The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (Audiobook)

Fantastic science fiction that should be read, nothing more need be said.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu)

Published by Tor Books. Read by Luke Daniels. Produced by Macmillon Audio. I got this a long time ago because it won the Hugo in 2015, but I only just got around to it in my January 2018 listening binge.

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

Listen time: 13.5 hours, 1/24/2018 – 1/26/2018.

This book is a masterpiece of science fiction. You should read it, or listen to it. It deserved to win the Hugo Award in 2015. That’s all I really need to say about it.

It is obvious that this is a translation, but it did not detract from the experience at all for me. In fact, I found it even more interesting because of it. Sentences were not quite the way I might have expected them to sound, which gave them a mysterious and creative appeal.

The first half of the book is a little confusing, and I didn’t quite understand how everything fit together, but there is an underlying mystery that compelled me to keep listening. (Actually, if I’d read the blurb above, the first half might have made more sense… I had no idea there were going to be aliens in this book.)

I was surprised to find Luke Daniels reading this book. I didn’t know if he could pull off reading a serious book, but he did. At first it was a little jarring to hear obvious American-sounding characters in a Chinese book about Chinese people, but after a while, the story engrossed me so much that I didn’t care.

The book stands alone, but there are more in this series. I’m not sure I want or need to listen to any more though. What if the sequels aren’t as good? Might it cheapen the experience of the first book?

As an aspiring author, this is the kind of book that it is both inspiring and thoroughly depressing. My immediate reaction is something like, “Well that’s it then, I guess there’s no point in trying to sell a book now.” There is simply no way I could come up with a plot to compete with the level of detail and imagination in this one. Only after some time has passed will I be able to return to my silly pew-pew stories again with any confidence.

See more of my book reviews here.

UPDATE

After I lamented my lack of confidence in writing, I noticed Yoast had this to say about this very post:

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson (Audiobook)

A very artful, atmospheric fantasy where “stuff happens.”

Gardens of the Moon: The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Book 1 by Steven Erikson

Published by Tor Books. Read by Ralph Lister. Produced by Brilliance Audio.

The Malazan Empire simmers with discontent, bled dry by interminable warfare, bitter infighting and bloody confrontations with the formidable Anomander Rake and his Tiste Andii, ancient and implacable sorcerers. Even the imperial legions, long inured to the bloodshed, yearn for some respite. Yet Empress Laseen’s rule remains absolute, enforced by her dread Claw assassins.

This is a fantasy book that is not quite grimdark but nowhere near high fantasy, either. Somewhere in the realm of low fantasy I suppose, except that there is a lot of magic. I guess there was a lot of fighting and dying so maybe it’s classified as grimdark after all. It wasn’t really “on screen,” though, and there’s magic of a distinctly high fantasy sort (teleportation), so maybe not. I don’t know what it is, to be honest. :)

Listen time: About 4 out of  the 26 hours, 1/23/2018 – 1/24/2018.

After four hours of listening I couldn’t identify a plot or any characters that I cared about. I would describe this as a fantastic book where “stuff happens.” The stuff that happens is relayed to the reader very artfully, with interesting sentences and dialog, but I wasn’t hooked by any of it. Perhaps it is a long, slow burn, which makes some sense because it’s a long audiobook, and it’s the first book of a series. I intentionally listened for a long time (four hours) because I figured it would start slow, but then I remembered that I had tons of other books in my backlog.

I will admit that my attention faded in and out while listening to the first four hours, so I’m not terribly clear on the story. There is a war, but I don’t know what they are fighting over, for, or against. I’m not even sure *who* is fighting. It’s hard to get invested in a book when you don’t know the stakes.

Ralph Lister is a very good narrator and I would definitely listen to more of his work. His narration is probably the main reason that I listened to four hours of a story that wasn’t really grabbing my attention. He reads the material as if it is the most important work of our generation, and really brought the character’s voices to life, far more than the text did, I think. I was also very interested in the way he pronounced certain words, like “swathed” (swaythed) and “migraine” (meegraine). (I always thought they were swahthed and mygraine. I will concede the first but I’m reasonably confident of the second.)

Perhaps another time I will return to this book and finish it.

Pandemic: The Extinction Files by A. G. Riddle (Audiobook)

A disappointment despite some compelling side characters.

