Watch Your Ps and Qs
Imagine going to a job interview. You've dressed in your once-a-year dry-clean-only suit, polished your shoes to a brilliant shine, and the price of your manicure and haircut made you give up lunch for a week and Friday's happy hour. You walk into the CEO's office and notice the furniture is early Salvation Army, with tattered and faded upholstery and nicks in the wood. The head honcho greets you, and the egg stain on his frayed necktie glistens under the fluorescent lights. You sit down for your interview, brushing away the layer of dust that threatens to send your trousers to the dry cleaner once again. If this were your first impression of the company, would you bother to look further into the financials to discover that this pit is a multimillion dollar corporation with an excellent balance sheet and a reputation for employee job satisfaction? Probably you would not.
Although the previous example is a gross exaggeration, too many writers believe that details such as grammar, spelling and punctuation are unimportant, and their submissions to agents or publishing houses look like the proverbial unmade bed. Just as the first impression of a person that is garnered during a face to face interview may influence opinions regarding intelligence and professionalism, agents, publishers and the reading public establish opinions of a writer's professionalism, intelligence and credibility based on the structural quality of their work as well as the ideas they impart. Grammar, spelling and punctuation do matter.
Every third grade student knows that a sentence has to have a subject and a verb< and the first letter of every sentence is capitalized. However, the growth of e-mail has made these simple elements nearly extinct. The abbreviated nature of e-mail lends itself to eliminating words, jumping from thought to thought with limited connectivity and generally creating an environment of structural sloppiness. In some cases this is acceptable; dashing off a note to your best buddy about whether Carrie Ann was fair in her assessment of Julianne's mambo doesn't require a sense of formality. However, the following example of digital slop was intended to persuade me to join a networking group of independent professionals:
"Last weeks meeting with C B of compendium blog ware was tremendously informative, for those who made it I'm sure they got a lot out of it i know i did, for those who didn't make it boy did you miss out. For those of you who are so totally busy now I know you'll be in worse shape in December. You always are. So our next meeting will be scheduled in January Should be enough time shouldn't it?"
In the eyes of the reader, this writer loses at least 10 IQ points with every run-on sentence, and the random capitalization throughout the piece diminish his protestation of professionalism.
Style Guides and Substance
Short of adopting a third grade teacher who wraps your knuckles every time you split an infinitive, what tools should a writer have in order to produce well crafted manuscripts? There are three basic reference books that are must-haves for writers of every genre: a dictionary, a thesaurus and a style guide.
The dictionary and thesaurus are familiar to most people who have made it through high school. A good dictionary is essential for ensuring standardization of spelling and for clearly defining words. It is common for novice writers to misuse language in order to sound intellectual; the actual impression made on a savvy reader is just the opposite. The thesaurus offers suggestions for synonyms and antonyms for nearly every commonly used word. This tool helps a writer avoid overusing the same words or phrases and becoming repetitious, and also hone sentences to impart a precise meaning. Both the dictionary and thesaurus features offered as part of many word processing software packages tend to be limited; for best results, invest in print versions of both books.
Style guides cover standards for grammar, punctuation, footnoting, indexing and other structural components of a manuscript. The style guide used by most fiction and nonfiction editors is the Chicago Manual of Style. Other style guides are tailored for their respective disciplines. Newsroom and magazine editors favor the AP style guide. The APA style guide is most commonly used as the standard for academic papers. Style guides in general are quite expensive (a brand-new CMS was $50.00 in 2005), but for the serious writer, this reference tool may mean the difference between publication and yet another reject letter. They also don't change dramatically from year to year, so the $50.00 purchase won't be out of date or lose its value for many years.
Grammar, spelling, punctuation and sentence structure may be oh-so-boring for those writers who believe that free spirits should never be constrained by rules, but for any writer to have their work taken seriously, there should be as much care taken with building the structure as there is with crafting a plot or exploring a theme. A book may not be judged by its cover, but the book's author certainly is judged by his or her ability to navigate the topography of the language.
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