Why Good Grammar Will Effect You're Chances of Getting

by Erin Brown

You've written a manuscript with enough detail to topple Gone with the Wind, a lead character unique enough to give Ignatius Reilly a run for his money, and a plot that out-Christie's Agatha. Who cares if you don't know the difference between "there" and "their" or "your" and "you're?" So what if your plurals take the form of possessives? And really, is anyone going to care if your modifiers are misplaced? The answer is: "YES! YES! YES! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PLEASE LEARN ENGLISH!" Okay, I've taken some deep breaths and done a few yoga poses. The bottom line is that if you want to get taken seriously as an author, you must be able to use proper English and follow the rules of grammar.

Why, you ask? There are copy editors for that nonsense, correct? Well, yes, and in fact, once you find a home at a publishing house, you get two rounds of copyediting and a proofread. But my very strong feelings on the subject (and trust me, I'm not alone—my fellow editors and agents are sticklers as well) were best expressed recently in a Harvard Business Review article: "I Won't Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here's Why" by Kyle Wiens.Kyle Wiens is CEO of iFixit, the largest online repair community, as well as founder of Dozuki, a very successful software company. All wannabe employees at Kyle Wiens's companies must take a mandatory grammar test. Why? As he says, "On the face of it, my zero-tolerance approach to grammar errors might seem a little unfair. After all, grammar has nothing to do with job performance, or creativity, or intelligence, right? Wrong. If it takes someone more than twenty years to notice how to properly us it’s, then that's not a learning curve I'm comfortable with. So even in this hyper-competitive market, I will pass on a great programmer who cannot write."

This is true in every field, but good grammar, especially in publishing, is essential in order to be taken seriously. The use of good grammar reflects your competence as a writer. It shows your ability, and it shows that you take the written word seriously. It's virtually impossible to respect a writer whose prose is riddled with common sense errors. Now don't get your panties in a bunch—I'm not saying that your manuscript must be perfect, or that any of us are perfect. Even the best of the best often let a few mistakes slip through the cracks. That is human error. But if you consistently show poor grammatical ability, and it's obvious that you're lacking the basics of English, no matter how impressive your creativity, you will not be considered a strong literary contender. That's just a fact.

The reality is that there are hundreds of misspelled query letters and pages from manuscripts posted for a few chuckles in the lounges and common areas of publishing houses. I don't share this to make editors and agents seem like jerks for mocking hard-working writers. I write this so that you will take good grammar seriously. Take the time to learn grammar now if it didn't sink in during Mr. Peterson's sophomore English class at Abe Lincoln High. Make an effort to buy and study The Chicago Manual of Style; buy a copy of Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation; or simply make a point to visit Cherie Tucker’s column in this very magazine every month.

Good grammar will not only help you get taken seriously as a writer; it will also allow you to be taken more seriously in business and in life. If you don't know the rules, you will be judged for it. Period. There's nothing worse than someone trying to be taken seriously for their ideas who doesn't know the difference between "lose" and "loose," "affect" and "effect"; who hasn't ever learned what "literally" literally means; who dangles participles and misuses apostrophes; who never uses commas; who (please kill me if I see this again) can't differentiate between "to" and "too."

And in the case of "Let's eat Grandma" versus "Let's eat, Grandma," grammar can save a person's life!


Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at www.erinedits.com

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