Friday, August 28, 2009

Rant for the Day: Using Misspellings to Indicate Speech Patterns
By Persia Walker

As an editor at Gentle Pen Editorial Services, I see this time and time again: writers using egregious misspellings to indicate speech patterns, specifically poor grammar and poor pronunciation. My response is always the same: Don't do it.

I'll keep the reasons short and sweet:

  1. It makes your copy difficult to understand.
  2. It makes your copy difficult to understand.
  3. It makes your copy difficult to understand.
Anything that makes your copy difficult to understand slows down your story and kills reader interest. After a while, the reader (ahem, that does include your editor) will want to toss your book against a wall.

So what do you do when you want to indicate a character's inability or unwillingness to speak standard English? Use standard English, at least as far as spelling and punctuation are concerned. You can play with the grammar and syntax, but you may not play with spelling and punctuation. (Okay, you can, but only to a very, very, very limited degree.)

"Whatchu doin callin me at dis time ah mornin? I'ma gonna wup you till you cain't stand iffin ya do dat agin!"
Laugh if you want to, but folks, it's painful writing this. No, I didn't get a manuscript with this exact sentence. I would never hurt or embarrass an author that way. However, I have received manuscripts -- and I do mean way too many -- that contain page after page of these oddball phonetic misspellings. I have never given in to the urge to throw these manuscripts against the digital wall, but I admit that in one case, I gave up. I just couldn't plow through pages and pages of such gobbledygook.

I had to tell the author that I had no idea whether her story was good. Why? Because I simply couldn't get to it. The wall of nonsensical misspellings she had erected wore me down. It obliterated any insight into the story she was trying to tell. She was insulted. I never heard from her again. It was a shame, too, because the synopsis of the story indicated that it was worth telling.

Back to the above example. You might say, what's the problem? By themselves, these sentences are easy to understand. But imagine pages and pages and more pages of dribble just like them. Pretty soon, you'd be sick of it. Any reader would be. Reading pages of idiosyncratic misspellings is like being forced to repeatedly listen to a very bad joke that wasn't funny to begin with.

Let's try rewriting the sentences with normal spellings, but keeping the odd syntax.
"What you doing calling me at this time of morning? I'll whip you till you can't stand if you do it again."
OK, I did noodle with the tenses in the second sentence a bit, but mostly I just corrected the misspellings. Now, the sentences are readable and perfectly convey the folksy vocal pattern of the speaker.

A few "gonnas" or "ain'ts" aren't going to destroy your readability, but any more than that and you're entering risky waters. You're damaging your story and doing a disservice to your readers. So please, stick to standard spelling. Develop an ear for how people arrange their words and formulate their sentences, for phrases that they rely on.

For those of you who would never use misspellings to indicate dialect, I apologize. I just had to get this off my chest. Now, I've got to get back to work, editing another one of those manuscripts. Grrrr....


New York Times Feed

Design by Dzelque Blogger Templates 2008

The Crime Sistahs - Design by Dzelque Blogger Templates 2008