

      He was right. I made a diary note and a year later returned to the story and saw more than I was able to imagine twelve months earlier. Then I started writing.

      It’s hard to stay alive as a writer and getting read, edited & published can all help your work grow (or die if it should die), but that overbearing, accelerating sense of competition has become a near-universal ‘enemy of promise’ and must be resisted. I try to remember that time is as much the substance of a writer’s craft as words are and must be attended to just as creatively.

  24. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      Sure, but the dude who withdraws and resubmits five times in the same day for “typos and such” belongs to the former category, not the latter.

  25. Tim Horvath

      Totally, Tim/Roxane, I get that. No doubt that is impulse-sending and I would imagine that stamps and self-addressed envelopes would be a good curb on such an author’s impulsiveness. I guess I was just picking up on the last part of that paragraph, where Roxane mentioned authors who have been revising even accepted stories since they were sent. I’m just not sure that person deserves to be lumped in with a serial withdrawer-resubber, (who also, by the way, quit smoking six times that day too). Obviously, the editor doesn’t want a brand new story, but if the story is accepted I’d think they might at least consider directions it’s taken since, within reason. Proviso is it should be mutually agreed on by ed and author that it’s as good or better. As Mike said above, ideally a dynamic working relationship emerges, with room for back-and-forth. We all know a few sentences or turns of phrase can send a story from the stratosphere where it’s already amazing into the next level, err, the mesosphere (thanks Wikipedia).

  26. christopher.

      Oh, definitely. And I hope you know I wasn’t implying that. Moreover, I just meant the way I understood your mentality in the earlier parts of this post is that mechanics (strict mechanics as one way to measure professionalism), while being important for an early writer, aren’t nearly as important as opening them up to being able to create and re-envision the possibilities of their work and reading. I imagine myself as a teacher having the same mentality, and probably stressing the importance of good mechanics especially in later drafts and most especially in drafts you decide are worthy to submit, but not penalizing bad mechanics for the most part at such an early learning stage, unless it’s pretty grievous errors.

  27. RR

      Why does this sentence appear in a post on mechanics?

      At first, I thought, “That’s not the point,” but the more I’ve worked to her, the more I’ve realized she has a point.

  28. Roxane

      I invite you to revisit the portion of the post wherein I state, “No writer is perfect and no matter how meticulously you pore over your work, there may always be one or two things you miss before you send your writing out into the world. That’s more than understandable.”

  29. Joseph Young

      Perhaps what the immediacy of the internet does is make writing into a form closer to performance. When you play a song, you play it there in real time and what comes across comes across, including your mistakes. Of course, you continue to practice and as you do you will get better, but still, when you play live, there you are, you and your successes and failures. I’ve been trying to decide what I like about the internet and what it has done to writing and that may be part of it. As a musician, you play, even when you are first starting out and aren’t very good. You play, and you make all your mistakes, there in front of your audience, and as you play more and practice more you get better. The internet allows you to play your writing, to whatever little audience you can find. You try not to worry if your writing isn’t great at first and is full of mistakes, the goal is more to write and enjoy it and to keep writing and get better. And you don’t sit on your writing for a year in the attempt to keep yourself from the folly of your mistakes—you put it out there and comes what comes. Not that I’m rejecting that model, of careful, time-long consideration, but more just exploring the possibilities of another model.

  30. RR

      Yes, of course, no one is perfect. But the lax standards of way too many respected web journals is distracting, disappointing and unnecessary. Proofreading aloud and on paper would go a long way toward remedying so-called typos, which are really glaring errors that undermine the legitimacy of writers, editors and publishers. Check out TNY, PR and Harper’s. How often do you find sloppy punctuation or inappropriate word choice in their pages? Is it asking too much from web-based lit proselytizers to set the bar higher and at least get the basics right? At minimum, we can stop misusing the semicolon (geez): http://theoatmeal.com/comics/semicolon

  31. Casey

      Maybe I am tossing this off quickly after reading, LOL, but “here, here” Roxanne!

  32. Michael Copperman

      Yup, “here, here!”

      Trying to keep up with the most-published bloviators of the interweb, to get your name out there through frequency of publication, is the wrong reason to write. Of course we all would like to immediately be acknowledged as God’s gift to English prose, but fame and fortune, or even the recognition that comes with the visibility of being prolific is entirely the wrong reason to write. In fact, I would suggest such an approach does much to drive the sort of sloppiness Roxane decries. Form is necessity in a work of art; grammar is that part of form that enables meaning. It’s one thing for a beginning writer who doesn’t know grammar to understand that it’s ok, as you learn to pay attention to grammar, for form and intended meaning to diverge a bit. It’s quite another for a writer to attach their name to something which is unforgivably slipshod, unproofread, or dashed off. If as Joseph Young suggests, there is a performative aspect to writing as it occurs in the world of the internet, that may indeed be it’s own thing– shenanigans in comment strings like htmlgiant, trickster trolls having their amoral fun at the expense of the pious and serious, participatory, living communities of people interacting. But I would argue that such writing is necessarily different from the sort of work that belongs in a journal of the quality of PANK or of TNY, that actual fiction or nonfiction that aspires to say and mean something significant ought to, as made objects, be made with care. I have been guilty of the submit/withdraw before– usually caught up in that first heady flush of creation, before you begin to understand what’s not working (a year seems sound, indeed, if not longer). But none of the work I’ve ever withdrawn or resubmitted has been grammatically sloppy… it’s more that I made significant edits after realizing something important about the story or essay in question. And I think every time I have done a withdraw/resubmit, I’ve regretted it… it’s usually been a sign that the story or essay in question wasn’t ready yet. It is a problem if online submission managers encourage such indulgence… but it’s surely on writers to wait until their work is complete. Maybe that’s not true of writers who aspire to the mediocrity of broad popular recognition, but for any writer whose work has significance and integrity, Flannery O’Connor’s dictum ought to hold true: “Absolute accuracy of expression is the sole morality of writing.”

