Friday, October 17, 2014

When Poor Grammar Gets In The Way

I know this might seem like a pretty common sense idea, but if you have poor grammar in your query letter, in your synopsis and in your manuscript, the reader will simply not get your message and will likely give up on you pretty quick. This is certainly not the result you want when you are sending a project to an editor or agent and it is their first glance at what you can do.

There seems to be this thought floating around out there that editors and agents are pretty lenient when it comes to the grammar. I do believe writers think that if the content of the story is good, the editors and agents will then take care of the grammar on their end. While this is partially true for the published authors who do have the benefit of copy and line editors, this is NOT the case for authors sending projects out for the first time. I would also add that if you are a published author sending in stories that are huge grammar messes, do not expect to see another contract very soon. You are just too lazy and making too much work for the people on the other side.

Let's start with a basic concept of communication called semantic noise. While this is often a concept found in speech and communication classes, it can equally be applied to the work we do in writing and publishing.

Semantic noise in communication is a type of disturbance in the transmission of a message that interferes with the interpretation of the message due to ambiguity in words, sentences or symbols used in the transmission of the message.

When we are talking about a disturbance in the transmission of the message, it is simply talking about how we understand what you have written. If a story has huge issues of grammar, spelling or other convention errors, it takes far too much work to get to the real heart of the story. The reader spends so much time dissecting the grammar and trying to figure out your sentence construction, that we end up missing the really good stuff about the plot and the character.

No, I am sorry to say this, but you cannot blame the poor grammar on "creativity." Yes, we understand that in dialogue, the characters may speak in fragments, but in the narration and the part of the story where YOU as the author are talking, we shouldn't see this. Yes, we understand that poor grammar might be a trait of the character you have written (for example Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn) but that is not an excuse for anything outside of that character.

What people fail to realize is that the rules of grammar are simply the rules of the road. Punctuation marks and all of those other conventions are there to tell us how to read the story and not how you write the story.

As an agent, when I receive a query letter, I am already making a judgement call based on how you have written that letter. While I will likely still look at your synopsis and partial, the odds are I have already made a decision that I am going to pass on a story, IF the author has a pathetic sense of grammar and spelling.

Yes, we can over-look a small error, but let me get this straight, we are talking 1 or MAYBE 2 small errors that could be attributed to being a typo. Of course I might be the exception here. Maybe other editors and agents are willing to teach you the basics of grammar and spelling we learned in the 4th though 7th grade, but I for one am not someone who will do this.

If you are going to call yourself a writer then you need to show you can demonstrate the basics of being a writer. If you really don't know these basics, you have a couple of choices: A) learn those skills before moving ahead with this career; B) find someone who is willing to do all of this work for you before you send it out; or C) find another career.

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