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a: When Publishing People Can’t Write

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Posted 21 April 2017 - 11:00 AM

Image – iStockphoto: Orinoko Art
Query Their Skill Sets

It’s something of a “quiet provocation” I bring to you today—a point that lies deep within the industry: A lot of professional publishing people couldn’t write their way through a two-sentence blurb if their P&Ls depended on it.

Don’t worry, no names will appear here, I’m on a bloodless warpath.

But I was struck recently when a literary agent of considerable visibility in the industry contributed a blog post on query letter writing. Not that the world needs another word said, spoken, or thought about query writing, of course. Can’t we gather all the books, posts, and articles written on the tired, tortured, tedious topic of query letters and just yell, “Read Number 4,622!” when someone asks us for something special?

For our purposes here, never mind that the thing was about queries.

The problem is that the article was woefully badly written. Any agent worth her web site would have rejected the article along with the day’s query letters.

  • Subjects didn’t agree with verbs. And some of the verbs didn’t agree with life as we know it.
  • The entire article lived in Pronoun Purgatory. (Your plane really does not “arrive into” London Heathrow.)
  • Human beings were reduced to inanimate objects. (We all know self-described writers that don’t know the word who, don’t we?)
  • Wooden? Stilted? Victorian? I’m still searching for an adequate term to describe the creaking formality with which this thing was written. This is a great sign of amateurism, by the way, as I’m sure you know. Good writers are able to communicate in a conversational English that gets out of its own way. This piece was in everyone’s way, a refrigerator fallen from the truck of author instruction.

And remember that in many cases—maybe most cases—a literary agent is an author’s first editor. Some agents do deep developmental work on manuscripts. More do multiple copy-edit jobs on their clients’ texts.

As a journalist covering publishing, I probably see examples of bad writing from industry people more frequently than most do. Maybe I approach a publisher with a series of questions for an article or I ask an agent to give me a few paragraphs of descriptive commentary about a special book that he or she is keen to promote at a trade show. What comes back frequently needs a lot of work.

So there’s my provocation for you today.

If you go to a doctor, you assume that he or she knows the difference between ibuprofen and penicillin. So why, when you turn to a publishing professional, should that person not know the difference in its and it’s?

Nobody’s Perfect
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

We’re not talking about typos here, of course. (God help me with the typos.) We all make them. If anything, people who work in words spend so much time shoving verbiage at each other that the odds of mere mistakes goes way up, of course, no problem.

I’m talking here, instead, about an obvious lack of knowledge, a tin ear, the mistakes it’s okay for your mom to make in writing out a recipe. Those things aren’t really okay for professionals in the publishing industry.

Can we come up with comforting assumptions to step around this? Sure we can.

  • Publishing people are just writing for each other: it’s all in the family.
  • Authors are the ones who have to be capable of bel canto writing, publishing people are just the support team.
  • When the time comes, these publishing pros will suddenly shift into articulate gear and floor us with their expressive virtuosity.

Do you buy it? I don’t. I’d advise an author who’s researching agents and publishers to read your candidates’ blog posts and other writings. If they can’t handle the language, do they really appreciate your comparatively eloquent work?

Whats up with this? Have you noticed how many publishing folks whose careers are based in writing don’t seem to be able to write? Am I asking too much? Fine. And how’s your mechanic doing? Would it be good for her to be able to tell a tire from a steering wheel?

About Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson)

@Porter_Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives, the international publishing industry magazine owned by German Book Office New York and affiliated with Frankfurt Book Fair. He and fellow Writer Unboxed contributor Jane Friedman produce @The Hot Sheet, the essential industry newsletter for authors. Anderson previously was The Bookseller's Associate Editor for The FutureBook in London. In that role, he programmed the inaugural Author Day issues-driven conference as part of FutureBook 2015 Week in London. He is also a featured writer with Thought Catalog in New York, doing the #MusicForWriters series, often in association with Q2 Music. More on his consultancy: PorterAndersonMedia.com | Google+

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