Grammar DOES Count, My Friends…

Today, while helping a writer who had been scammed by Bouncin’ Bobby, I exchanged a series of emails on what real publishing is like, what real agents are like, and why it’s important to write and submit in a professional manner.

While this exchange was going on, this writer asked me to look at the first few pages of her story to see if I though it was ready to submit. I usually avoid doing this, because, in my experience, most aspiring writers really don’t want to know your honest opinion of their writing. What they really WANT, as Robert Silverberg once cannily observed, is “five thousand words of closely reasoned adulation.”

But I felt very sorry for this writer, who was polite and sweet and had been raked over the coals by Bouncin’ Bobby. So…I agreed to read the first few pages of her story and tell her whether it was actually ready to be submitted (in other words, ready for her to try agent to get a real literary agent).

My response was a definite “sorry, no. It’s not ready.” I then went on to give her a few of the reasons why her story wasn’t ready for submission. The reasons were the usual ones: lots of telling, almost no showing, clumsy style, stilted dialogue, etc. And, I also observed that she didn’t know how to use commas, her other punctuation was faulty, words were frequently misused/misspelled, tenses were incorrect, and subject-verb agreement was shaky — in other words, she needed a refresher course in English grammar and proper usage.

Since this writer was a nice lady, who is genuinely eager to learn, she didn’t pout or get mad, bless her. But she did question my last comment, saying: “But I thought editors were there to fix the grammar. Why do I need to do that?”


(Note: This post is probably on way too low a level for most of our readers. Jane Yolen may safely skip this, and you too, P.N. Elrod. And so may a great many of the other readers. But the few who are reading this and wondering at this moment what’s wrong with what the aspiring writer said, should LISTEN UP, because you need this post DESPERATELY.)

Here is the way of the world, my children, from the mouth of the Great Beware:

Editors are congenial souls, for the most part, who don’t mind taking a pen and fixing the occasional typo, or incorrect tense usage, or subject-verb agreement. Anyone can make a boo-boo from time to time. Writers are expected to make such boo-boos RARELY. They’re expected to use spell-check, and to proofread their work with great attention. But nobody is perfect, and editors understand this.

That said, editors just don’t have time to give your manuscript a close read and red-pencil every line. Getting your manuscript relatively error-free is YOUR job as the author. It’s NOT the editor’s job.

And if correcting basic grammar isn’t the editor’s job these days, it sure as hell ain’t the literary agent’s! I suspect most literary agents who spot a fairly major grammatical mistake in the first paragraph of a manuscript are quite put off, unless the writing is stupendously wonderful in every other respect. Two such mistakes on the first page, and I would bet the agent stops reading.

It goes without saying that a query letter that has any significant grammatical or spelling errors is an instant rejection. (But I said it anyway, yes.) Query letters, I tell my students, must be LETTER PERFECT.

What can you do if people keep telling you that your grammatical skills are faulty? This is a thorny problem, I admit. Here are a couple of possible solutions:

1. Investigate some adult education classes in basic grammar. Maybe for people studying for their GED, or to get up to speed for college.

2. Buy some books on grammar and proper usage, and read them, study them, and then use them while checking over your old drafts. Review all the parts of speech, start from the ground up, if necessary.

3. Try your newly acquired editing skills on someone else’s writing. It’s much easier to spot another writer’s mistakes than it is to find your own. A writing critique group might work for this.

4. If all else fails, find a topnotch editor with excellent teaching and grammatical skills and pay him/her to tutor you until you can read your own drafts and spot your mistakes. This could be costly, but without it you’re nowhere.

Remember, if there is a “how to write” topic you would like me to address in the blog, just drop me a line at my email address:

Happy writing!

