Thursday, October 20, 2016

When A Great Story And Bad Grammar Collide

As an agent, I am always frustrated when I hear a great pitch from an author, or the quick query letter gets me totally exited about a story, and then, when I read the project, things just fall apart. In simple terms, the writing totally sucks! What we are talking about here is the simple fact that so many writers are simply weak when it comes to basic grammatical conventions.

I know where this problem stems from. Public education simply does not teach grammar anymore. This stopped in the late 70's and early 80's with what educators called the "Whole Language Movement." The idea is that students would learn to write by writing. Today, we have a focus that apparently students will learn to write by reading literature (although they do very little of this).

To complicate matters, so many authors have fallen into the trap of believing, because they have their computers, the grammar checkers and spell checkers will catch things. We have two problems here. The first is that for most people, they are pretty much computer illiterate and don't realize that programs such as MS Word are only looking for roughly one third of the grammar issues. Unless the user goes in and intentionally makes adjustments to the program, they are missing out on so much.

The second problem is that the computer cannot read. It is taking guesses with what you are writing. It is looking for patterns. And, when it comes to checking for spelling, it is not looking at the words in context. Therefore, I could write, "He ran too his friend." there is technically no problem. All of the words are spelled correctly.

We also have the issue that, I do believe, many authors believe that if the story is good, then the publishers will have people clean up all of their pathetic mistakes. In reality, that story will never make it there because the grammar is so bad, the editors and agents will likely reject the story before it even makes it to contract.

Please understand, I am not saying that writers need to understand the nuances of dangling participles, but the basics of grammar including fragments, run-ons, comma splices, basic punctuation and certainly word choice need to be in place. When we read a query letter, or see a manuscript with obvious mistakes in it, we are immediately turned off. We may over-look some small mistakes, but too many will equal a rejection letter.

What we are talking about here is a basic communication concept of semantic noise. This is defined as: "a type of disturbance in the transmission of a message that interferes with the interpretation of the message due to the ambiguity in words, sentences or symbols use in the transmission of the message."

If grammar is not your cup of tea, then maybe (and I know this will sound harsh) writing is probably not the business you need to be in. Readers are expecting you to present a story that demonstrates quality writing, not just in the story-telling, but in the actual writing.

1 comment:

  1. As a writing teacher and judge of dozens of unpublished contests, I have never read a piece with bad grammar that isn't flawed in many other ways. Bad grammar is the dead canary in the word mine that warns us not to bother reading any further.