Pandemic: The Extinction Files, Book 1 by A. G. Riddle

Published by Riddle, Inc. Read by Edoardo Ballerini. Produced by Audible Studios.

In Africa, a mysterious outbreak spreads quickly. Teams from the CDC and WHO respond, but they soon learn that there is more to the epidemic than they believed. It may be the beginning of a global experiment–an event that will change the human race forever.

Another one where I have no idea how or why this book got into my Audible library. I don’t know if it was recommended to me or if I just randomly clicked on something on the front page of the site to try to use up my Audible credits before I cancelled my subscription. Probably that latter one, because I had a lot to use up, and I try to vary my genres now and then. (I think this is a “thriller.”)

Listen time: About 75% of the ~19 hour run time, 1/21-1/23/2018.

This was a very interesting book, but probably not for the reasons you might expect. I found it to be an incredibly mixed bag. It had *just* enough interesting material to keep me listening to the very end, though.

It might surprise you to learn that Pandemic is about a virus outbreak. It starts with a fairly typical outbreak story that you’ve probably read or seen a hundred times before (person in third world gets sick, local doctors suspects it’s Very Bad, virus spreads, CDC workers begin efforts to stop the outbreak, etc.). It was so ordinary that I thought I would stop listening after an hour or so and move on to another book.

But then a few chapters hooked me, mainly the ones involving a WHO woman named Peyton. I was intrigued by the mobilization efforts to fight the pandemic, and the descriptions of how such a fight is conducted. I am a sucker for end-of-the-world stories, and the realistic portrayals (real to me, at least, who knows absolutely nothing about fighting pandemics) fascinated me. (Personally I am pretty sure the human race will end because of something like a virus or bacteria, not a nuclear war or climate change.)

I, the reader, kept fighting with the author, though, who insisted that Peyton was not the main character, and kept returning to chapters about another guy named Desmond. Desmond is a super-spy-ish, computer-ish guy who had lost his memory, rather similar to that Jason Bourne guy. I started skipping his chapters as soon as I heard his name. He was running from police, logging into computers, hacking passwords, playing virtual reality games, trying to find out who he was. I didn’t care one whit about him, because his plot arc did not intersect with the struggle against the outbreak.

I enjoyed the book the way I was listening to it: Skipping the Desmond chapters without remorse, listening with fascination to the Peyton chapters that dealt with the outbreak in Kenya.

Unfortunately the two characters of Desmond and Peyton came together into a single plot thread, taking Peyton away from the outbreak, and the story kind of veered off a cliff for me. It happened a bit shy of the halfway point. The characters boarded a helicopter, and there followed a very long period of backstory and exposition that demolished the book’s pacing and threw the unfolding pandemic far into the background.

I might have stopped listening, but unfortunately for me, I was invested in a few other side characters that I cared about, and wanted to hear how their stories turned out. Their stories, back in Kenya and Atlanta, were more compelling to me than the main “thriller” story of the globetrotting duo of Desmond and Peyton trying to track down the people responsible for the pandemic. Sadly, the side characters only got about half a chapter in every ten, if they were lucky. I would have loved to hear more of them.

I skipped a lot of chapters. A lot of other chapters I didn’t pay much attention to, even though I technically played them. My ears only perked up when the story returned to the side characters I liked. In the end, I was satisfied with the narrative arc for the side characters, but the plot for the main characters (ie. the main plot for the book) turned out to be a disappointment.

Edoardo Ballerini, by the way, is another competent reader, but he doesn’t have a lot of personality. He is more of a TV commercial voice than a storyteller, if you know what I mean. He seems to be more concerned with perfect diction and consistency, as opposed to conveying strong emotions. Actually that’s probably not fair. He’s certainly not the worst I’ve ever heard. But he doesn’t really “bring characters to life” in the way someone like Luke Daniels or an actor would.

Would I recommend it? Not unless you’re bored. It would probably make a much better movie. But they really need to work on Peyton’s character. She started out a “strong female lead” and then deflated into little more than “the girlfriend” for the main character. I was really disappointed in that.

Despite giving this book a somewhat poor review, I still found it fascinating from an author’s perspective. This book broke *so many* of the rules that everyone tells you about. Yet for some reason, it was published, and someone made an audiobook of it! Show, don’t tell, they say. This book told like a maniac. Use active voice, they say. I don’t think this book had a single active verb from beginning to end. Almost every chapter began with a very formulaic establishing line like, “X verbed in Y, verbing.” “Jerry sat in his office, looking over the research papers.” “Betty walked the streets of Berlin, searching for the suitcase.” “Rex stood in the Atlanta hospital, staring at the whiteboard.” Every. Single. Chapter.