-Ann C. Crispin


  1. Forgive the random reply, but this post brings to mind a comparison I made once to the profession of automotive engineer and mechanic. Both jobs are important and rely at thier respective cores the same general knowledge. A mechanic will repair and correct flaws that have come into a car over its life, sometimes for a car right from the factory. An engineer will also work on correcting flaws, but at the level of the initial design. A mechanic often will use thier skills to improve the quality of a car and thier feedback is invaluable to an engineer (Since a mechanic will see a car from a perspective an engineer sadly often lacks.) But there is pretty much nothing a mechanic can do to correct a Pinto from being a Pinto.

  2. …most aspiring writers really don’t want to know your honest opinion of their writing. What they really WANT, as Robert Silverberg once cannily observed, is “five thousand words of closely reasoned adulation.”

    True for some, no doubt. Perhaps even true for many. But speaking for myself, I’d kill for that kind of feedback from an agent or editor, even if they ripped it to shreds.

  3. Bravo! This so needed to be said.
    As an editor the fastest way to get on the wrong side of my desk is make me work hard to read what you have written.
    Kath O David

  4. I agree with Julie. In some of these United States, English classes aren’t focused on on the technical aspects of putting words to paper in the correct fashion. It’s all about passing a state mandated test or the like. My youngest siblings, both still in highschool, were told by their respective English teachers that they wouldn’t be spending time on grammar and sentence construction/deconstruction. It was simply too boring and students didn’t really enjoy it, after all.

  5. If you can get a copy of Percy Marks’ Better Themes: A College Textbook Of Writing and Rewriting, it’s one of the best books I know on the basics of simple, clear writing. Long out of print, though.

  6. It just occurred to me that there may be a good analogy from the world of cars. Sometimes as a car nut, I’ve run across really interesting cars that I could have bought cheaply because they needed some work. But I’ve learned the hard way that it’s often less effort to just find one that’s almost perfect already and make the final repairs, and often less money. I guess editing is the same way – it’s best to start with something that isn’t a major project.

  7. A writer who can’t be bothered to learn the rules of the language is like a musician who can’t be bothered to play scales – sure, it’s boring and it keeps you from expressing yourself artistically, but when you get a bit further along you don’t want to have to think about the basic stuff, you want it to be at your fingertips, ready to use.
    Typos happen, even in a fifteen-times-proofread submission; but usually genuine mistakes are easily distinguished from the category where the writer simply cannot be bothered to make himself understood. High expectations of the reader should bring matching delight; and a writer who can’t distinguish ‘their’ from ‘there’ (or ‘tehre’) is unlikely to offer me much.

    And here’s an interesting observation – I know a number of people on the net who are dislexic. Some of them are among the most refined writers I know – they are aware of their challenges and make even more certain that they polish their writing.

  8. What grammatical mistakes also flag is that if the writer can’t pay attention to detail, they probably also aren’t paying attention to other important elements in the story. Usually when I see someone with a lot of mistakes like that, it’s only the tip of the iceberg to how much work the story actually needs.

  9. Bless you for writing this!

    I edit for a living (but mostly science and math texts) and am shocked by the quality of the manuscript when I get it. Writers don’t use spell check, grammar check, etc. It’s like being a maid!

  10. This trend comes at least partly from the overwhelming silliness of an era of education in which preserving the ego of the student has been more important than teaching him or her anything. 🙂 Hence, the campaigns against grades, against standards, against any “scores” or measuring tools or “rules” about anything. And hence, the unbelievable gibberish that young people think passes for “writing.”

    I encountered this over and over as an AOL mentor, when young people would send me samples of their writing. I’d send it back with such “scathing” criticism as, “Um…you might want to capitalize the first word in a sentence. ‘I’ as a personal pronoun is capitalized. And spend some time with a good punctuation book, because your use of commas is incorrect.”

    You can probably guess what responses I got back. The sad part was, these kids had sent writing in to be critiqued…yet they then lambasted me for daring to tell them their stories had weaknesses (which they did), or plot holes (which they did) or word usage errors (which, heaven help us, they all did).

