Wait! You’re reading it wrong!

by Ian Clements


As a writer you’ll set out to make someone feel a certain way; this much is obvious. You want your characters to be layered and intriguing, for that old formula of “the hero’s journey” to feel fresh. So you get in there, building your players and raising the stakes, trying to make the reader laugh or cry. Annnnd, it’s finished. Finished, not polished yet, but you’re sure the first reader will understand that. Only something goes awry. They have a flick through it and start pointing out misplaced punctuation, quotation marks, explaining the concept of a split-infinitive. ‘There’s a story in there!’ you want to yell, shaken and betrayed by their detachment. ‘This is important too!’ your critical brain tells you, but it feels too much like you’ve just shown someone a painting and they’re fussing over the frame.

Personally speaking, I am not a brave man when I have completed a story. The sense of relief quickly becomes a drumbeat of anxiety, with every small action: print, paperclip, another step to the guillotine. You’ll need technical readers, you accept that, but the acknowledgement of what you tried to achieve should come first. Surely it should! Punctuation, grammar, syntax, they’re the gears beneath the gilded exterior, a point of secondary interest; what kind of joyless Vulcan probes them first? Certainly if your mechanics are so bad that the story doesn’t start, the train just grinds and jerks on the platform, then they are a primary problem. Just go through a normal day as a writer and corrections will pop into your head wherever you look. My forays into internet dating, reading personal profiles, can make me feel like a carpenter watching people hammer nails in with their head. So yes, you can’t go too far in that direction but then what about Cormac McCarthy? Blissfully ignoring all kinds of grammatical rules as he pens his latest work. Surely if your writing is good enough then you can just do it, feel it, even Einstein said that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”

The sad fact is we’re probably not that good. At least, not good enough to thumb our noses at the rules and get a free pass. You need to earn that kind of freedom. So, on my better days, I appreciate the technical readers and feel I can understand them a little better. Art can be such an individual thing. So slippery in meaning that, given the choice, wouldn’t we all approach it armoured with the ten commandments of ‘do’ or ‘do not’? That feels a hell of a lot safer and more solid to plant your feet on. At some point we will need that detachment to make our work stronger. Technical readers, please keep doing what you do. Just don’t ignore the flowers when you’re checking the water in the vase. The flowers came first.