Weirdly … sometimes it worked. There were plenty of chapters where I was riveted by what was being “told.” It feels like the kind of book that needs to be studied to understand why some parts worked and others didn’t.

For example, I understand why it makes sense to begin every chapter with a line to quickly establish the character and setting, because almost every chapter switched to a different location. It’s just that the author made no effort to deviate from a very specific grammatical formula. But then, why would you? Formulas are formulas because … they work.

The Land: Founding by Aleron Kong (Audiobook)

A self-published effort that falls short.

The Land: Founding: A LitRPG Saga: Chaos Seeds, Book 1 by Aleron Kong

Self-published. Read by Nick Podehl. Produced by Tamori Publications LLC.

Tricked into a world of banished gods, demons, goblins, sprites and magic, Richter must learn to meet the perils of The Land and begin to forge his own kingdom. Actions have consequences across The Land, with powerful creatures and factions now hell-bent on Richter’s destruction.

This is definitely a winner for the largest number of sub-titles within one title. I have no idea where I heard about this book or why I got it.

Listen time: ~32 minutes on 1/21/2018.

This book did not click with me at all. It is about (stop me if you’ve heard this before) a guy who accidentally gets transported to a real fantasy world after playing a game (a virtual MMORPG). It is, I think, a comedy targeted at an audience demographic who plays online games or tabletop RPGs, i.e. people who will “get” the in-jokes.

I listened to four audio chapters while I was trapped in the shower, and afterward, it was a fairly easy decision not to continue. I would describe the first four chapters as boilerplate setup chapters heavy on exposition, the kind of chapters I have written plenty of times before and been embarrassed about.

On the plus side it is competently read by Nick Podehl, who actually sounds a bit like a cut-rate Luke Daniels. I would consider listening to other books read by him. I don’t think I would consider reading any other LitRPG books, though. It’s possible it gets better, but I just don’t have time to wait for it. Maybe when I run out of other audiobooks I’ll skip ahead to the middle to see if it improves.

See more of my book reviews here.

The Authorities by Scott Meyers (Audiobook)

A fun listen, packed with Scott Meyers absurdity and Luke Daniels voices.

Published by Rocket Hat Industries. Read by Luke Daniels. Produced by … Scott Meyer? (Presumably the author paid Luke Daniels to make the audiobook.)

Sinclair Rutherford is a young Seattle cop with a taste for the finer things. Doing menial tasks and getting hassled by superiors he doesn’t respect are definitely not “finer things.” Good police work and bad luck lead him to crack a case that changes quickly from a career-making break into a high-profile humiliation when footage of his pursuit of the suspect—wildly inappropriate murder weapon in hand—becomes an Internet sensation.

I’m pretty sure I picked up this book because it was another Scott Meyer/Luke Daniels collaboration. I found the Magic 2.0 series juvenile but also very funny.

Listen time: ~10 hours, 1/18-1/20/2018.

Very much like the Magic 2.0 books, the story and writing of The Authorities did not do much for me, but it is brilliantly read by Luke Daniels. I am very biased though because anything that Luke Daniels reads becomes 1000% better in my personal opinion. The Authorities is basically a long series of absurdly comedic situations (Scott Meyer’s trademark) loosely tied together into a police procedural format. It’s a fun listen, that’s about it.

I would recommend the audiobook solely because it has a lot of funny moments, and Luke Daniels is perfect for this kind of humor. I’m not sure I would recommend *reading* the book, though. There were long stretches where I checked out and didn’t pay much attention. For example, I didn’t care a whit about the mystery of whodunnit. The victim and the murderer just didn’t matter. But I enjoyed the hijinks that occurred along the way of solving the crime. I guess that’s another way of saying that the characters were far more interesting than the plot. It had a bit of an absurdist A-Team vibe to it.

See more of my book reviews here.

Survey Revisions Continue

Continuing revisions on “Survey.”

I promised myself I would try to write two writing posts a month. Technically this should be the second one, but it’s actually just the first one. Oh well.

