More than 90% of what gets submitted to editors--both fiction magazine editors and publishing house editors--is rejected as soon as a reader sees it, often because it doesn't meet basic standards of competence in presentation and language use. This blog series will give you a guide to meeting those standards.
Meeting them will help with self-publishing too, since discerning readers also reject books that don't meet them. A review, or, even worse, multiple reviews that mention basic errors in your prose can do a lot of harm to your sales.
I'll mainly address the short story market, because I've done a lot of short story submitting recently. I have also been an editor in a major publishing house, though, and a lot of the advice also applies to submitting novels, or even nonfiction, to traditional publishers.
Beyond just getting past the gatekeepers, developing the skill of communicating clearly with correct punctuation, grammar and usage will help you become a better writer. A musician plays notes; a great musician knows why those notes, in that relationship, work together, and what effect that will have on the audience, because a great musician thinks about the notes, and plays only the ones he or she means to play. For us as writers, words are our notes.
I review a lot of books, and I see the same easily-corrected errors over and over. In fact, I've analysed the errors that I've found in dozens of published and unpublished books, to figure out which basic problems are most common. So here's what I plan to cover on this blog (which will later become a book, all going well):
- How editors select what to publish (and what not to publish)
- Basics of Standard Manuscript Format
- Style and Voice, and why I'm setting out to help you write "invisibly"
- Commonly confused words and how to distinguish them
- Apostrophe wrangling
- Capital errors
- Punctuated equilibrium: colons, semicolons, hyphens, dashes, ellipses, question marks, exclamation marks and periods or full stops
- Dialog: the special conventions of dialog and its punctuation
- Comma calmer 1: When to remove commas
- Comma calmer 2: When to add commas
- The past of the past: how not to make your reader tense with confusion
- Writing concise, active, varied sentences
- The most common typos, and how to check for them
- Names, words and research
Note that this isn't about writing the actual story, which is another set of skills above and beyond these. This is about meeting the basic standards that will get your story read in the first place.
Does every editor care about these things? No--as poorly-edited books from major publishing houses demonstrate--but most will. Does every reader? No--as five-star reviews for books that are full of errors demonstrate--but some will. If you want to communicate “I am basically professional” so that people who read your writing won’t be distracted by simple language mistakes and can concentrate on your story, this series is here to help you achieve that standard.
The aim is to provide just enough information to help you look competent, so I won’t go into the finer details in some cases. For example, there are some arcane comma rules that are really only known or understood by advanced editors and grammarians, and if you don’t observe them, nobody but a serious pedant will dock you points. I’ll point to places where you can find details about those rules if you want--if your comma usage is generally good already, knowing these rules will make it excellent--but if you struggle with the basics of commas, you don’t need to confuse yourself with these more advanced rules.
There are several good grammar sites around, most notably Grammar Girl, but they do tend to focus on theory and get deep into the detail, and they're for a wide audience, not just writers of fiction. The famous Strunk & White is, I'm afraid, overcomplicated, outdated, and doesn't always follow its own (sometimes bad) advice. This guide is written by a working fiction writer--one who's also a former book editor and technical writer, and a current book reviewer and beta reader--as a practical tool for other working fiction writers.