Professional Pride

Over at the Passive Voice blog, I read this little gem of an exchange in the comments:

LP King: That “Request Deletion” button is new since I last posted here. I like it, I like it!

PG: LP – I’ve been surprised at how often that button has been used, usually because of typos. I guess I should have expected that with writers.

Me, not surprised. Most writers I know drive themselves nuts trying to get the words right.

Like me. I’m a lousy speller. Some words, quite frankly, look wrong no matter how I shift the letters around. Many times spell check is no help. Oh sure, it highlights the word in red, but if I’m so far off the mark the computer’s dictionary can’t figure out what I’m trying to spell, then I’m stuck with an evil red glow and a rising sense of panic. Is it even a real word I’m trying to use? Or some made up, half-heard pretend word I’m trying to pass off as English? My poor old Webster’s 9th New Collegiate is so tattered and worn from hard usage every time I reach for it I expect pages to disintegrate into dust. After searching, searching, searching for the proper spelling, I sometimes discover it’s not the right word after all. So begins the bunny hop through the dictionary with side trips into my Rodale’s Synonym Finder and occasional forays into Glazier’s Word Menu.

No surprise I’m a slow writer.

Thing is, it’s a point of pride. I’m a professional writer. Getting the words right is my job. Proper spelling is not just for fiction either. It extends to blogs, emails, grocery lists and even IM conversations. I don’t know if anyone else notices when I goof, but I do. It pains me because I know I can do better. I try to be more forgiving when others goof. I don’t point out errors because it’s an obnoxious habit and it intimidates some people, but occasionally I’m tempted. (For the people who keep bugging me to learn text messaging– No. Texting shorthand, absurd grammatical structures and misspellings make blood shoot out of my eyeballs. So, no.)

Today, Joel Friedlander, The Book Designer, wrote an interesting article, There’s Something Odd About Self-Publishing Books. In it he discusses how ugly and poorly designed many titles about how-to self-publish books are. One thing he wrote jumped out at me:

I’ve often said that it doesn’t cost any more to produce a good-looking book than it does to produce a bad-looking one, but people aren’t listening.

They aren’t listening because they have no pride. Anyone can self-publish. Anyone. Just as anyone can write a novel. What separates the true professionals from the dilettantes, dabblers, get-rich-quick schemers and rank amateurs is pride. Pros care not only about the things that show on the surface, they care about what’s underneath. I know of writers who’ve pulled manuscripts out of editors’ hands because the writer suddenly realized there’s a mistake and it must be fixed. An editor I used to work with gave another writer incredibly short deadlines because the editor knew, without fail, the writer would require extensions because she had to keep fixing things until she got them right.

It sounds crazy or neurotic or nitpicky or even a waste of time. Except it’s not. Great writers care about their work to the point of obsession. I’ve never met any truly great writers who’re satisfied with their work. At a conference, I handed a book to a writer I greatly admired. She said, “Are you sure you want me to autograph this one?” She flipped through pages, pointing out typos and less than stellar sentences. She handed me another book and said, with all seriousness, “This one doesn’t have so many errors in it.” Okay, that was a tad extreme, but I do understand the sentiment.

Who benefits from the craziness? Readers. I don’t know about the rest of you, but if I’m reading a novel and all I can think about is whipping out my red pencil, chances are I’m not going to finish the story. I’ll probably never buy anything from that writer (or publisher) again. There’s true pleasure in reading carefully crafted prose presented in an attractive package. It makes me, the reader, feel comfortable, even cared about. I might not consciously notice all the little details that go into making the total package. I do notice when the producer doesn’t care enough about the details to attempt to get them right.

Now I know sometimes I have to let a piece of writing go. I make mistakes. They pain me. Sometimes they embarrass me. It’s not for lack of trying. One thing that really excites me about self-publishing is if I do find a mistake, I can go back and fix it. Or it could turn into a real nightmare of chronic unpublishing and republishing.

Anyhow, it’s all about pride. It’s all about not settling for second-best or good enough. Better to be a little bit nuts than sloppy and uncaring.