But I Rite GUD!
But I Rite GUD! Why Ain't I Winnin?
By Flo Fitzpatrick
The plot is unique. The characters show potential for growth. There are glimmers of very real conflicts between hero and heroine that can't be solved with a simple phone call or note of apology. The sense imagery is - well - sensory. So rich one can almost taste the whipped cream atop the chocolate sundae the heroine is devouring.
Yet minutes into perusing Entry Number Three in the "I Need to Win so I Can Grab a Mega-Mil Contract" contest given by the "We Host More Contests for the We Have No
Actual Published Authors Chapter" - uh - chapter, the contest judge becomes possessed by the spirit of her elementary school English teacher, Sister Mary Modifier and begins pillaging operation throughout the house to find a good wooden ruler to rap the contestants knuckles - albeit metaphorically. (With a few stops along the way for those chocolate sundaes to ease the judge's pain).
Why the great ruler expedition? Because Entry Number Three has managed to violate at least twenty rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling in the first paragraph of what Number Three had hoped would be her prize-winning novel. She's used three separate verb tenses within the same sentence and tossed in a string of adjectives without a single comma. Pronouns abound without nouns explaining who's who or what's what. Her infinitives have more splits than a gymnast ending a floor routine.
Are you thinking, "Who cares about all that stuff? Are you trying to wreck my unique author's voice? Heck, my plot/character/dialogue is so wonderful that my lapses in grammar will be tossed aside. Ignored due to my awesomeness."
Oh, ye of wrong assumptions - beware.
Let's begin with the fact that judges, editors and agents do care about "all this stuff." And more importantly, the reader cares. Voice won't matter if the reader can't get past grammatical errors that flare brighter than fireworks on the 4th of July. As to plot/character/dialogue? If the manuscript gets tossed into File 13 two minutes after an editor or agent has perused the first paragraph, no one will ever get the chance to discover you - the New Voice of the New Millennium.
I must interject two points here. First, I'm talking about major glaring in-your-face errors in grammar and punctuation that detract from the story. And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit I endured twelve years of schooling with Sister Mary Modifier and her siblings, Sister Mary Diagram-or-Die, Sister Mary Don't-Dangle-That-Participle or I'll-Dangle-You and - let's not forget - Sister Mary I'm Tense; Why Isn't Your
Verb? Thanks to those ladies, I aced my college English ACT test with a score that propelled me right out of Freshman Composition and zap into Sophomore Literature
(Which was so much more fun). I tend to notice grammar mistakes.
But - and here's my second confession I'm no grammar guru. Especially since it's been a ‘couple' of years since I aced those ACTs. I still suffer from what I call "Salinger Dash Syndrome," a malady that entices the writer to sprinkle dashes throughout paragraphs with gleeful abandon and is accompanied by "Salinger Prolific Parentheses Perceptual Disorder." (Same lack of restraint but with a different form of punctuation. Both maladies possibly attributed to my favorite J.D. Salinger novel, "Seymour - An Introduction"). I can never remember when to use an "em-dash" or a semi-colon. I'm so addicted to commas it would take intervention and a twelve-step program to cure me. My lips are bleeding from all the chewing I've done over "new" rules about not adding a comma before the end of a string of adjectives or phrases. And don't get me started on a single space after a punctuation mark. Result? I do not send out queries, short stories or manuscripts without extensive self-editing. Blogs don't count - I think!
By the time a manuscript leaves my computer for the brave new world of an editor's desk, it's gone through at least three sessions of intensive editing. That does not include rewrites and editing for content and continuity and those panicky moments when I scream, "this character stinks! Why did I create him? He needs to be murdered."
I'm referring only to cleaning up mistakes in sentence structure, punctuation and spelling. Note: Computer spell-checkers are nice but let's be kind and as we note they're not always a hundred percent accurate. This could be one reason Samuel Johnson created the first dictionary in 1755. Although in Sam's case, he was probably cleaning up after some illiterate typesetter in the print shop who was checking spelling and blowing it with when to use "there, their or they're." I digress.
My process is the same whether I'm writing a novel, short story, article or a query letter. Self-editing is vital. That's a mantra I believe writers should chant on a daily basis. Even with four or five re-dos, errors can slip through, so sending out something as a first draft is a definite crapshoot.
"Wait a second. Why can't a good copy editor just fix all that junk?" The grammatically challenged author inquires. A good copy editor is definitely more than capable of "fixing all that junk." But that presupposes that the author's submission is actually seen by a good copy editor and that the copy editor is indeed "good." Thankfully, most are. Bless them, they catch minute errors authors miss on even the fourth proofread. But there are a few copy editors who unfortunately never met or felt the wrath of Sister Mary Modifier's ruler. Bad copy editors have been known to turn the original correct syntax of a work into garbage that makes the author writhe in shame when he sees it in print.
But, even assuming that only brilliant grammarians are checking our words, why should they be forced to read sentences constructed so poorly they'd make a third-grader writhe in embarrassment? Why should these copy editors do the author's dirty work? The answer is - they shouldn't. They should be catching the inevitable mistakes that an author makes and red-penciling them before sending off to the galley proofs. Looking for continuity errors. Typos the author didn't catch. Characters who suddenly change names in the middle of the novel. They should not be forced to correct sentences such as "he desided he don' like to be sawed in publick whin hes not waring a toopay."
As to the second part of the "why can't the c.e. fix all that junk" question, if your ‘junk' is that bad, it's never going to make it as far as the copy editor. It's going to land in the editor's wastebasket or shredder. The delete button will be used extensively if the mss. was submitted electronically.
If the work is a contest entry, it's not going to advance to the finals. I've judged more than one contest and in all honesty, it's frustrating to read an entry brimming with the potential to be a bestseller, yet be forced to assign low scores because the author sabotaged his work with incredibly rotten grammar.
The good news is it's never too late to learn to self-edit. Grab one or more of the excellent self-editing books that should be lined up (along with a thesaurus and at least one dictionary) on your desktop's shelf next to your favorite mug. Or just bookmark thesaurus and dictionary and a good grammar guru website on your computer Two of my favorite in-print texts are "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" by Renni Browne and Dave
King and Barron's "Essentials of English." Roget's "Super Thesaurus" is also a treasure.
Don't let these books collect dust. Use them. Editors, agents, judges and Sister Mary
Modifier will thank you.
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