The limitations of style, or, is there a way I can make my submission screener-proof?

Is everybody thawed out yet? Nothing like a good cold snap to inhibit driving and drive us all back to our writing studios, I always say. During the recent shivery period, I’ve been going back to questions readers have posted as comments that really deserve entire posts of their own. Today, I have a question that I know will interest all of you writers of literary fiction out there: how to prevent the pretty language experiments you like to unleash upon the world from being misinterpreted by the average agency screener. Take, for example, intelligent and insightful reader Mary’s dilemma:

“I am frantically working on a proposal to be submitted within the next week or two. As I am working on my sample chapters, I’ve realized that part of my writing style consists of sentences that are fragments.

“I have an excellent grasp of grammar and have no trouble writing in complete sentences. But the style I have developed over the years owes part of its rhythm to fragments. I like the emphasis they provide, and the way they “pace” the writing.

“I’m concerned, however, about putting fragments in my sample chapters. What if agents think I don’t know how to write in complete sentences? But without the fragments, my writing feels formal and a little bland.

What’s the scoop? Are fragments allowed in otherwise grammatically correct writing, or are they to be avoided like the mange in those critical sample chapters?”

Hoo boy, Mary, is this ever a complex question, and one that I have heard debated long into the night by many, many well-established writers of literary fiction, who have precisely this fear about boneheaded critics not understanding the interesting things they like to do with language from time to time. Basically, the underlying concern is that someone in some dark corner of the industry will not be able to tell the difference between the CHOICE to bend the rules of grammar a trifle and a simple ignorance of those rules.

As someone who reads a LOT of manuscripts, let me set your mind at least partially at ease: said difference is usually ABUNDANTLY clear to a professional reader. A writer unaware of the basic rules of grammar will make mistakes consistently, but an experienced writer will make them selectively. Also, if a good writer decides to use a stylistic quirk, such as sentence fragments, those quirks will affect only as small fraction of the sentences in the manuscript. In a submission by writer who does not understand the rules of sentence construction, on the other hand, this ignorance will show up in most of the sentences, and probably in all of the paragraphs.

And yes, Virginia, the difference is generally apparent on the first page. If someone has genuine writing talent, a professional reader will often already be excited by the end of the first paragraph.

So the short answer, Mary, is that if the sentence fragments are integral to your style — which certainly seems to be the case, from what you describe — keep ‘em. Usually, if fragments are part of a well-developed rhythm, it will be pretty apparent to a good reader’s eye that their use is a well-thought-out choice.

That being said, there are agents and editors out there who hate fragments like the mange you mention. (Great analogy, by the way, for the way grammar-hounds tend to think of it.) They are certainly in the minority these days — I mean, come on, most published writers will use a sentence fragment from time to time for emphasis, and let’s not even talk about how Joan Didion has raised the acceptance of the once-verboten one-sentence paragraph — but there are indeed industry folks whose English teachers beat into them that only complete sentences will do.

These people, I imagine, lunch with the Point-of-View Nazis, bemoaning the decline of American letters and plotting how to subvert anyone who is even thinking about doing something interesting and original with language. And after they finish sipping their post-prandial cognac, they stiff the waiter and go out kicking those Santa Clauses who ring bells on city street corners for charity. Or so I surmise. Then they go back to work, screening manuscripts.

Seriously, they’re not too common, and for good reason: this taste would basically render it impossible for these people to work much with literary fiction or NF written by journalists (who are trained to use fragments for effect). So you can usually avoid them by sticking to agencies that, well, deal with writers who break the occasional grammatical rule. But again, if the rest of your writing is solid, it’s unlikely that a seasoned professional would mistake a legitimate stylistic choice for lack of grammatical acumen.

However, the folks in power are not the only ones you need to worry about. As I believe I have mentioned before, at an agency or publishing house of any size, the first reader of a requested manuscript will almost certainly not be the agent or the editor herself, but at least one level of screener or assistant. Even a medium-sized agency will often employ a screener or two.

This is why, in case you were wondering, that requests for the rest of the book are often so vague. Few agents are brave enough to say outright, “Well, Thing One and Thing Two, my faithful screeners, really liked your first 50 pages. I haven’t read it yet, but if they read the rest of your manuscript and tell me it is worthwhile, I’m definitely interested.”

Why should the employment of screeners worry the occasional bender of grammatical rules? Well, while most agencies will school their screeners in what they should use as rejection criteria, the usual assumption is that the screeners will already be familiar with the basic standards of good writing. Most of the time, screeners are simply told to weed out the submissions with grammatical problems, but not necessarily given a crash course in the difference between stylistic choice and error first.


As those of you who kept up with the recent Idol series are already aware, plenty of screeners have freshly tumbled out of English departments of varying degrees of credibility. If it’s very freshly, they tend to perpetuate their professors’ pet peeves until they have read enough submissions to develop pet peeves of their own. And this can sometimes be problematic for submitters, because while screeners do not have much power within their agencies, they definitely do have veto power over submissions. If some over-eager intern screener fresh from his first serious English class takes umbrage at your use of fragments, there’s not much you can do about it.

Whether your submission ends up screened by such a sterling character is, alas, largely a matter of chance. So yes, you are taking a bit of a risk in including them; with such people, you would in fact be better off without the fragments. However, if the fragments add considerably to your writing, in your opinion, I am inclined to think that you would be better off not associating with agents and editors — or screeners, or editorial assistants — who don’t understand what you’re trying to do.

After all, almost anyone in the industry will tell you that it’s a mistake to mess with a style that works. Fragments are not all that rare anymore — heck, Annie Proulx even won the Pulitzer for a work chock full of ‘em. If you love them, they should probably stay.

Especially if your book’s category is one where fragments have a track record for being used with success. In literary fiction, for example, their use is very much accepted — but before I say more about that, I am going to need to talk about what is and isn’t literary fiction, and that, my friends, is the topic of another day.

Keep up the good work!

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