Readers Do Notice
One thing I often hear from people is spelling and grammar don’t really matter. This is usually the argument they present when they’ve been caught out for making a mistake or not knowing. “What does it matter?” they ask. “You know what I mean.”
In many cases, that’s true. I do know what they mean–which is why I know they’ve done it wrong. Others, however, may not recognize a mistake for a mistake. I’m an editor; I’m trained to recognize crazy things like erroneous spellings, dangling modifiers, use of passive voice, and so on.
Other people–other readers–may not be so adept at picking up on these alleged mistakes. At least, that’s what most writers would like to think.
Keep Telling Yourself That
The problem is readers do notice. I myself am a highly particular reader–I’m an editor. I notice all of these things. Of course I do. I’ve also trained myself to turn off the editor and dive in when I’m pleasure reading; I’m particularly adept at it when I’m reading fan fiction. I might grumble and fuss, but overall, I’m going to ignore the glaring errors (unless someone explicitly asks for my help–a lesson I learned a long time ago).
Thing is, I still notice the errors. Most of the time, it’s not bad enough to impede understanding.
But something still feels wrong.
And that’s how it feels to other readers. They may not know precisely what a dangling modifier is; they might have a hard time identifying one on the spot. But, if they’re presented with one (without being told what it is), they’ll likely be able to tell you it’s … off somehow.
Give Your Readers Credit
More obvious errors–spelling mistakes and grammatical errors such as improper pluralization or possessives–turn most readers off fairly quickly. They do recognize these mistakes. They do see them.
That’s the thing. If you argue your readers “aren’t going to notice,” you’re not giving your readers very much credit. The truth is most of them do notice. They might miss the occasional typo (or at least forgive it), and they might gloss over the more esoteric grammatical errors, but they’re still noticing.
So to say they won’t notice is calling them stupid at worst, unobservant at best. That’s not a very nice way to treat your readers.
A Position of Trust and Authority
Why does spelling and grammar matter so much? Well, for one, good spelling and grammar aides our understanding. Poor grammar makes it difficult to suss out what the writer means. If there’s a gulf between what you mean and what your reader thinks you mean, you haven’t done a very good job as a writer. Your entire job is to relay information, to communicate. If something’s getting lost in translation between your pen and the reader’s eyes, you’re not communicating effectively.
The other issue? Use of proper grammar and spelling is an issue of education. You’re the “expert”–you’re the writer. Shouldn’t you know how to write and spell? Shouldn’t you know grammar inside out? If you don’t, the reader begins to call into question your credentials as a writer. They wonder if you’re qualified to write!
This plays into intellectual superiority; readers don’t like being talked down to (so don’t haul out all of your ten-cent Harvard words), but they don’t want to take the word of someone who doesn’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re.” It undermines your expertise; if the reader thinks they’re better at writing than you are, they’ll scoff, question why you got a book deal and they didn’t, and then set your book aside as the work of an idiot.
Yes, we judge people’s intelligence based on how they use language. It’s a sad reality, but it’s the truth.
The ROI of Reading
Not only are readers noticing your errors but they’re judging you by them as well. If your work is riddled with errors, they’ll likely dismiss you as a “bad writer.” Very few readers want to read bad writing–so they’re less likely to pick up your book, even if it is free.
Why? Reading is a labor-intensive task. Asking a reader to pick a book–even a free book–is asking them to give up their time and labor in exchange for pleasure. If they’re crinkling their noses in disgust each time they come across an error in your book, they’re not getting a good return on their investment. They’d be better off reading another book that gives them more pleasure.
And that kind of transactionary thinking happens even when readers don’t spend any money! Ever hear someone say, “Well, that was a waste of time”? That’s exactly what readers think when they read a bad book; it was a waste of their resources. Not money necessarily, but their time.
And time is valuable.
The Bottom Line
The argument “readers won’t notice” isn’t a good one. It insults your readers and suggests they’ll accept less quality in exchange for their labor. They do notice, and while they might be willing to forgive you or chalk it up to the type of product you produce (some people are okay with somewhat lower quality writing in particular genres or niches), they still see it and know they’re getting less value.