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Punctuating Perfection

November 12, 2013

Writers are notorious for bad spelling, illegible handwriting and pretty shoddy punct.uat;ion’. It’s a problem but that is what editors are for.

I remember many years ago I submitted a script to a London literary agency. They kindly declined it but back in those days they had more passion for their craft (or maybe they just had more time?) and often would provide vital feedback. This nice lady from the agency suggested some changes regarding the lead character as she found her ‘Cheesy, over sentimental’ and also some minor changes to flow and direction. The agent also suggested it would make a good short story. There was no mention of the appalling grammar and punctuation not only in the script but in my covering letter!

Do not misunderstand what I have said or am about to say, especially if you are a new/newish writer about to submit to agents and publishers… read to the end…

In my defence, I was only sixteen at the time and I have improved (I hope!) since then. The point though is this – the creative process does not allow for time to stop and think about punctuation, correct grammar, even correct spelling. The words fly off the keyboard at such a speed that the correctness of syntax becomes largely irrelevant (and literally impossible if you write as fast as I do, the red squiggly lines of my spell check are dazzling me as I write. I will of course correct this when I am finished). Once upon a time (I know, shoddy cliché – I secretly love clichés, so sue me), the agent and publisher had more time to humour certain errors and they appeared to be far more supportive of emerging talent, a talent that was wet behind the ears and green around the gills from the all-night writing sessions and trying to hold down a ‘proper job’ in the daytime. There appeared to be more understanding. Some might call this empathy.

Now things are different.

Some publishers and agents (I stress some – there is always a welcome Square Peg in that round hole…. and always someone who relishes in the rebellious author who uses clichés*)

Publishers are bigger – as the publishing houses merge or are taken over and agents are bigger because more and more publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. This basically means that competition is more than ever – you have to stand out and stand out in the right way. Poor grammar, spelling and punctuation in your covering letter could result in your manuscript not being read at all, no matter how good it may be. I am both happy and sad about this and here is why:

The creative soul often creates through completely unorthodox and perhaps unheard of means and methods. Look at the ‘Diva, Eccentric and Quirky’ behaviour of pop stars, visual artists and performers as an example. Writers are no different. The way we create cannot be explained and despite our external behaviour (crap handwriting, shitty spelling and misplace.d full the work we produce – the finished book, the short story and the stage play, can change the way you view the world. If you – as a publisher or agent – reject that ‘Change in the world’ simply because the author didn’t address you quite in the manner you are accustomed to – what kind of a human being does that make you? What kind of agent? Which type of publisher? Are you here to change the world? Or make a fast buck?

The flip side:

Writers are businesspeople. We need to make money from our works and we need to conduct ourselves within the marketplace with professionalism, decorum and precision. This is, yes – the opposite of creativity. Yes – it is. It is also the opposite side of the brain that we are using. This business life of the writer is operated by the left side of the brain. In order to write your knock-out covering letter, your marketing plan, the market comparison, research the USP (Unique Selling Point) of your book – those are just a few to mention – you need this methodical succinct organised side of your brain. There will also be, should your book be accepted and published, preparation for media interviews, writing sales ‘blurb’ and biographical information, again, to name a mere few. Looking at this, of course publishers and agents want an author who is media savvy, marketing ready and sales-orientated. It makes their job easier and your life richer. For your increased effort (since the olden days of publishing), the ability to utilise the left side of your brain and your genius right side you of course will sell more books and be paid a higher royalty than years ago.

That’s right – I am teasing you.

I am tempted to elaborate but if you are truly serious about the business of being a writer I am sure you will already know what I could say… or that you will now do the research and make your own decisions as to whether or not to approach an agent (who will take 15% of your royalties and advance for doing what you could do yourself, hint hint**) or a publisher directly, or to take the avenue of self publishing. The choice is yours but here is just a little advice by a published, but not massively so, author (that’s me, by the way):

If you don’t know what a USP is, or any of the other terms I have used – you’re not quite ready so please don’t give publishers and agents a reason to close their doors to unsolicited material. Get your work professionally proofed if you can afford it before submission. If you can’t afford it always always always get a writers’ group to at least give you some feedback and maybe a friend, although friendly bias is not helpful here so choose wisely. It’s too obvious to tell you about spell check and grammar check… isn’t it? 🙂

The bottom line is, or at least it should be, that if your work is great, any publisher or agent will forgive some rooky mistakes and maybe even a typo or two but let’s not leave anything to chance. That said – and I am deliberately throwing spanners in works here because it is ultimately down to you to decide how you want to run your business – I have had some of my most polished, professionally edited and proofed work rejected and some of my (in my opinion) laziest work accepted and published. There is no accounting for taste and we can never, in my opinion, judge what ‘the market’ wants at any one time. All we can do is hope that our tiny contribution to the world of publishing makes a giant leap of difference in the lives of our readers.

Here’s to Being the Change…

Matt xx


*Just in case you don’t know what I am wittering on about, there are certain ‘Don’ts’ on the    rule list in publishing:

  1. Avoid clichés
  2. Never say ‘Suddenly’ in a story
  3. Show, don’t tell
  4. Etc.

Me? I love to read (and write) clichés and suddenly is one of my favourite emotive words. Showing can be revealing but telling can be informative. Make your own mind up and prepare for rejection if you decide to break the rules and make that leap of faith into the unknown world of clichéd phrases that trip on the tongue and swim in the moonlight.

**My decision to not take an agent at this time is simple – I can’t afford one. Of course your agent only takes a cut when you are contracted and/or you sell a piece but this is a business remember and I have done my business plan. The plan takes into account what I have already spent on my writing career and how much advance I need to pay my bills (and my debts). Giving an agent 15% of my first advance, which will be relatively small as I will be new to big publishing, is simply not financially viable. It would make poor business sense at this stage and do remember that even with an agent – you are not guaranteed publication. Once you are published and affluent, I believe that an agent can make life easier. This is an individual business decision. Some famous authors have agents, some do not. Some new writers who are unsure as to how to approach a publisher find this an easier route, although with agents being more and more picky about who they take on their books, personally I prefer to go straight to the manufacturer, preferring to rule out the middle man. However, the book I am currently submitting is nonfiction and specialised, thus it is easier to do. Fiction and particularly contemporary fiction is a much harder nut to crack. However you choose to crack the industry… enjoy your process.


From → Books, Writing

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