I'm in New York for the IASPR conference and a few meetings and play dates. (IASPR = International Association for the Study of Popular Romance = the romance scholars group = super cool and super smart people.) At our dinner tonight, when one of the scholars learned how long I'd been involved in the publishing side of things, she asked if I'd noticed any changes in manuscript quality over the course of those years.
Interesting question. I had to think about it before I could answer in a way that made sense, because the truth is, manuscripts have changed dramatically since my early years, but not in the way she meant. The changes have to do with things like narrative immediacy, manipulation of point of view, the cross-pollinization of the genres, and so on. But she was specifically asking about writing quality -- grammar, mechanics, coherence, and that sort of thing.
There are changes I've noticed in those areas. Silly things. When people argue grammar, for example, they might know the rule but not the reason behind it. They might not know that there are competing grammar philosophies that yield competing and differing grammar rules. But manuscripts still tend to be pretty consistent -- that is, if an author adheres to one particular grammar philosophy, the manuscript will reflect that fairly consistently. An author who applies more formal academic grammar, they'll apply it to punctuation and sentence structure alike. An author who was taught generative grammar will use less formal rules, fewer commas, simpler sentences, and that sort of thing. That hasn't changed over the past mumble-mumble years.
Beginner manuscripts look much the same now as they did before, with most of the same errors. Formless scenes. Underdeveloped conflicts. Murky characterizations. Logic errors. We've all seen these kinds of things -- characters who are described as 35 but behave like 15-year-olds, characters who die in one chapter and reappear without explanation several chapters later, characters who go places for no reason and learn nothing new while there, preachy passages, episodic plots, and so on.
But this leads me to another question. There are more writing resources available now, and they're cheaper and easier to access than they were before the internet. And yet manuscripts are much the same as always. How can this be? Do people ignore all the great resources, or do they just not know how to apply them? What do you think?