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: firstname.lastname@example.org
-Ann C. Crispin