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This post is part of our special series that will unpack the criteria we consider when evaluating manuscripts. Today is the first of three parts on the tools of the English language. Whether you are in the midst of writing, or have already received feedback from us, our hope is that this series will provide the insight you need to make your manuscript even better. View the full series here.
The soul of great writing is manifested through the big thoughts and ideas we commit to paper, but big thoughts and ideas alone aren’t enough to produce a compelling book. If they were, writing would be a much easier undertaking.
Unavoidably, we have to filter our thoughts and ideas through the lens of language, vocabulary, and grammar. We call this mastering the mechanics of writing, and it’s the stiff and unyielding spine upon which every manuscript is supported.
Grammar is a difficult craft to master, and the good news is that most writers don’t need to also become stringent grammarians to succeed. This is what line editors are for—to pick through every nook and cranny, ever jot and tittle of your writing and suggest ways to refine it. Editing can be an uncomfortable process
, but one worth taking.
That said, as a writer, it’s important to educate yourself as much as possible to make sure you’re using language well and getting as much mileage out of it as you can.
For example, authors needn’t be perfect
, but they should know how to use the various punctuation marks correctly, just like an engineer needs to be able to calculate the precise area of a heptagon if needed. It would be difficult to take seriously an astronomer who didn’t know the distance from the Earth to the sun (also known as the astronomical unit, or AU), or a cartographer who didn’t know where Austria was. Can you imagine a theologian who had never heard of Job before? Of course not.
Speaking of punctuation, there are fifteen different punctuation marks, and most people don’t have a good understanding of how to use them. Sure, most people have a good handle on the period, question mark, and exclamation point (although that last one gets overused a lot). And although they may appear simple, it’s astonishing how many times apostrophes and quotation marks get mixed up.
What about the em-dash, the en-dash, and the hyphen? They are easily confused. Also easily confused are the brackets and parentheses. And don’t get me started on the semicolon
. Then there’s the oft-mishandled ellipses. And the asterisk!
Last but not least is the deceptively complex comma
. Could there be a more misunderstood punctuation mark? Certainly not.
If you submit a manuscript to an editor, publisher, or agent, I can guarantee your competence in grammar will be the first thing they notice (well, except for the formatting
perhaps). You might have the most thorough characterization this side of Charles Dickens or be the best plotter since Shakespeare, but it will mostly be for naught if you can’t also put a comma in the right place. The failure to produce proper dialogue tags
will ensure that you make a poor first impression. A hesitancy to embrace contractions
can also be a hindrance in writing authentically.
Now, as I’ve said many times before, an editor can come in and polish this up—but if the author doesn’t pay close attention to the process, these edits won’t necessarily help the author improve their craft. And authors have a responsibility to gradually master the ins and outs of language. Otherwise, they’re like a carpenter without tools.
I’ve got a lot more to say about mastering the mechanics of the English language, so be sure to check back for the next entry in this series, where I’ll continue this discussion about the parts of speech, point of view, and verb tenses—to name just a few.