Writing 101: Popular Books Aren't Necessarily Well-Written

Many authors like to read the work of other authors, and it's easy to get inspired by the greats. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so isn't it only natural that authors emulate the authors they like? Just know that, when you do, you should consider the source. Some of the most popular books aren't necessarily well-written, and you definitely don't want to take a page from them and re-produce the bad grammar.

Bad Grammar, Poor Punctuation

Some books explode into pop culture unexpectedly, becoming wildly popular and read by large audiences. But it cannot be taken for granted that such books are well-written, or shining examples of good grammar. In fact, sometimes the exact opposite is true. There are literally hundreds of books that sold well but still had horrible mistakes within the pages, but for the purposes of this post we're only going to talk about two mega bestsellers. One's a self-published book, and one is not.

  • The Hunger Games
That's right: I'm not afraid. Read The Hunger Games carefully enough, and you'll find excess commas, poor sentence structure and more grammar errors than you can shake a bow and arrow at. Arguably, author Suzanne Collins may have had a reason for making all these mistakes -- but we'll get to that in a minute.

First, I've got a prove my case for all the fans out there. Here are two examples of comma overload, where semicolons should have been added instead:

In some districts, in which winning the reaping is such a great honor, people are eager to risk their lives, the volunteering is complicated.

Obviously Haymitch isn’t much, but Effie trinket is right about one thing, once we’re in the arena he’s all we’ve got.

Bad grammar is evident in many sentences. They are simply poorly structured, with modifiers in the wrong place, and end up making very little sense: 

But I retrieved the small bow and arrows he’d made me from a hollow tree.

My bow is a rarity, crafted by my father along with a few others that I keep well hidden in the woods.

The first error suggests that the bow and arrows were made from a hollow tree; the author means to suggest that they are hidden in the tree. The second error suggests that the heroine keeps her father, along with some other people, hidden in the woods. That changes the story quite a bit. 

I couldn’t go home. Because at home was my mother with her dead eyes and my little sister, with her hollow cheeks and cracked lips.

This is just a silly pluralization error. Because "my mother" and "my little sister" are both "at home," the correct verb is the plural were, not was.

The Hunger Games is crazy popular, and well-loved enough to spark a full-length feature film. It's also not self-published. This fiction juggernaut has all the power of a team of copy editors and the clout of a major publishing company behind it. It's possible that Collins intended to write the book in the tone and style of her protagonist, as the book is told from the first-person perspective. It's possible that these errors are actually brilliant, cleverly implemented as part of a careful writing technique. But at the end of the book, it's still wrong. And wrong is wrong, no matter what justification you use.

But some very popular self-published books are no better, mind you. 

  • Fifty Shades of Grey
The self-published book that was read 'round the world, Fifty Shades of Grey, is also incredibly popular. It's also destined to become a movie, and plenty of article writers and book bloggers have already done the casting back to front. But you'd better not read it if you're looking for an example of great writing in the indie genre...because you won't find it. 

Notice how I used the ellipsis up there? I like using them; I've even blogged about it. But I definitely don't like them as much as E. L. James. 

I suck harder and harder … Hmm … My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves.

He gently strokes my hair … Boy … I Survived. That wasn’t so bad. I’m more stoic than I thought. My inner goddess is prostrate … well, at least she’s quiet.
The word overkill fairly leaps to mind. Fifty Shades of Grey has also taken flak for being over-written; the term "purple prose" crops up a lot.

So...What's Wrong With Readers? 

So why is it that bad writing, poor grammar and weird punctuation are celebrated, rather than reviled? It's not that today's readers make poor choices, or that the nature of writing itself is changing. Many, many readers acknowledge that the books they love are riddled with mistakes, but they consciously overlook them because they love the plot and the characters of the book.

It seems to clearly point to the fact that readers care most about the content of the book itself: the story. But that's no reason to write just any old way, or ignore the basic rules of English. It's wonderful to write a popular book. It's even better to write a book that's popular and critically-acclaimed. You don't want your work to come with a disclaimer (sure, the punctuation is crap, but...) and you don't want your reputation to be that you're strong in plot but shite at the mechanics of writing. You can do both; it just takes a little extra time and care.

In the end, it's worth it.

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  1. I spend a lot of time during the editing process making sure my punctuation and grammar convey the correct meaning of my sentence. I can't understand writers who don't - especially when noobie writers are told they should make as few errors as possible on their submissions.

  2. Want to see a bunch of comma and other errors? Read some of Neal Shusterman's works...

  3. I agree with this SOOO much!
    though editing is tiresome and I LOATH it, it must be done!
    As far as elipses, I use them constantly, all the time, but I know that you cant have a million in a book. So I edit all my elipses out (well, almost all of them)
    Anyways, 50 Shades of Grey was such a horribly written book, I couldnt even finish the first one.
    Great post!!

  4. I can understand some mistakes. Your average reader isn't going to be an English major so they wont need great structure. However, when it's obviously poorly written, then it really needs looked into. Great post!

  5. Thanks for your comments, all! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  6. Thank you, Jade, for upholding standards. I would say you are too kind. A writer has no business writing until he or she has a firm grasp of the grammar fundamentals. You have to know the rules before you can break the rules. Poor craftsmanship is one thing. The art and craft of writing can take a lifetime to learn to do well. But there is no excuse for poor writing. It's disrespectful and irresponsible.

  7. I just wrote my first novel( Im jut 13 years old :)) and 3 weeks ago it got published, when i read the novel i realized how many grammar mistakes i have made.....Real silly......So yes i am a newbiee and i didnt edit my novel properly... I have to admit that...

    1. Sounds like you're learning from your mistakes, though. That's the most important part!

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  10. Unless the errors are egregious, most people do not notice or care. I have never run into a single casual reader who gives a squat about whether a comma or a semi-colon was used in a particular sentence. This is the realm of frustrated writers and critics. I'll take a great story with a few mistakes over a squeaky clean bore-fest any day.

  11. I'm a writer and I also do the bulk of the proofreading and editing on my own work. Not all of it , mind you, because even though I am an AMAZING! human being (lol) I am not perfect. Anyway, I often read books in proofreader mode and I hate bad sentences and poor grammar. I understand when it's supposed to be narration from a character POV and the character is usung bad grammer vs. when the author just can't write well.

    If someone published a book that clearly explained the meaning of life, and truley did, but the first sentence was:

    As explained in the book following this, the meaning of life will become clearer to you then it did in you're past that you had, you will learn how to live the life you have better than you ever can have before.

    Done! ...and I wouldn't care if I was the only one in the entire universe who didn't read the book and thus alone living a life not "better than I ever can have before." lol

  12. ...and it's like I always say: some authors are writers and some are nothing more than story tellers. The writers know the rules and how to use them and when (and how) to break them. Storytellers can create and tell a great story, but they can only write just well enough to get people to the end of their books. The same sentence can be written in a number of different ways, depending on the author's level of ability:

    She put on the shirt removed from the chest made of wood and left the room.

    She took her shirt, from the chest made of wood, and put it on...then left the room as quick as she could.

    From the chest made of wood she removed her shirt and put it on. Then she quickly left the room.

    From the wooden chest, there on the floor, she removed the most 'pink' shirt she could find, and put it on without regard for the small red (sauce?) stain towards the bottom of the back, then quickly stepped from the room out into the hallway.

    Based on those sentences alone which one do you believe indicates the type of book you'd like to read?