  33. Tom k

      I’ve been guilty of this quite a few times i think. To some extent it’s a question of maturing or whatever…I’m learning and trying to wait till I know a piece or extract is finished and able to be seen… cause in the end it’s way more embarrassing to realise what you’ve sent and had rejected is really weak. I think 9 times out of 10 i’ve agreed with every rejection I’ve got and all i think afterwards is that if i resubmit to this place it’s gonna be really hard to undo the association i’ve made in that editors head. The worst thing is i tend to compulsively submit in moments of weakness…like comfort eating or something and then i feel instantly bad. It’s pretty weak right. anyway i dont have a point i guess, just wanted to put my hand up and say sorry

  34. Hobartcat

      I’ve done much the same. I had one story in particular was definitely NOT ready, but thankfully I had a forgiving editor who politely asked to see something else… It is easy to get wrapped up in the heat of the creative moment and dash off a pre-pubescent piece to an online journal.

      I will say that pieces evolve. In Tobias Wolff’s “best of” book which came out a few years ago, his introduction addresses this issue. A friend had asked him if the “original” versions of the stories were going to be in the “best of” collection. His question was (paraphrase): Which is the original? The one magazine x accepted, the one which was in the anthology, the version published in collection y, or the first draft originally submitted. So, even the best of us continues to work on pieces – finding them complete but never finished.

      Sometimes the narrative must be fixed. The piece of mine mentioned above wasn’t horrible by any means when it was first submitted (after fixing egregious errors…), but the narrative did need some clarification and the final climax had to be rewritten. But, the bones of the piece remained the same and the character went through virtually the same narrative arc.

      At the end of the day, I think it’s imperative for writers to take a day or two or three (or a year) before they shoot off work which has yet to fully molt. The trick is knowing when that point is met.

      I suggest using writing friends and online workshops to hone and craft each piece.

      I’m glad to hear an online editor standing up for standards. This serves both writer and journal alike. I would hate to be haunted by a piece riddled with grammatical or egregious structural errors. Online, our mistakes live forever and are easy enough to find with google.

  35. P. H. Madore

      I think that sloppy mechanics, unless done artfully and for a reason, are just a disregard of the reader. It’s like mumbling to yourself when you’re telling someone something, and then not repeating it. Those conventions, you know, commas and periods and things, those weren’t made for the writer. Those are for the benefit of the reader. Failure to utilize them in the right and most effective way is simple, ample disrespect to the reader, and as an editor I have always felt like a reader’s advocate.

  36. P. H. Madore

      Extreme eloquence and righteousness are rarely so well-paired, sir.

  37. P. H. Madore

      And this is despite the fact that I generally despise the copious use of the elipsis.

  38. P. H. Madore

      This is so grammatically fucked I’m not sure if I agree or disagree.

      Do you agree or disagree with my elimination of the comma after “fucked?” Were I to say the sentence out loud, there would be no pause. Letters being a transcription of language (aren’t they?), I assume I’m in the right.

  39. P. H. Madore

      That semi-colon lesson is wicked awesome and helps me appreciate the value of the internet in education.

  40. Michael Copperman

      I usually do better than to abuse them so…! Thanks, phm.

      H-cat, Wolff’s comment seems especially relevant– there may be no ‘final’ or ‘original’ version, but it seems likely every version submitted anywhere was clean and careful on a sentence level.

  41. M Kitchell

      When I first started realizing how easy it was to submit to online magazines, I was pretty much submitting shit randomly, and a lot of the stories i were submitting were actually exercises. I don’t produce a huge amount of (text only) work, and once I discovered how easy and free this shit was, I was scrambling for pieces that I had that I could submit to places. For a couple weeks I was addicted.

      I was, of course, rejected by almost everywhere, but the few places that were accepted works from me were the places where I had submitted stories that were actually conceived of as complete stories, and edited extensively, and obsessed over. This was no surprise.

      I am lucky that the places I was submitting to “willy nilly” have great editors, and that my shit got rejected when it needed to be rejected. Lesson learned, for sure, and now the way I work with submissions is a lot less random and instantaneous and a lot more focused. I will sit on things for months before I even consider submitting them anywhere. As a result, I don’t have that many publication credits to my name, but the ones that I do have are very distinctive of my Work & are pieces that I’m proud of.

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