While I have not been extremely happy with my progress on editing “Survey,” my 2016 NaNoWriMo project, I have at least *made* progress on it. Last time I described how I was highlighting sections of text that needed attention, and I have more-or-less completed that.

Initially I highlighted text in blue for Backstory and Exposition (“the history behind this thing is…”), then red for Telling, Not Showing (“she felt angry about that”).

I added another category of highlighting: Worldbuilding and Continuity, in green. These are sections of text that refer to any in-world names, places, dates, or times. While I’m writing a draft, those things are very much in flux, so while I might start out the draft thinking that an event occurred a thousand years ago, by the end of the draft it could be six thousand years ago, or vice versa. If I actually took some time to plan things in advance, I might not have to change them all the time.

To be fair, I *did* spend some time worldbuilding for Survey, long before I even knew what the story or characters were. As it turned out, most of the worldbuilding of names, places, etc. did not even end up in the draft.

Now that I’ve finished with the highlighting, my goal is to start working on real edits. This is the hard part for me. The part that I dread the most, and in retrospect, the part that I was simply postponing by highlighting the first draft. That is, moving text around, and writing new text to replace shoddy work in the first draft. I am unfortunately going to need to write a lot of new text for Survey.

The draft told me that this novel has three parts. Part one involves arriving on the planet. Part two involves the events that occur on the planet. Part three involves events that occur after leaving the planet. The vast majority of the draft I wrote happens in parts one and two. Part three got very short shrift because I didn’t get to it until late in November. (That part of the draft is highlighted almost entirely in red.)

I will need to make a lot of major revisions to Part One because the story does not begin very well. There was entirely too much exposition at the beginning of the first draft, despite intentionally trying to move it along quickly. The story is supposed to begin with a ship crash-landing on a planet, but I felt like it took way too long to get to the exciting part in the draft. I tried to explain how the ship got to the planet first. :)

We may kid ourselves into thinking that readers are sophisticated enough to give an author time to develop a story, but the reality is that I’m a new author, so if the first sentence, paragraph, and page doesn’t scream action, mystery, and/or humor into the reader’s face at full volume in short, declarative sentences, I can expect 99% of the audience to go elsewhere. (Especially agents and editors.) After I’ve published a handful of successful books, then maybe I can start with more leisurely exposition.

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how to approach this part of the editing. It’s *incredibly* intimidating, because it feels like I might as well just delete the entire draft and start over, and obviously that is two months of work, minimum, at the end of which I will have basically a second first draft which is no closer to publication than the first first draft is right now. Surely there must be a better way.

Maybe if I can crack the first chapter or two, it will seem easier to manage. Or perhaps I should start the revisions in the middle. I was reasonably pleased with large sections of the middle. Or maybe I should start with writing the ending that I didn’t have time to write in November. The possibilities are too numerous. :)

The Editing Process

Some notes on how I am editing my nanowrimo draft so far.

I’m trying an experiment: I’m going to try not to completely abandon the novel I wrote in November.

This experiment has failed every year since 2010. NaNoWriMo drafts from 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2016 languish more-or-less in exactly the same state they were in on December 1st. Drafts from 2010 and 2011 have been edited a lot, but remain woefully unsuitable for submission.

But this time I have a plan. Well, a first step in a plan, at least, which is better than I’ve ever done before.

My first goal is to go through the entire draft and highlight sections of text based on certain criteria. Here is an image of the actual Scrivener project I am working on above demonstrating this highlighting. (I blurred up the text because it is too embarrassing to show the world.)

First I went through the text and highlighted every paragraph which contained backstory of events that happened prior to the story, or exposition about the world and setting. I highlighted those sections in blue. There was a lot of it, but I was pleased to see that it wasn’t as bad as I feared.

There was a strong correlation between the days that I didn’t feel like I knew what to write and the days where I highlighted a lot of backstory in blue.

This process went very quickly, and I completed going over the entire project in about an hour.

Some backstory will be necessary of course, but I want to make sure it is in the right strategic places. The first chapter, for example, is not a great place for large swaths of backstory. The movie version of my novel will not start with a black screen and a bunch of text explaining everything you need to know before you can enjoy the movie, like so, so many movies do. (And video games, for that matter.) Instead, hopefully, it will begin with likeable characters doing something intrinsically interesting. I personally give movies on Netflix or Amazon Prime about a minute or two before I decide whether to keep watching or not, so I am trying to keep that in mind when I write my novel. Readers will give me a page or two at best, so I can’t junk it up with pointless backstory. (Not even counting agents and editors, who might give me a *sentence* or two.)

