An old song goes, “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate_the_Positive
The song purports to be advice on life. If I turned that into a piece of advice on writing – or anything else – I’d switch it around. I’d say eliminate the negative first.
Think of a reader looking at your book cover, blurb or sample (those are usually what they will see and use to decide) as a prospective romantic interest – a date. On a date, it’s vital not only to be attractive but to avoid being unattractive. Let me illustrate.
There was a time when I was internet dating back in the 90s. Yes, we had internet back then. There were several women I met for the first time that were attractive but something came up on that first meeting that turned me off. Smoking at the table during dinner (! yes, allowed some places back then), bringing up their ex right off, criticizing my clothing, taking long phone calls during the date, thinsg like this.
Oh, Dave, you’re just shallow and don’t want to work to get past those little warts.
You know what, alter ego? You’re right. If the woman herself won’t work a bit to minimize her flaws or avoid offending me for a first impression, I have a hard time respecting her or wanting to be with her. Imagine if I told her right off i didn’t like her dress? That would be a short, awkward date no matter how hot I was.
It’s the same for a book, but it’s even more important because the reader has no emotional investment to keep her there to get past the warts. If the cover sucks, she might not even read the blurb. If the blurb or sample sucks – starting with the basics like editing out typos – she certainly won’t buy the book.
IMO there’s a kind of “Maslow’s heirarchy of needs” to a decision to buy a book. As a reader – not an author – when I look at a book my first question is not “does this author have talent.” My first question is “am I interested in this genre.” I usually get that from cover, title or subtitle, or the blurb. This is why I suggest as an author, you make sure those items give the reader a strong clue as to genre.
If so, my basic need has been (potentially) met. Then I read the blurb and/or sample. If there is more than one typo or grammar mistake in the blurb or first page, I’m already strongly thinking about moving on. It would take a powerfully interesting story for me to get past the constant speedbumps of misspellings, typos, and bad grammar. These things throw me out of the story, they disrupt the immersiveness I want. Here’s where “eliminate the negative” comes in.
Eliminating the negative is genuinely the simplest part of writing – but it can be time-consuming or expensive. It’s time-consuming if you and your close friends do it yourselves, or expensive if you hire a professional to copyread or edit your manuscript. Like making sure the body looks good on a car you’re trying to sell, it’s vital. It’s also a problem I see over and over, especially with self-published ebooks.
The next needs in the heirarchy are things like repeated words, awkward phrasings, “show-don’t tell” problems, excessive adverbs, redundancies – all the things that they teach in writing classes. Judging these is somewhat subjeective – a lot of readers either do not notice or do not care about these problems, but many do. They are also the things that decent writers seek to improve and great writers avoid avoid like the plague. But the truth is, you can be successful at the “decent writer” level, with some of these problems in your work. You can’t be succesful IMO without dealing with those copyreading and editing problems.
So once you have eliminated (as far as possible – no one is perfect) those copyreading issues, then you should be working on the “craft of writing” issues, eliminating your negatives. There are successful writers out there that still have a lot of negative issues like these, but they have managed to compensate with other strengths – often by being visionaries in their fields. But reading sci-fi pioneers today like E. E. “Doc” Smith or A. E. Van Vogt, I find myself thinking that they would never have made it today because their actual writing is nothing special, even mediocre in places. But they were pioneers in sci-fi back then, with enormous imaginations and grand stories.
Today, especially in the ebook market, things are more democratic and consumer-driven – rather like speed-dating. Marketing is still very important but with the reader’s ability to sample millions of books from their own home, I believe eliminating the negative will become even more important than in the past.