Get Published: The Nuts and Bolts of Good English, and How to Impress a Publisher (1)

Not all writers write good grammar. That's a fact. It's no big deal. Well, mostly it's no big deal. As a freelance books editor, I've seen hundreds of books whose authors cannot produce decent grammar and punctuation. I do it for them. I'm paid to do that -- mostly by the hour.

So why bother to write good grammar? you ask. What does it matter if I can't tell a colon from a semicolon, or when to use double quote marks and single quote marks? Is it such a sin to use inappropriate or downright wrong words if someone is going to correct them for me? Who cares if my syntax isn't logical? If there are copy editors and proofreaders to ensure my book looks good, why is it so important to go to the trouble of ensuring my grammar and punctuation are tiptop?

Well, it might just help you to sell your book, that's why. And I don't mean sell it to the buyer in the bookstore: I mean sell it to the commissioning editor who is on the point of deciding whether your life is about to change.

When you're a would-be first-time author -- and many of us have been in that position -- a well-presented approach letter and sample chapter might be the thing that tips it for you. Look at it this way: you're an unknown; the commissioning editor likes your ideas, but has seen a couple of other approach letters and sample chapters recently that say much the same; of those other two, one is so well presented that it won't need much copy-editing. Which writer is that commissioning editor going to choose?

In reality, that editor will probably not see your full manuscript till you've been accepted, but will get a good idea of your writing skills from that approach letter and the sample chapter or two that you may be asked to submit, along with a breakdown of the book's structure.

Copy editors such as me are freelance. Mostly, we're paid by the hour. Sometimes a publisher will pay a flat rate for a particular editing job, but will assess it first and say, "Hmm, I'll offer nine hundred dollars" (or, say, four hundred pounds, depending on where you're working). That commissioning editor has just done a quick calculation and has decided that, by accepting the manuscript from the author who's submitted a near-perfect approach letter and samples, the company will save some money.

But I'm writing a novel, a big stream-of-consciousness thing, you argue. I don't want good grammar. It will spoil the whole thing.

Fine. If your terms of reference are that this is the type of manuscript you're producing, you'll have agreed this with your in-house editor, who will have taken note of it and will brief me -- or another copy editor -- to treat the text accordingly.

Most books, however, are not stream-of-consciousness novels. Many are told in a straightforward way (that's not to say they're dull, but merely that their authors have chosen to adhere to the conventions); and, anyway, many are not novels. Most books are nonfiction. If you can find a subject that will interest a publisher and you're suitably expert in it, you may get published.

But the publisher will look more kindly on you if, in your approach letter and accompanying material, you present yourself well.

The good news is that the basics -- what I refer to as "the nuts and bolts of English" -- are not too difficult to learn. Most of them are logical. Once you've seen them in action and passed that eureka! moment, you won't forget them.

I hope this short article has made you realize that you'll have to bite the bullet sometime soon, and get to grips with these basics. If you're already an expert, of course, you won't have read this far, so probably won't be reading this sentence!

But there are many writers who, for whatever reason, need to brush up a little. It's nothing to be ashamed of. Maybe they've had better things to do with their lives so far.

The important thing to know is that there are people like me, writing articles such as this one, to help. Call me a nerd if you will, but I actually like working on text at the level I do. As writer and co-writer of 14 print titles, I've also been copy-edited a lot, so I know what it's like from both sides.

Getting published isn't always easy, but attention to detail can sometimes be the deciding factor. I wrote a downloadable book recently with my co-writer Stephen Blake, called You Can Write Books (at www.youcanwritebooks.com), which, although its main topic is actually getting published, contains some tips on the nuts and bolts of writing. This is already selling quite well, which is gratifying.

To sum up: don't neglect good grammar, because (a) it could make the difference between acceptance and rejection; (b) it's satisfying to know that you can do it; and (c) once you've learned a few basic stylistic points, that dread word grammar may not sound so bad after all.

Good luck with your writing.

Andrew John is co-author of You Can Write Books, a no-nonsense downloadable book from http://www.youcanwritebooks.com that will get you into print if you follow its advice. He and his co-author, Stephen Blake, have written more than a dozen print titles (details on http://www.youcanwritebooks.com). Both are writers and editors, and You Can Write Books is crammed with advice you can trust.

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