Never Listen To English Majors…Most Aren’t Published
The short version of this is that an English major knows a lot about the English language, like how to build a proper sentence, but by and large, they don’t know jack-shit about how to write a book people want to pay for and read.
Now, on to the long version…
Oh, and before you English majors come after me with torches and pitchforks, remember that these are all general statements. Like anything, there are always exceptions. Not many, but a few.
And I have a MA in English. It didn’t take very well and I got over it.
There is a ton of research out there about average reading levels, and the numbers vary all over the place depending on your focused target market. Want to know the average reading level for general entertainment adult reading in the US?
Yes, that’s right. The average person reading your books is reading at a fifth grade level. For some genres (romance, horror, terror, etc.) the number is a little lower. For others (SF, spy, docudrama, etc.) it’s a tad higher.
In other words, aim your story at about what a fifth grader should be able to read, and your readers won’t get lost. Oh, by the way…the average US fifth grader reads at a 4.1 level. Go figure.
And just a fast caveat here…on all word processing systems I have ever seen, the readability scores end up being WAY low. The algorithms used to do the calculations include dialog. By its nature, dialog has very low readability scores because the paragraphs and sentences tend to be very short compared to narrative.
All of this boils down to the simple fact that to sell books you need to write clearly, concisely, and with passion. All of the fancy things that English majors know how to do will accomplish exactly two things:
(1) Confuse the living hell out of your average reader, and
(2) Make your books sit on the store shelf until the end of time.
There is one school of thought among writers that if you write over the head of the “average” reader, you will sell books to the “above average” readers. These readers will tend to be better educated and have more disposable income to spend on books, so you’ll make more money. The problem is that these latter-day-yuppies don’t buy books. They buy sports cars, dirt bikes, RVs, SUVs, boats, a new smart phone every six weeks, houses that they are seriously upside-down on before they sign the mortgage, and no small amount of various recreational drugs, both prescription and—shall we say—over the counter. In short, they have no disposable income and no time to read.
And remember that the typical millennial is still living at home with their parents and has no free cash at all. And I won’t go into the simple fact that a goldfish has a longer attention span (8-9 seconds) than the average millennial (3-4 seconds).
On the other hand, the average readers out there manage their money, keep things real, and spend money judiciously on entertainment products, books especially.
The real writers figure this out pretty fast and abandon the screwball idea in a hurry. I do, however, know one author who is still sticking to this pattern. He is an amazing writer with all the skills needed to make it to the big time. He’s 31 now, has a law degree (he’s failed the bar in five different states now), has about six books published (all self-pubbed), works about 20 hours a week at Wendy’s, lives in his parent’s garage, and makes about $1,000 a year writing. Since he has no expenses (he doesn’t have a car and pays no rent or board), his fast food and writing gigs keep him in beer and weed. Now that’s the life!
Besides, the purpose of language is to communicate. If you can get your point across in an efficient and concise manner, then who really cares if you violate a few rules along the way? And then there is the issue of the rules of language…
See also Rule Number Six. In that Rule, I detail how the style manuals are usually wrong. More importantly, I point out that the style manuals are based on what we authors are doing. In other words, we authors set the rules for language, not the English majors.
Go ahead…pick up any style manual or dictionary. On every page you will find a reference to what some author did in the past used to defend what the manual or dictionary is saying is the right thing to do. In most cases, you will find several such examples on every page.
You won’t find a single entry that points to the opinion of Jane Doe, PhD as defense for a rule.
Let’s make sure we all understand the food chain here…
English majors edit books and help authors stay on track and not make stupid mistakes in grammar and punctuation that alter the meaning of a sentence. (Like “Let’s eat grandma” versus “Let’s eat, grandma.”) Authors can, do, and should tell the English major to get stuffed and this is the way we are going to do this book. That is to say, the author is the final authority.
The people who write style manuals and dictionaries take their input from authors. In all cases of disagreement, the author is always right.
In other words, the style manual and dictionary govern the English major, the author governs the style manual and dictionary, and so the author also governs the English major.
To paraphrase Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be the queen!”