Once upon a time, there was a newspaper editor named Jason. This charming fellow incurred the rather unenviable task of dealing with the paper’s daily correspondence — mostly letters to the editor and applications for freelance assignments, with occasional invoices thrown in for good measure.
Freelance writing for newspapers isn’t much different from freelance writing as a fiction author: In both cases, the writer’s goal is to be published and compensated, and in both cases, the devil’s in the details. Specifically, the grammatical details.
Most freelancers whom I’ve encountered over the years are capable of delivering solid content. In the newspaper world, they craft compelling opinion columns or accurately record events for a breaking-news story. In the fiction community, I can barely track the number of authors I’ve met who share genuinely fun and interesting stories.
Yet many of them founder, unpublished, on the Scylla of Syntax and the Charybdis of Composition: Readers can’t enjoy the story because minor mechanical errors, frequently encountered, derail the reader’s processing of the language. Publishers are wise to these weaknesses so the story isn’t optioned; when self-published, unedited stories sell poorly or get bad reviews or both.
To crack an agent or editor for the first time, you have to come in with prose that’s pristine and elegant. When readers encounter poor-punctuation pandemics, homonym homicides, usage abusage or train-wreck transitions, they shut down. That’s why so many publishers want to see a substantial writing sample — so they can assess not just your story, but also your technical skill as a word wright. The best story in the world cannot shine brightly when it’s obscured by a dense web of structural flaws. When a reader can’t get past the words to enjoy the underlying story, then something’s gone horribly awry.
While it’s true that most writers have good stories to tell, it’s also true that most writers are blind to their own faults. Sometimes, this blindness is willful: Some writers think that every word they write, and the way that they write it, is pure magic, so they’re unwilling to accept the counsel of others on even trivial points. But these folks are few and far between. More often, the blindness is merely a function of poor exposure to grammatical rigor compounded by the habit of making the same uncorrected mistake again and again. When you don’t realize that myriad is an adjective, for example, you don’t know that a sentence like “Bob has a myriad of problems” isn’t as sophisticated as you intended, but because you want to sound sophisticated, you keep using the word … incorrectly.
The single greatest skill a writer should hone is humility about his relative expertise as a grammarian. Fight to the death, as you wish, for a plot point … but cede debates about commas and transitions to people who delight in the rich subtleties of English grammar. Because the one mistake that will kill an aspiring writer faster than a dive into an angry volcano is sending queries riddled with composition errors to editors or agents.
So what can you do to maximize your success as a craftsperson of the language?
- Study books about English grammar and usage. Digest resources like The Associated Press Stylebook, Garner’s Modern American Usage, Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage or any of the burgeoning population of self-help for writers titles on the market.
- Find a good beta reader or three and take their advice seriously. Never decline an invitation to rewrite something that doesn’t work as you intended.
- Hire a professional editor to give your manuscript a thorough treatment. Editors can charge between $500 and $2,500 for a novel-length manuscript, on average, but the price is often worth it.
- Find the grace to accept that the circumlocutions of which you’re so enamored, may not meet an editor’s or agent’s expectations for what can sell on today’s market. Don’t let your healthy concern for your authorial voice blind you to your own linguistic hobbyhorses.
And remember — the best writers are the ones who never give up. You can fix grammar problems, but you can’t fix a lack of creativity or an unwillingness to do the work. So if you have a great story and the chops to tell it, don’t let something as correctable as its technical composition stand in your way. Sharpen the saw through careful study then take another cut at that manuscript. It’ll be worth it in the long run!