5.31.2018

Error Free

As a freelance editor, I see manuscripts in all stages of undress. That’s because I can enter the writing process even before an author has completed the outline, depending on what sort of help is requested. I will notice misspellings or the like and ignore them. The book is still in a preliminary phase. My tolerance during a full manuscript edit, however, is different.

Typos and basic mistakes of grammar indicate a lack of seriousness toward the craft. Characterization can be gifted, the plot can be exciting, but raw talent isn’t enough. Having vague notions of becoming a great American novelist is a common sentiment during all of those hours spent alone. Yet it’s also like being a Little Leaguer who believes he will grow up to be the next Babe Ruth.

I see manuscripts that are littered with dozens of mistakes, sometimes on a single page, and I always wonder, “Does the author not realize these are mistakes?” Perhaps she thinks the editor, or someone at the publishing house that buys her book, will clean up after her, like Mom used to. Getting out the protean emotions, that’s what’s important.

The fourth hexagram in the I Ching, the classic Chinese book of oracles, is “Youthful Folly.” Back when I was a young writer, given to mysticism, I used to roll that hexagram all the time. The Chinese sage that wrote that book knew me better than I knew myself.

The reason I bring that up is because literary agents and editors are, by and large, mature readers. They see manuscripts all the time in which the writing not only shines, but no typos can be found for pages at a stretch. That’s when I, personally, know the writer is committed to her craft. I know in addition that I, the reader, am the beneficiary of all that hard work, and I like her better for that reason too.

An author breaks down sweeping ideas into granular text all the time. The process of learning correct grammar and spelling follows much the same path. At the ground-eye level, a dictionary is always in your dock. The Chicago Manual of Style, or the equivalent, is always on a nearby shelf. When you develop the habit of constantly looking up prose, even when you’re pretty sure you’re right, you are immersing yourself in all the possible means of expression. Whether a root stem ends in –ing or –tion starts to really matter to you. You’re getting in up to your elbows in words.

Exercise: What you don’t know about grammar and spelling can seem so sprawling, you may be daunted. That’s why many writers start with Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. It’s a thin book, and its pages are filled with so many common topics, you’ll feel immediately comfortable. You can’t lose by following the precepts of one of the greatest New Yorker editors of all time.

“It is a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word.”
― Andrew Jackson

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine



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