Dotting those Is

First, if you haven’t had a chance yet, check out the Holiday Table contest in my last posting. Submit a short story, scene, novel excerpt, poem, or whatever format you deem best on your version of a West Coast holiday meal (or wherever you happen to live), to counter all of those sticky-sweet cookie-cutter TV movie holiday extravaganzas. Winners (hey, I’m open to the possibility of there being more than one super-fabulous entry!) will have their work posted here for all to see, as well as having it posted on a high-class literary fiction website. That’s right, me buckos — I’m talking publication credits here. So get your typing fingers flying by December 15.

Given that from now until Xmas is a publishing world dead zone, a time of internal reassessment when query letters are seldom read, to be followed by the annual avalanche of New Year’s resolution query letters in January, now is a lovely time to take a break from querying. Time to get back to the basics. In other words, it’s a great time to be revising your own work.

This, I know, will make some of my long-term readers giggle. As I spent most of August and September insisting, it is NOT the best idea in the world to be the only eyes who see your work before it lands on an agent’s or editor’s desk. Gaining some outside perspective, via a trustworthy first reader, has many benefits — most notably, good pre-submission feedback can enable you to weed out the rookie mistakes that tend to result in automatic turndowns from professionals.

When I was a high school senior, my guidance counselor took me aside and confided that he had heard that the University of California admission offices for Cal Berkeley and UCLA had instituted a new policy: if an application essay contained more than five grammatical or spelling errors, the whole application was automatically tossed in the pile to be routed to the less prestigious of the UC schools. In other words, here was a situation where spelling and grammar did indeed count, to the nth degree.

I have no idea whether the UC system ever instituted such a policy (although having been a reader of admission essays for a major university’s graduate programs, I have to admit that it was often tempting to toss the less literate ones aside), but evidently, my counselor was whispering it into ears other than mine: for a few months, I enjoyed quite a spate of popularity at my high school as an application essay editor.

Most literary agencies operate on a similar philosophy as the putative UC application readers. As I explained in my September blogs, the agents themselves are very seldom the first readers of submissions, and almost never the first readers of query letters. Even at small agencies, the first readers are generally assistants; it’s how agent-wannabes learn the trade. A query is often answered affirmatively by a single reader, but once you’ve been asked to send chapters, it is not unusual for two or three junior readers to screen it prior to the agent’s seeing it. If any of those juniors think it is not up to snuff, the agent is probably not going to read it at all.

(Even, incidentally, if you met the agent — or editor — at a conference, had a wonderful conversation, and the agent asked to see a chapter or two. Such a request is an invitation to skip the querying phase, not the initial reader stages.)

For this reason, it is absolutely vital to clear your manuscript (and query letter, and synopsis) of spelling and grammatical errors, pronto. As any professional editor will tell you, DO NOT rely upon your word processing program’s spelling and grammar checker. They tend to be rife with technical errors — mine, for instance, regularly tells me to use the wrong form of there, their, and they’re — and it’s far too easy for a slip of the mouse to convince your dictionary to accept “caseless” when you mean “ceaseless.” Spellcheck, by all means, but I implore you, do not let that be your only means of proofreading.

Remember, college admissions readers are inundated with essays only once per year. In an agency, readers are inundated most of the time. The agency readers I know say they tend to discount a work on the third error — or even less, if the errors come on the first page. As a judge in literary contests, I have been told to knock out entries at the first or second error. So let the writer beware.

Also, as any editor will happily tell you, the computer screen is not the best place to proofread, even if you read every syllable aloud (which I recommend, particularly for novels that contain dialogue). Since I edit professionally, I have a monitor that could easily balance a small litter of puppies on it, if I held it flat, but I ALWAYS use hard copy for a final edit. It’s just too easy for the eyes and the brain to blur momentarily in the editing process, making you skip an error. So do read your work in hard copy before you even dream of sending it to an agent or publishing house.

An editor at a small but prestigious publishing house once gave me some good advice for self-editing: when you are reading your manuscript in hard copy, keep a stack of Post-Its™ by your side. Every time you look up from the text while you are reading, no matter what the reason (barring an earthquake or house fire, of course), flag the paragraph where you stopped.

Then, after you finish, go back and examine all of those paragraphs. Was there a problem there that needed to be fixed, or did your mind simply start to drift? His theory was that where YOU drifted off, another reader would start thinking about doing the laundry as well.

After you have proofed and poked the slower movements of your text, I STRONGLY urge you to have at least one third party reader take a gander at the text. Select wisely, preferably another writer, rather than a friend, lover, or — sacre bleu! — a family member. (If you are unfamiliar with my repeated tirades on why none of these three categories contain unbiased readers, please see my September postings on the subject.)

Ideally, you would run it past your writing group, or a freelance editor familiar with your genre, or a published writer IN your genre, but not all of us have those connections or resources. In a pinch, pick the most voracious reader you know or the person so proud of her English skills that she regularly corrects people in conversation. My litmus test is whether the potential reader knows the difference between “farther” and “further” — yes, they actually mean different things, technically — and can use “momentarily” in its proper form, which is almost never heard in spoken English anymore. (Poor momentarily has been so abused that some benighted dictionary editors now define it both as “for a moment” — its time-honored meaning — AND “in a moment,” as we so often hear on airplanes: “We will be airborne momentarily…” Trust me, you wouldn’t want to be in a plane that was only momentarily airborne (unless you have a serious death wish.)

A word to the wise, however: never, NEVER, simply hand a manuscript to a non-professional reader (i.e., someone who is not a professional writer, editor, agent, or teacher) without specifying what KIND of feedback you want. All too often, the amateur reader gets so intimidated at the prospect of providing first-class advice that she simply gives no feedback at all — or just keeps putting off reading the manuscript. Alternatively, other readers will run in the other direction, treating every typo as though it were evidence that you should never write another word as long as you live. All of these outcomes will make you unhappy, and might not produce the type of feedback you need.

In tomorrow’s posting, I shall talk about strategies for getting that feedback without treating your first readers like mere service-providers (if you want to do this without engendering social obligations, you really should be working with a paid professional freelancer, rather than your friends). Until then, keep up the good work — and think about your contest entry!

– Anne Mini

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