As an indie author, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with five-star ratings for books that suffer egregious errors in grammar, structure, and other basic elements of writing. I make no claim of perfection. Improvement is an ongoing process for any writer.
Back in the day, agents and publishers’ editors served as a crucial line of defense against not only incorrect spelling, but also horrific word choice, lousy sentence structure, and overall failures in form. But those defenses have been stripped away with self-publishing. In a perfect world, authors would be able to monitor their own works for possible shortcomings, but I’ll be the first to admit that this is a very difficult task.
The first thing that went out the window with the proliferation of unfiltered self-publishing was mainstream reviewers. And who wouldn’t run for the hills to escape this tidal wave of works containing every possible flaw? How could one ever know which book was worthy of price and time in a sea of astonishingly awful wordcraft?
Into this vacuum comes a growing thicket of independent bloggers and homespun reviewers. In most cases, the relative importance and authority of any given blogger/reviewer is judged solely by how many “likes” they have generated on their Facebook page. There is not, to my knowledge, any kind of accreditation. This is the Wild West of indie publishing and reviewing, and there’s no sheriff in town.
I confess I’ve also jumped on this boat out of the need to utilize whatever means are available to promote my works. I routinely “like” authors and books I’ve never read. I participate in contests that offer prizes in exchange for “likes.” This is so wrong! But to award more ethical “likes,” I’d spend all my time and money reading.
Before readers lose faith in self-published works, indie authors would be well served by any effort to upgrade not only the quality of writing, but also the integrity of reviews.
For example, here are a few common errors which should automatically disqualify a work from receiving a five-star rating:
- Point of view. Switching from one character to the next in hearing their thoughts or conversation is called “head jumping” and it’s highly unsettling and disruptive to the story. At the least, a character’s point of view should continue uninterrupted by another point of view until the end of a section designated by a mark of some kind.
- Modifiers should appear as close as possible to the word or phrase they are modifying. A common misuse of modifier placement is an opening phrase such as “As though rising from the sea, Margie saw Lance moving up from his bed…” Lance is the one rising from the sea. His name should immediately follow the phrase. A correct usage would be “As though rising from the sea, Lance’s form moved up from his bed…”
- Incorrect verb tense: “…she don’t want to date and don’t want to fall for no one else…” If a writer doesn’t have better command of language than this, they absolutely must not self-publish without spending money for a good editor.
- Incorrect punctuation. “It is” abbreviates to it’s. Designating an object possessed by “It” abbreviates to “Its.” But this is an anomaly within the use of an apostrophe, which is generally used to show possession. A dog belonging to Anne is Anne’s dog.
And I could go on. These mistakes and many more occur on page after page of self-published works. Yet these same works often sport five-star ratings because the blogger/reviewer became enamored of a character, or liked the suspense, or found the BDSM premise titillating. Unfortunately, many blogger/reviewers are not up to speed on the technical rules of language.
Correct language and story presentation is no secret. Countless webpages, books, and blogs recount the many ways a writer can go wrong. But learning is hard, especially for writers who blew though school without paying attention and doubly hard for those who grew up in households where improper language was the norm. Reading well-written prose is a good first step toward improvement.
Self-publishing holds such exciting promise—the author is finally able to present his/her creation directly to the reader without the “approval” of an agent or publisher. It’s thrilling to read stories from writers who never before might have been able to offer their ideas for public consumption. This new landscape nourishes literacy and intellectual questing, a much needed change in a culture too long slouching toward passive viewing.
Which makes it even more critical to do everything possible to ensure the success of self-publishing. Why not insist on the formation of an accrediting body which would establish fundamental guidelines for reviewers? A grading method could spell out specifics. No matter how great the story or charming the character, if there is rampant head-jumping and incessant incorrect grammar, the rating would be three stars at best.
Why not publicize accredited reviewers as the ones readers can trust for opinions about which books meet basic standards?
It’s time to hire a sheriff.