    How dare I tell them this needed work? Their creative writing teacher said it was good enough to go into a literary journal just the way it was! I obviously just didn’t “get” their voice! (Etc.!) 🙂

    The bright side of this is…there is hope. My kids went to high school in a place where part of all their grades in class depended on their being able to write what they meant in clear, grammatically correct, coherent, and logical fashion. I bless those teachers every single day, as my kids do, now that they’re in college and are finding college work is “no big deal.” 🙂

    I just wish I could go back with a red pencil and retroactively “correct” the other ones!


  11. I suspect that this attitude is a result of trends in education. I’m in my tenth year of managing a creative problem solving team, and the things that high school kids write these days are scary indeed. When the kids who can write tweak the others on errors, the almost inevitable response is, “my English teacher didn’t have a problem with it.”

    People seem to think that since writing is a skill learned in school that they can easily pen a bestseller. Gee, I learned the difference between H2O and H2SO4 in school – can I be a chemist?

  12. “But I thought editors were there to fix the grammar. Why do I need to do that?”

    *facepalms* Because you don’t want your editor to have to drink to get through your manuscript. Editing is one thing–translating from gibberish to English is another.

    In relation to poorly written works not making it far: I sat in on a writing panel at a small anime con a few months back. The one kid heading it–who’d promoted the panel as a place to come “let professionals show you how it’s done!”–tried to tell attendees not to worry about things like grammar, spelling, and the general rules of the language. It turns out that his “professionally published” work was through Authorhouse.

    That being said, thanks for affirming my suspicions. 🙂

  13. As an ex-editor, I can second Ann’s contention that a couple of bad grammatical errors in a first paragrah of either a covering letter or a first mss. page would have been enough to make me send the thing back at once.

    Yes, editors are looking for the next GREAT book. But they are also looking for a way to get through the slush pile with their brains still in working order.

    –Jane Yolen

  14. The perception seems to be that anyone who can talk must therefore be able to write. These illiterate amateur authors see writing as an entitlement rather than a skill to be developed through hard work and persistence.

    Whatever it is inside them that just has to be expressed, whether it’s by blabbing on the cellphone, bitching around the water cooler, or screaming at the kids, somehow that’s all they need to justify putting it in a book.

    I predict that 99 percent of wannabes never do any more writing than it takes to forward a stupid email joke or chain letter, or blather away in a chat room about the ideal text formatting and margins that will guarantee their work will be published.

    Count your blessings, editors, that only one percent of these fools actually have the energy to write an actual incoherent manuscript.

  15. I think the mixup comes from the fact that the person who corrects grammar and spelling in a manuscript and the people getting it to print are both called editors despite the fact they do totally different jobs.

  16. Ha. That’s what I get for criticizing the literarily maladapted. “For which they HAVE no particular facility.”

  17. Here’s what I don’t get. One of the reasons I write and believe that I’ll someday succeed at it is that people have told me I write well. I even worked as an editor to put myself through college. Encouragement isn’t everything to a writer, but it’s something. What makes people with such a poor command of language want to become writers? Surely they can’t have received praise from worthwhile sources? I’m loath to discourage the genuinely committed, but I have difficulty comprehending why they’d choose a difficult profession for which they no particular facility. Words are the tools of authors. While I might have a particular desire to climb Everest, I know that I don’t have the physical dexterity to attempt it. At the very least, I’d try my local REI rock climbing wall before purchasing all of my gear and booking my ticket to Kathmandu.

  18. I suspect most literary agents who spot a fairly major grammatical mistake in the first paragraph of a manuscript are quite put off, unless the writing is stupendously wonderful in every other respect. Two such mistakes on the first page, and I would bet the agent stops reading.

    I think this just about sums it up. Reading TNH’s Slushkiller entry makes it clear that grammar and spelling errors count against a submission. Why put an obstactle in your way? Especially when the one thing you absolutely have control over in the submission process is your prose.

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