I ain't gonna get no publishing! Bad grammar and the business

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Editing for authors: because every writer needs a good editor.

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TsukiRyoko

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Say a writer, with em... "undesirable" grammar were to submit their MS to a publisher (small press or large press, you're choice). If the story was absolutely stellar, could their grammar be overlooked? I know that there are plenty of people and resources available to the public, and there should really be no reason for a writer to submit his/her work if it's in bad shape, but isn't it also supposedly the editor's job to filter this stuff out?

What do you say- does a brilliant story have the potential to be published, despite horrible grammar?
 

alleycat

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The trouble is . . . no one will knows it's a "brilliant story". After just a few pages of horrible grammar, I suspect whoever is reading it would just toss it. I know I would.
 

piscesgirl80

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there should really be no reason for a writer to submit his/her work if it's in bad shape, but isn't it also supposedly the editor's job to filter this stuff out?

I think you answered your own question. Yes, the editor will filter it out, by rejecting it.

I think the reasoning goes, that if the writer doesn't take the time to send the best possible version of their work, why should the editor take the time to read it?
 
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Someone who can't take command of a language has no business trying to write in it.
 

PattiTheWicked

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I think there's a common misconception that "it's okay if there's mistakes, the editor will take care of it." My impression of editors is that while they're happy to edit for story and content, no one wants to sit there with a red pen proofreading a 120,000 word manuscript.

And honestly, if the query letter and sample chapters evidence poor grammar, then that hardly bodes well for the rest of the work. I can't imagine why they'd even ask for a full at that point.

The only exception I can see would be if it were deliberate, as part of the narrator's voice. In Alice Walker's The Color Purple, the story is told from the perspective of a poor black woman with little education, and the voice reflects that.

If it's just an author who hasn't bothered to check their work, I expect that's an editorial nightmare.
 

KCathy

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There are situations in which grammar isn't as important as getting the message across (instant messaging, writing a quick love note to stuff into a preschooler's lunch box, scribbling down a recipe during a talk show, etc.), but when trying to look professional, the details are everything. You might not be too picky about a smear of green paint on the outside of a treehouse you're painting blue on the outside and green on the inside, but if you're a master painter thinking about hiring an apprentice, you won't do it if the apprentice keeps making "little" mistakes like that. If he tells you that you should go behind him with turpentine because, after all, you're the expert in charge, you might leave a shoe-shaped paint mark on his tookus when explaining why you won't hire him.
 

Sohia Rose

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I use words like "gonna" and " 'cause" and words where I would drop a "g" like "thinkin' " in dialogue. I've even sold a few short narrative essays (I only write non-fiction) this way. Outside of that, I use more of "proper English." My work is mostly conversational in tone.
 

benbradley

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What do you say- does a brilliant story have the potential to be published, despite horrible grammar?

If the story is that great, it seems the writer could hire a "reader" (maybe an English major college student) to go through it and correct it. Also, query letters and such would need to go through the "reader." I'm thinking this "reader" might need to be listed as co-author.

Good grammar can be learned, though it may take months or years (and isn't it a good idea to FIX the problem?). There's surely a bunch of free resources on the net, probably related to home schooling. My immediate suggestion is to subscribe to the word of the day at m-w.com and the SAT question of the day at collegeboard.com.
 

johnzakour

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The manuscript doesn't have to be grammatically flawless, God knows none of mine ever are, but it still has to read smooth.

Ist hrad ot ese birllaicne fi het wrdos rea lal jmbueld.

(It's hard to see brilliance if the words are all jumbled.)
 

Jamesaritchie

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Say a writer, with em... "undesirable" grammar were to submit their MS to a publisher (small press or large press, you're choice). If the story was absolutely stellar, could their grammar be overlooked? I know that there are plenty of people and resources available to the public, and there should really be no reason for a writer to submit his/her work if it's in bad shape, but isn't it also supposedly the editor's job to filter this stuff out?

What do you say- does a brilliant story have the potential to be published, despite horrible grammar?

It depends on how bad the grammar really is. We all make mistakes. But it's darned near impossible to write a stellar story using poor grammar, UNLESS the poor grammar is intentional, and is used in just the right way, at just the right time, and for just the right reason. Thinking you can write a stellar story without good language skills probably won't take you very far.

An editor's job is not to filter out bad grammar. An editor's job is to find good writers, and good grammar is part of good writing.

But as an editor, I can tell you two things that may seem contradictory. 1. I've never read a stellar story written by a writer who was lousy at grammar. You just can't have one without the other. 2. I've read some extremely good stories by writers who didn't know they were good at grammar, who didn't know a verb from an herb, and who had not a clue what a past participle might be, etc., but they still did almost everything right because they were great readers.

