Monday, October 20, 2008

On Grammar

I have been asked before about how much weight an editor or agent places on correct grammar and punctuation in a submission.

At first, I thought this was a bit strange but then, when we think about it a bit more, it is not that strange. Remember that editors (and some agents) have copy editors that are there to fine tune the writing and take care of those little errors. Agents as well know that when we look at a submission, we are looking at something that will likely be molded either before it is sent out, or at least tweaked a little during the submission process. So, hearing someone question the amount of emphasis placed on conventions is not strange.

But the answer is a very strong - YES! We do look at that grammar and punctuation and place a heavy emphasis on it. Why? It tells us if you are ready. It tells us if you know what you are doing.

Hallmark Cards says " When you care enough to send the very best." The same goes for your submission. Sending us a rough draft is far from professional. Sending us something that includes grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors (and yes, typos are included in this list), tells us that you have no idea how to deal with the basic rules of writing. In many cases, it simply says you relied on that spell checker and grammar checker (and don't get me started on that one).

The key is, yes, we know that there will be changes, but that first submission needs to be dang close to perfect. Your job, make it so.



  1. The sad part is that the most poorly attended sessions at many conference are ones that deal with composition and grammar. Aspiring writers are often too busy learning to write query letters and synopses instead of tending to the basics. Poor grammar can cause a good, or even excellent, writer to go unnoticed. And grammar is the ONE element of this business that is black and white. It's not subjective. It's one thing that can be easily fixed.

  2. ...and yet we hear over and again that "it's the story that matters".

    The RWR has an article this month about contesting and there are several comments/complaints about judges being too harsh on the technical issues and not paying enough attention to The Story.

    Certainly, I expect, it's a matter of balance, but I think us-in-the-trenches get a lot of conflicting information.

    As a reader, I can't get into a story that has so many errors.

    Where is that balance?


  3. Eek! I'd say my grammar and spelling is fairly good, but boy do I have trouble with commas.

  4. Grammar, punctuation, and spelling are the wheels of writing. The story is the engine.

    If you had a bright shiny car with a great engine, you still couldn't show how well it runs if it didn't have wheels.

  5. Oh yeah. I've wondered if these hot MFA programs include a single class on basic grammar. On the other hand, with so many writers placing historicals in Europe, and attempting to reproduce what they think must be native speech, does it really matter? I find it excruciating to wade through a million "ayes" and " och, lass's, " but clearly many do not. Some of the phonetical translations are very funny. Way too many misspelled words for me.
    Meanwhile, if you want to read a real hoot in this department, download Michelle Obama's senior thesis from Princeton. I never forget that the great writers I read over and over again, all have flawless grammar. No exceptions.Whether it is their work or that of their editors, it was worth every dollar.The mark of a real professional.

  6. As a professional executive secretary prior to attempting a writing career, I thought my grammar and punctuation were pretty good. However, I can read and reread my own stuff and miss something. Not to mention, dialogue is a whole different ballgame for a new writer. I try very hard to send out a professional looking submission and yet; sometimes, I still see a small error after the fact.

    What am I trying to say??? Mistakes still happen no matter how hard we try. I see errors in novels by respected authors every time I pick one up. I'm not saying don't strive for your best, I'm just saying sometimes we miss things no matter how hard we've tried. In fact, there's probably something in this submission.

  7. May I change the subject?
    You've mentioned the need to research agents as thoroughly as possible-and discouraged the use of mass mailings and using paid advisor services, but given the very long reported lead time between acceptance of a ms, (2-5 years) and publication. the absolute inability to know what else an agent might be considering, or no longer wants, I don't know what else one can do.
    I really do agree that agents are overwhelmed with unsolicited manuscripts, and we are lucky they will still even consider them, but as the bar is raised in pure self-defense, it seems writers need to behave with a lot more determination also.
    I saw another case on the net in which a writer was told that an agent was very interested in her ms, but that it would be at least "a year" before she could give her an answer on whether she would actually rep it or not. Obviously the agent could not expect the writer to hang around waiting for that answer, but is there anything else you could suggest one might do? Tens of thousands of people are trying to grab one of a very few publishing slots. Most will clearly never make it.
    When you have no idea what the agent is already considering in the vey long lead time before he ever sees your ms, it seems impossible to guess what he might want at any moment. Yes, yes, I know, write a great story. There's a reason why it is called "great," and unlikely that most people will produce that kind of lightning strike manuscript.
    Thge one thing that does seem to work is convincing a published writer to ask her agent to read your manuscript. I have read that story over and over again, as in Ron McLarty,, to name a big-time winner. Does anyone have any additional ideas?
    I am still drawn to the idea of using a paid service, run by someone working in the industry. He has to have more up to date knowledge than someone in Palookaville, and I doubt it will be "a year" before his choices can get back to you. He nmight actually know some agents who are actively looking for new work. Gotta be better than something that has not been updated for years.For a couple of hundred dollars it is definitely worth it to me. If nothing else, a cheap Life Lesson.