During this first pass, I also marked up any sections where I “broke the fourth wall” just to get filler words into the draft. I used the “strikethrough” text format for that.

In my second pass through my draft, I am working to highlight all of the text which sounds like “telling, not showing” in red. (Red for “danger,” get it?)

This is a fairly subjective measure. It’s easy for me to tell the difference between backstory and current story, but this is taking a lot longer and requires more judgment calls. I have only completed highlighting the first eight days over the course of a couple of hours.

I am looking specifically for any text that basically just states outright what a character is thinking or feeling. “Dejena thought that was dumb.” Things like that. Again, it is largely impossible to eliminate “telling” entirely, but once I have all of the passages highlighted, I’ll be able to evaluate each one to see if it works as is, or if it needs to be fixed.

In a third pass, if I ever get to it, I want to highlight descriptions in green. I don’t expect to see very much of this, because when I write my first drafts, I very rarely describe anything or anyone. For one thing, the appearance of the characters has little or no bearing on the story, so who cares? And secondly, it tends to bog me down in distracting details. It’s very easy to fall down a rabbit hole for hours or days trying to figure out what a personal communication device might look like in five or ten thousand years.

So that’s what I’m working on.

NaNoWriMo 2017 Post-Mortem

Notes on what I did well and not-so-well after completing NaNoWriMo 2017.

Hi! I’m finally back with another writing update. I completed NaNoWriMo again this year, and here’s my assessment of my performance.

Summary

This year’s novel is code-named “Survey.”

It’s a science fiction/fantasy set many thousands of years in the future, in a time after a long war between humans and aliens has finally resulted in a treaty.

A human captain leads a ship on a mission to survey a planet, where a lost colony had once been established thousands of years before. They find a struggling pre-Industrial human society, and alien ships in orbit.

The captain’s ship is shot down, and an alien plot that leads to the brink of war unfolds.

What I Did Well

First I like to highlight what I did well, so I remember to do them in the future.

Workmanlike Effort

I’ll be perfectly honest. At no point during the writing of this draft did I feel particularly inspired or excited about this novel. Don’t get me wrong, I feel like it has potential, and I’m very pleased with how it turned out.

What I’m trying to say is that I was never driven by a “muse” or “divine inspiration” or a “need to tell this story” or a “personal connection to the characters” or anything like that. Every day I had to force myself to continue writing, because I wanted to give up on it pretty much every single day.

This was a very valuable experience.

Minimal “filler words”

During the gamified NaNoWriMo event, where the focus is on quantity, not quality, there’s a very strong temptation to just put *anything* into your NaNoWriMo draft. This is a fairly well-known, joked-about phenomenon. I call them “filler words.” They might be ideas for another story you’re thinking of, the weather, “I don’t know what to write” over and over, the complete works of Monty Python, things like that.

My personal favorite filler material is breaking the fourth wall to have the characters talk about the story they are involved in, or brainstorming notes about what to write next.

This very blog post could conceivably be used as “filler words” for my draft. I am starting this post on Day 30 with 48,407 draft words completed, instead of writing words to finish up my draft.

But this year, I’ve added very few filler words. I counted only three days that included “filler” content, and I kept it relatively focused on brainstorming for this particular story. I didn’t ever venture into discussing the weather, for example. (The weather was chilly for most of November, incidentally.)

That means that for 27 out of the 30 days of the event, even though I never really felt like I quite knew what to write next, I buckled down and figured out what was appropriate to write for the story.

I finished the story

If you’ve done NaNoWriMo more than once, you probably know that you can’t write what would be considered a novel today in 50,000 words. My personal target for a debut novel is 90,000 words. I’ve read repeatedly that 80-90k words is roughly the point where publishers are willing to “take a chance” on a new writer. They aren’t likely to publish a debut author’s 200,000 epic fantasy, in other words. Get a few successful books out first, then we’ll talk.

(Incidentally, I still consider traditional publishing the best route for me to follow in my writing career. While it would be relatively easy to self-publish, and in fact I *have* self-published a book on Amazon, I just don’t have the mettle to deal with marketing.)