It does help to know the technicalities of grammar, what all the terms mean, but as long as you're getting most of it right, it doesn't really matter how you do it.

The two areas I think a writer must know are active/passive, and tense.

At the same time, grammar is not rocket science, and pretty much anyone can learn all the grammar they need, including all the terms, in a month or two. I don't know why so many wannabe writers are unwilling to sit down and learn grammar, the basic tool of writing. It's work, I guess, and it certainly isn't as much fun as actually writing fiction, but trying to be a writer without understanding how to use this basic tool is like trying to be a carpenter without first learning how to use a hammer and saw.

You need the basics, and all it takes to learn the basics is a book or two and some dedicated time.
 

TsukiRyoko

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Someone who can't take command of a language has no business trying to write in it.
But remember, mastering the language is not the only key point to writing. Passion, imagination, and wit come into play too, among other elements. What if this grammatically-challenged person had the best story in the world- a piece that spiked your interest on page 1 and didn't stop until the end- do you think they, too, have no business writing?
 
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Linda Adams

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What if this grammatically-challenged person had the best story in the world- a piece that got your interest spiked on page 1 and didn't stop until the end- do you think they, too, have no business writing?

I'd have a hard time believing this. If the writer is having such a problem wtih grammar that it stands out just because of that, there's likely to be other serious problems in the story itself. It's not a big leap to think that if the writer is having trouble structuring sentences, they'll also have trouble doing descriptions, setting, and even structuring the story. Grammar is the one skill that does lead to lot of the others.
 

Kentuk

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I remember a novel about a Southern Civil War Vet told in the first person that was quite good and sold well to the history market. Of course I'd argue the author had mastered the grammar and dialect.
I recall Frank Dolby's 'Texas Tales' as another example. I've read a number of war accounts where the author obviously wasn't a writer, simply had a story to tell. Think of the ghost writer market where the material is beyond the help of an editor. I would have to conclude that 'Author does not equal Writer'.
 

TsukiRyoko

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I remember a novel about a Southern Civil War Vet told in the first person that was quite good and sold well to the history market. Of course I'd argue the author had mastered the grammar and dialect.
I recall Frank Dolby's 'Texas Tales' as another example. I've read a number of war accounts where the author obviously wasn't a writer, simply had a story to tell. Think of the ghost writer market where the material is beyond the help of an editor. I would have to conclude that 'Author does not equal Writer'.
Yes! Those types of stories are a wonderful example of what I was referring to. War stories, back-ass wood stories, etc, all types of similar stories, where ths story itself is usually much more intriguing than the literary components. Would the same people that wrote those types of stories-stories that have obviously sold, usually big time- have a chance of making a living from their writing, without bothering to better their grammar?
 

janetbellinger

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Well, Hemingway was a terrible speller apparantly. I think if a person produced a Hemingway quality piece of literature an editor would recognize that through all the errors. Unfortunately though, I am not a Hemingway.
 

Maryn

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One of the two biggies in mystery/suspense short story markets used to mention in its guidelines that they tend to overlook the first overt mistake in a submission but often reject if a second mistake appears on the same page. To them, that suggested a lack of professionalism.

Now I can't remember which it was, so I won't ascribe it to either.

Maryn, who proofreads stuff half to death
 

TsukiRyoko

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One of the two biggies in mystery/suspense short story markets used to mention in its guidelines that they tend to overlook the first overt mistake in a submission but often reject if a second mistake appears on the same page. To them, that suggested a lack of professionalism.

Now I can't remember which it was, so I won't ascribe it to either.

Maryn, who proofreads stuff half to death
:eek: While I do proofread like a maniac, and try my hardest to be grammatically correct while writing, I'm still very self-conscious about my grammar (my spelling's usually dead-on though, for the people who still insist that "commiserable" isn't a word, but a misspelling. It's an adjective, I swear!). I probably make way more than one mistake per page. Despite the fact that I took 4 years of grammar, I still worry. This is mainly because I corrected the grammar teachers a lot (I had 2 different teachers, and they both insisted that "ain't" was not only proper language, but used in formal terms)
 

ChaosTitan

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What's the old saying? Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.

It's likely that any large-house published novel written with "bad grammar" was done so on purpose. Someone mentioned "The Color Purple," and I would also throw out the words of Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy Allison. All tend to use first person narrative, and their narrators are not well-educated. It shows through in the grammar choices the writers make, but those aren't mistakes. Those are part of the style, put there deliberately.

