Recently I received an e-mail from a frustrated writer. I'm not reprinting it verbatim; rather, I'm offering a version of many such e-mails I receive. They run something like this:
Dear reader, I would like to claim that such e-mails are rare, but they are not. They make regular appearances in my inbox. To them, I tend to give the same polite and gentle reply, to wit -- "I'm very sorry, but we are unable to recommend specific publishers." I then refer the writer to the appropriate set of links on Writing-World.com, and that is usually the end of the matter.
But for the frustrated writer, it is not the end of the matter. And so, on behalf of those writers who have yet to send me an e-mail like the above, I'm going to say something that I know a great many writers really don't want to hear:
Now, before I attract the ire of the "grammar police" -- those self-appointed guardians of "perfect grammar" who apparently have endless time to patrol the web for the slightest "infraction" -- let me hasten to point out that I am not talking about "perfect grammar." (I got one of those e-mails recently, too, taking me to task for the allegedly incorrect use of the word "hopefully" in an earlier editorial -- which was, I'm happy to say, not incorrect.) Even the best writers are likely to misplace a comma, use a word incorrectly, or forget exactly how one uses a prepositional phrase. I will be the first to admit that my grammar ain't always 100% perfect. And there is also the question of "usage" vs. "perfection" -- if one strives too diligently toward the latter, there is the risk of losing any sort of individual "voice" and sounding, instead, a bit like Commander Data.
I am also not talking about one's ability to "tell a good story." Most of the writers who send me e-mails like the one above are adamant about their ability to "tell a good story." And this may be absolutely true. However, there is a distinction between "writing" and "telling." Good story-telling is an essential ingredient in writing. Correct, effective grammar is another such ingredient -- for by definition, writing is the communication of one's story by the written word. To be an effective (and published) writer, one must be able to handle not just one of those ingredients, but both.
Many would-be writers (you know, the kind who come up to you at parties and say "I have this great book that I could write someday, when I have the time...") seem to think that "writing" is pretty much the same thing as "talking," only on paper... The problem is, when one talks, one doesn't have to worry about where the commas go, or how a word is spelled, or whether it should begin with an initial cap.
Many such writers (or would-be writers) also harbor the belief that "editors" exist to clean up grammar, spelling, and punctuation -- and that, therefore, writers need not trouble themselves about such trivialities. I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but this simply isn't true. Given the choice between a marvelous story that requires hours of correction, and a pretty good story that is flawlessly written (or even "pretty well written"), the editor will go with the latter every time. Editors are an overworked species as it is -- and given that there is never any shortage of material in the in-box from which to choose, they will invariably choose that which offers quality at the least amount of effort. In fact, the sad reality is that if an editor comes across a submission that reads like the e-mail given above, they won't even bother to read past the first couple of sentences to find out whether it contains a "marvelous story." Even if such a story is there, the labor involved in bringing it out of its ungrammatical cocoon simply isn't worth it.
Grammar -- including spelling, punctuation, and a grasp of where to insert (or omit) capitals -- is not some esoteric, elitist requirement imposed by editors and publishers who want to close the doors in the faces of "good storytellers." It is simply a tool -- an essential tool in every writer's toolbox. In any career, if you do not know what tools you need or how to use them, you will not succeed. If you aspire to become an auto mechanic, you will be expected to know what a lug-nut is -- and what tool you would need to remove one. If you don't, you won't get the work.
The same applies to writers. Writing for publication is a profession, and if one is not equipped with the tools of that profession, one will not succeed. Publishers will not open their doors. Editors will return one's submissions unread (or, in this day of "forget the courtesy of rejection letters," toss them in the trash).
Again, I'm not talking about writers who make a few mistakes. It's like the difference between baking a cake and adding, say, only half a cup of sugar when three-quarters of a cup is called for -- versus not knowing the difference between the sugar and the salt, or assuming that when the recipe calls for three eggs, it makes no difference if you add six, or none. The ingredients matter, and grammar is an essential ingredient to good writing. Without eggs, your cake will be inedible; without grammar, the best story in the world will be unreadable (and unpublishable).
But there is good news, if you've read this far, and that news is: It's never too late. Never suppose that just because one's school days are in the distant past, it is too late to learn this essential writing tool. Classes exist. Websites exist. Books exist. There are many ways for a writer, at any level, to build new skills and hone existing tools. If you are serious about wanting to succeed, you must be serious about equipping yourself with the skills that you need -- and I firmly believe that you can do it. By doing it, you will be taking the steps needed to progress from being a frustrated writer to being a published one.
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