From time to time I get emails from aspiring writers wondering how to navigate through the confusing publishing industry.
Recently I received an email from Shelly wondering how nitpicky agents and editors are with manuscripts. She asked: When it comes to grammar, how perfect do writers need to be? Obviously we need to look and sound like we know what we are doing and not come across as amateurs, but how nitpicky are agents/editors/publishers? Will this factor in for whether you are considered for publication or not?
Specifically Shelly wanted to know about two areas, how carefully should we follow the rules of grammar when writing dialogue and whether we can end sentences with prepositions.
I think overall, Shelly and other aspiring writers, want to know how strictly we need to adhere to all the rules we learned in English class. As novelists, do we have to use proper punctuation, conjunctions, correct sentence structure, etc.? Or do we have the liberty to break the rules of grammar as needed?
Here are my thoughts:
No, we don't need to be English majors (or even very good at grammar) to write:
In today's market, STORY is the most important aspect in catching the interest of an agent or publisher. A writer could have the most perfectly written manuscript, without a missed comma or misplaced preposition, but be unable to garner interest in his or her book.
Perfect and pretty prose won't sell a book. The STORY sells the book. Readers (including agents and publishers) are often willing to overlook "bad writing" if the story is riveting. We can all name popular, even best-selling books, that we might consider poorly written.
But yes, we need to put our story in a pretty package.
While STORY is paramount, if we don't put it in a pretty package (well-written and presented in a professional manner), then we risk it getting overlooked in the sea of other pretty packages vying for reader attention. In other words, if our query letter or first few pages are riddled with "mistakes" or come across as amateur, then we likely won't get anyone to read the book all the way to discover just how excellent our story really is.
For our best chance at success we should strive for an amazing story that is also well-told. Agents and editors want to see that a fiction writer—especially a debut author—can carry the entire story to completion in a satisfying and professional manner. We don't need to be perfect, but we should know the basics of grammar and other writing techniques.
Great stories in pretty packages don't all have to look alike.
Once we've honed our story-telling ability and know the "rules" of writing (and grammar), then we're at liberty to shape our stories, bending the tools to work for us so that we can make our books unique and fresh.
Some writers might use choppy, incomplete sentences for an effect. Others might use long, run-ons to their advantage. A regency author might never use contractions. But a western writer might use slang and end their sentences with prepositions—both reflecting their genres and characters.
The idea is that we use language and fiction-techniques to help define our special writing voice. But we usually can't do that until we're intimately familiar with the craft of writing. There's a difference between breaking "rules" because we just don't know them or because we're sloppy and then breaking "rules" because we're purposefully shaping our stories to reflect our writing voice.
So what do you think? Are you focusing too much on pretty and perfect prose at the expense of the story? Or are you concerned too much with your story at the neglect of learning writing techniques? And if you've found a balance, what are some ways you're bending the rules to shape your stories? _____________________________________________________________
This is the LAST week of my "Fun Secrets" Blog Tour. Stop by the blogs listed below to learn my deep, dark secrets! ;-) You could also win a signed copy of my newest release, Unending Devotion.
Thursday, Sept. 27:Secret #17: My biggest double-standard as a parent. Katie McCurdy’s blog
Friday, Sept. 28: Secret #18: My greatest dreams and aspirations as a writer. Kathi Peterson’s blog
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