I've heard many folks on this board say that it's relatively easy to get published once. Staying published is the hard part. If bad grammar is your style and part of the narrative, you'll probably be okay. But editors don't exist to correct your (you: the author) bad grammar. Possessing a good command of the English language (or whatever your native tongue may be) is an essential tool in your writer's toolbox. Keep it sharp, keep it close.
 

Toothpaste

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chaostitan - so with you on the "you must learn the rules in order to forget them". TsukiRyoko - I don't know if you were asking a question specifially about yourself, but reading your posts, you seem to have a pretty darn good grasp on the basics of grammar to me, I wouldn't worry about it.

Like everyone has already said, there isn't a book out there that wasn't thought through. And if there is "bad" grammar in the book, you can bet it was a very specific choice. Sentence fragments, ain't instead of isn't, they contribute to the voice of the piece, and the author has most definitely made calculated decisions to write that way.
 
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But remember, mastering the language is not the only key point to writing. Passion, imagination, and wit come into play too, among other elements. What if this grammatically-challenged person had the best story in the world- a piece that spiked your interest on page 1 and didn't stop until the end- do you think they, too, have no business writing?

No, they don't. Mastering the language might not be the ONLY point, but it's a very important one. Grammar and spelling are entry-level tools and if they can't master that, I very much doubt the story is any good.

Passion is no good if it's undirected. Imagination is no good unless it's shaped into a proper story. Wit is no good unless one has an understanding of the matter in hand and if one doesn't understand the English language, well...

No one would buy a dress from someone who freely admitted they couldn't sew, but had 'good ideas about clothes'. No one would buy a house from someone who didn't have a clue about architecture but knew what they meant when they started.

Lack of grammar in an aspiring writer makes them look unprofessional and sloppy. I wouldn't waste my money on someone that lazy and the story wouldn't grip me because I wouldn't read past the first paragraph.
 

veinglory

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There are enough writers in the world for publishers to select those with passion, imagination *and* acceptable grammar. In fact, passion is commonplace and imagination only slightly less so.
 
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johnzakour

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No, they don't. Mastering the language might not be the ONLY point, but it's a very important one. Grammar and spelling are entry-level tools and if they can't master that, I very much doubt the story is any good.

Passion is no good if it's undirected. Imagination is no good unless it's shaped into a proper story. Wit is no good unless one has an understanding of the matter in hand and if one doesn't understand the English language, well...

No one would buy a dress from someone who freely admitted they couldn't sew, but had 'good ideas about clothes'. No one would buy a house from someone who didn't have a clue about architecture but knew what they meant when they started.

While there are certainly exceptions to every rule, I agree with this.

If a manuscript is laden with mistakes it would be hard to pick out its brilliance over the errors. Kind of the like the trees getting in the way of seeing the forest.
 

TsukiRyoko

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TsukiRyoko - I don't know if you were asking a question specifially about yourself, but reading your posts, you seem to have a pretty darn good grasp on the basics of grammar to me, I wouldn't worry about it.
Heehee, thank you. No, I wasn't asking it about myself, this was a question that popped up in my head yesterday and I've been dying to see other's opinions.

Toothpaste said:
Like everyone has already said, there isn't a book out there that wasn't thought through. And if there is "bad" grammar in the book, you can bet it was a very specific choice. Sentence fragments, ain't instead of isn't, they contribute to the voice of the piece, and the author has most definitely made calculated decisions to write that way.
When I think of "ain't", I usually think of it being used in dialogue (the ultimate writer's playground in my opinion. You can do anything you want with dialogue, and it's okay because it's dialogue, damnit!). While I understand that most published works where grammar is thrown out the window is for the sake of showing culture or nationality or the like, would it still be at all possible to get published if the writer really wrote the way they spoke? Or would you say it's almost 100% impossible to get their story to the public unless they either A- obtained better writing skills or B- hired a real writer?
 

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I think this discussion is moot, because someone who has a poor grasp of grammatical writing is likely to have a poor grasp of equally important writing skills, such as pacing and structure. You need more than language skills to write a good novel, but language skills are at the foundation of good writing.

Might there be an exception to this? Sure, in rare circumstances. But in most cases, bad grammar is going to be a marker for other serious problems.

- Victoria
 

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Nothing's 100% impossible, but a writer would probably need some other ace up their sleeve to get the agent to read past the first page of a grammatically poor novel. Something like a famous contact, a friend in the business. Maybe if the author had met the agent or publisher when presenting the book & at some point it had come up that the grammar was part of the voice, not unintentional mistakes. & even then, the story would have to sound pretty impressive before they started before they could overlook it, I would think.
 
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