I have a confession to make: I’m still a little bit terrified by the writing rules.
Yes, even though I have an English degree and have worked in editorial for nearly four years, every now and again I’ll trip up over some quirk of English grammar or spelling and have a crisis of confidence. Effect or affect? Compliment or complement? Less or fewer? Stationary or stationery? The more I think about it, the less sure I become…
The point is, we all make mistakes – none of us speak or write in perfect English all of the time (and it would be terribly boring if we did) – and so you shouldn’t let nervousness about the writing rules stop you from writing or from submitting your work. After all, agents, editors and readers are looking for talented authors with an original idea, not for something that gets Microsoft Word’s tick of approval.
… before you click send on a submission, you should be aware that publishers have a keen eye for errors. We’re the kind of people who will point out a grammatical mistake on a supermarket sign or use semi-colons to punctuate a text message. If you send in your novel or proposal littered with mistakes, we’ll find them as hard to ignore as the strings on the Thunderbirds puppets.
And so we should, because spelling and grammar are incredibly important – without them your reader will have to work twice as hard to make sense of your writing. As the old joke goes, bad grammar is the difference between ‘Let’s eat, grandma!’ and ‘Let’s eat grandma!’
So if you’ve finished your masterpiece, it’s worth taking the time to polish it up:
- Let spellcheck do its thing. At the very least, that should eradicate the typos – but be wary of those pesky Americanisations.
- Learn from the professionals. Read books, newspapers and websites and take note of what they do and what they don’t do. You’ll never spot the Guardian using three exclamation points in a headline, and so you shouldn’t either.
- Check for consistency. Is the character you called Susan in chapter one referred to as Sarah in chapter two? Have you switched tense between paragraphs (or even sentences)?
- Get some fresh eyes on your work. Before we send a book to print, numerous people check and re-check the cover for mistakes – not just the editor. Why? Because the more you read something, the harder it is to spot an error.
- Print and read your own work aloud. Authors often spot mistakes and repetitions when they check the proofs of their work. There’s just something about re-reading your work on paper with a pen in hand. Give it a go and you’ll be surprised what you spot.