Just as I rarely post reviews (see my last entry), I also don’t get into the writing advice game very often. There is already more advice out there than you can shake a million sticks at, and I prefer to write than write about writing – or write about writing about writing, as I just did. However, I recently witnessed possibly the worst piece of guidance I have ever read and feel compelled to weigh in.
Given to a budding writer who had been demoralized by an in-depth critique he had just received (from me, as it happens), it went something like this: “Don’t worry about your grammar and punctuation. A good agent will see past that to the great story you have written.”
Now, this was said by a well-meaning friend with no background in publishing and was no doubt meant to gee the writer up. I’m all for encouraging new writers, but they have to understand the hurdles they will have to jump to make it.
A good agent, even a truly rotten agent, will not see past a manuscript that has poor grammar, syntax, spelling and punctuation. Agents and publishers, as I have heard directly from people in the industry, are looking for reasons to reject rather than accept. To those not familiar with the industry, it may seem harsh that an agent will dismiss a story without reading it properly because of a few technical glitches. There are, however, very good reasons for this.
Firstly, agents and publishers are overwhelmed with submissions. Have a look around the various websites to see how many are actually even accepting proposals. Many close their submissions process for long periods just to give themselves a chance to wade through the massive slush pile. Consequently, if they see an excuse to cut down on the backlog, they will take it. If a writer hasn’t taken the time to master the most basic elements of his or her craft, upon which everything else is built, then how can an agent be expected to assume that the writer can handle more complex elements such as plot development, characterisation, pacing, theme development and so on? A writer may have imagination and great ideas, but this alone doesn’t make a great story. Imagine an architect who can’t draw or a carpenter who can’t create a smooth join. The conception is irrelevant if the execution is poor.
Secondly, somebody is going to have to fix these basic errors before the book goes to a publisher and ultimately to print. Who is going to do that? The writer who didn’t realise these mistakes were there in the first place? Unlikely. The agent would either have to edit the manuscript, which no reputable agent will do (although there will be those who charge a fee for that, whom you should avoid), or go through the manuscript and point out all of these mistakes and then trust that the writer would be capable of fixing them. This would take time that no agent has to spend.
If you are serious about making it as a writer, you have to make sure you know your nuts and bolts, and you have to make absolutely sure your manuscript is beyond reproach in these terms in order to let your story shine through. If you don’t feel you are capable of this, then hire a good editor before you send your manuscript anywhere. Without such steps, you don’t stand a chance in an industry that is growing tougher to break into every year.