Anne Wingate, Ph.D.
I recently heard a panel of editors discussing what caused them to return stories basically unread. The very first thing they mentioned—and they all agreed on this—is that if the story is full of grammatical, spelling, punctuation, and/or mechanical errors, they will automatically reject it, in the assumption that a person whose work is so unprofessional will be unprofessional in all other ways. They also agreed that for ninety percent of all short stories they are offered, they will reject it before they have finished reading the first page, very often after reading the first sentence; for ninety percent of all novels they are offered, they will reject it before they have finished reading the second page and very often before they have finished reading the first page. They agreed that to the writer this may seem unfair, but they may have a thousand or more manuscripts offered to them per month and if they don’t do it that way they’ll never get through.
This means that to get even a single reading from an editor—without whom you’ll never get read by anyone else—your presentation must be absolutely perfect, and your first sentence must grab the editor to the extent that he or she goes on reading almost without noticing that the reading continues. If you can hold the editor’s attention to the middle of the short story, to the end of a third chapter of a novel, your chances of making a sale have increased astronomically.
But this also means that if you have problems with grammar and mechanics, you are having a serious problem. Although a spell-check program can catch most spelling errors, it cannot distinguish between homonyms, words which sound alike but have different meanings and different spellings, such as to, too, and two or affect and effect. I have examined and tried using several grammar checking programs, and I have never found one which was worth two cents.
Therefore, if you are having this type of problem, you have several choices: you can buy a good grammar book (I recommend the combination of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and Margaret Schertzer’s Elements of Grammar; you might also look for Ellie Gross’s The Grammatically Correct Handbook, which is a delightful and witty stroll through the world of grammar) and study it (or them) very intensely; you can pay a good English teacher to check every manuscript before you submit it; you can enroll in a community college grammar course; or you can take the Writer’s Digest Elements of Writing course, which is an inexpensive but comprehensive review of grammar.
Obviously, you’ll need to decide which of those options makes the most sense to you, given your situation. But your chances of selling your work are extremely low unless you take one of those steps.
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The Great Courses¹ now offers excellent CD and DVD courses about writing.
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