Getting back to the point, there’s a strong temptation to simply stop writing at 50,000 words on Day 30, even though one knows quite well the story isn’t over yet. For me in particular, once the month is over, I really don’t want to write any more. The “special event” is over, and there’s no more social motivation to continue writing. One has to go back to internal motivation and self-discipline, which is what we in the writing biz call “work.”

In the past, I have ended drafts unfinished. Last year, in fact, when I got to 50,000 words of my historical fiction, I felt like I had only completed perhaps one of three parts in the overall story.

But this year I determined that I would complete the story. I knew I could not write the 90,000 words required to tell it fully in November, but I knew that if I did not at least summarize the end of the story, I would never get back to it.

So over approximately the last five days, I stopped trying to “show, not tell” and reverted strictly to telling. This allowed me to dilate huge swaths of time down to paragraphs, and resolve most of the plot threads that I had started earlier. Later, I will be able to come back and expand those paragraphs out into chapters, instead of scratching my head wondering how to finish an unfinished manuscript.

What I Did Poorly

Of course it wouldn’t be much of a post-mortem unless I had criticisms of my performance.

Procrastination

I procrastinated a *lot* during November. I had plenty of time for writing, but I did not use it wisely. I could have easily written 100,000 words or more in November, if I had really set my mind to it. On good writing days it was easy to achieve 2,500 words. Pushing further to 3,000 or 3,500 would not have been difficult with some discipline.

Grammar

I don’t think the quality of this year’s writing is very good. It will require a lot of editing.

It’s not unusual for my first drafts to be poor, because I am more focused on getting down the ideas in my head before they fly away, but I think it was worse than usual this year.

Improving the quality of my first drafts is a point that I want to work on, because I don’t enjoy the revision process as much as the writing process. Once I know how the story is going to turn out, it’s less of a creative process and more of a crafting process. (Not to say that there isn’t a lot of art in grammar, it’s just that I am not particularly good at the more literary styles of writing.) I think of it like sculpting: Chiseling and filing away at the words and sentences until they look right.

If I can improve the quality of my first drafts, it will make the revision process that much faster. I don’t really know how to get better at it except to keep practicing.

August Writing Update

My last post was some time ago, so I thought I would update everyone on my writing progress. Um. Well. You see. It hasn’t been great.

My last post was some time ago, so I thought I would update everyone on my writing progress.

Um. Well. You see. It hasn’t been great.

I did participate in NaNoWriMo 2016, and I did win, so that was something. I wrote 50,000 words on a historical fiction novel set in Belgium during World War I. I’ve never written historical fiction before so it was a big stretch. I felt completely unqualified, but I pressed on and tried to stick with what I knew and avoid obsessing about the little details that I was sure I was getting wrong.

For most of the writing, I felt like it was terrible, but I thought there were some good moments here and there, particularly toward the end. (There was no end to the story. I just stopped at 50,000 words.) Perhaps one day I will read it again and try to edit it.

Since then, I have been telling myself that I will work on editing a fantasy novel I wrote in 2012 called Kubak Outpost. I haven’t gotten very far on it. I don’t seem to have a very good workflow for writing anymore. Since I’ve moved into my new house everything feels very temporary and chaotic and taking the steps necessary to make permanent work zones feels like a monstrous chore that I don’t know how to tackle.

Anyway. I’m attempting to move this blog to a different location. There should be no change for visitors, but it’s hosted somewhat differently. I’m trying to consolidate a bunch of disparate online things together so I can perhaps save some money and make things easier to administer. This is the first post under the new system, so we’ll see if it publishes correctly.

Spelling Right: On Standard Spelling

Rambling thoughts that are somewhat related to Anne Trubek’s article on spelling.

Reims Bible, Wikimedia Commons. Spelling was pretty important for monks.
Reims Bible, Wikimedia Commons. Spelling was pretty important for monks.

Spelling is important, right? I saw a post on Facebook about this Grammar Girl article, which was a response to a Wired article by Anne Trubek on spelling. I started to type a pithy comment about it, but then I realized I kept thinking of new things to say that went far beyond the scope of a pithy comment, so I figured I should turn it into a long, rambling blog post.

Reading over that Wired article, it’s not clear to me what Trubek’s trying to advocate. Spelling isn’t important? Computers make spelling harder? Auto-correct makes spelling worse? Spelling mistakes are okay? In the end I think her main point is that spelling rules are too hard for computers to enforce, so we should re-write the spelling rules to allow computers to work better. I agree that English spelling rules are incomprehensible and illogical, and if we were to set out to design a new language with a consistent set of spelling rules we could do a much better job, but I don’t think it’s realistic to think it would get any traction among the world’s population. I mean, Esperanto, Klingon, and Elvish are all newly-invented languages and they aren’t exactly taking off.

It used to make sense to write “l8r” instead of “later” because numeric phone keypads made it impossible to type out full words. I never did any texting back then and I’m glad I didn’t. Now I don’t think there’s much of an excuse for not typing out full words because we have QWERTY keyboards available to us on our phones. (Though admittedly it’s a lot harder to type on glass touchscreens than clicky keyboards.) Still, I tend to cut people some slack when they’re sending messages from phones because, instead of making things better, auto-correct makes it quite difficult to avoid bad writing. I agree with Trubek on that. I’d rather send out misspelled words than replaced words.

I do think that writing (and communication in general) should be tailored toward your intended audience, though. If I’m typing a message in an IRC or IM-like environment (like say a video game chat), I’m generally not going to capitalize anything but “I” and I’m probably not going to use proper punctuation. When I do that I’m tailoring my message for my audience, which covers a wide range of backgrounds anywhere from full-blown grammar police to 10-year-olds who can’t spell. To me, lower case without punctuation is a nice balance between targeting readers who prefer proper grammar and readers who prefer “l8r” and weird emojis. It’s not too pretentious to more, ahem, “casual” spellers, and it’s not too horrifying to, ahem, obsessive writers.

Away from the Internet, if I’m writing anything for work, I’m going to figure out who is going to be reading my documents and tailor my writing for them. Presumably they are all adults with a reasonable level of education. If it’s a technical document, I’m going to use acronyms and jargon but relatively straightforward declarative sentences. If it’s a presentation for people with no sense of humor, I’m going to try to sound like a Harvard professor and use denser sentences. If it’s a government document, I’m going to try to write sentences that sound like they are filled with information but actually have no intrinsic meaning at all. If it’s marketing copy, I’m going to jump off a bridge and kill myself because I don’t like writing marketing copy. But in every case, I’m going to use proper grammar and proper punctuation and proper spelling because it makes me look like a professional instead of a hack. Believe me when I tell you that people in the business world will judge you if your writing does not look professional.

(In blog posts, by the way, I write very casually, in a mixture of voices, with plenty of errors because I don’t have an editor, and I’m okay with that. Because quite frankly I consider every blog post I write to be a practice session of creative writing without being paralyzed by an inner editor.)

To me, the way you choose to spell things determines how you want to present yourself to the world. The way we write says a lot about us, whether we want it to or not. If someone doesn’t care about choosing standard spelling or decent grammar, it makes me wonder what else they don’t care about. Don’t they care about doing a good job in their chosen craft? Don’t they care about bettering themselves? Don’t they care about learning? Or are they just showing up to collect a paycheck? If I see someone’s resume, that’s what I’m thinking about when I read their sentences. (What else do I have to go on?)

So back to the Wired article. The author makes a good point that language evolves over time, and that standardized spelling is a relatively recent invention (1800s+). I don’t feel like that’s a good argument to avoid proper spelling though, because back when spelling was all over the place (say, the 1600s), it was because nobody knew how to read and write. It’s not that they were exercising creative license with their spelling, it was because they didn’t know how to spell. I don’t feel like the author is intentionally advocating a return to an illiterate society, but that’s what is going to happen when you stop teaching people how to spell. We’ll return to the days when only monks in monasteries could write books. (Future monks will be writing web content, and hopefully they will be paid handsomely for their rare skill.) Sometimes it feels like we’re already there. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve shaken my head at how few of my peers in the working world can communicate complex ideas in writing. I’m working on a project right now that is suffering badly because of a simple lack of documentation.

Overall I would agree that it doesn’t matter what kind of shorthand we write in text messages or Post-it notes to loved ones. However when we’re writing for a larger audience of potential strangers, proper spelling and grammar is pretty important if we care about being understood.

UPDATE: I installed a new WordPress plugin that does some SEO analysis, so I made some slight changes to improve this blog post’s marketing copy.