“And what do you do for a living, Mrs. Ide?” The physician’s assistant poised his fingers over the keyboard, ready to type my answer in the New Patient form.
“I’m an author and editor.”
His bored expression transformed into one of keen interest. With a sparkle in his eyes, he said, “You know …”
Oh, yes, I knew what he was about to say. I’d heard the same response countless times when people learned of my profession.
“I’ve always wanted to write a book. But I’ve never been very good at spelling and grammar and all that stuff.”
I nodded. “You know, I’ve always wanted to be a surgeon. But I’ve never been very good at biology and anatomy and all that stuff.” Oh, how I wanted to say that. But I held my tongue and simply smiled.
Many people want to write a book—or at least they think they do. What most people really want is to have written a book. They don’t realize all the time, effort, and hard work that goes into such an endeavor.
These days, it’s easier than ever to get a book published. Self-publishing, subsidy publishing, e-book publishing. Anyone can write just about anything and get it in print or on a mobile device with a little investment of time and money.
But if you want people (besides your family and friends) to buy your book, to pay for what you’ve written, you have to do it well. Really well.
There are many ways to learn professional writing techniques. Read books on how to write. Take classes, courses, workshops, seminars. Attend writers’ conferences. Work with a critique partner or group. Hire a professional editor/mentor.
But once you’ve learned how to write well, you’ll be ready to confidently send your manuscript to a subsidy publisher or submit it to an agent or commercial publisher … right?
Before you submit that piece you’ve worked so hard on, it’s important to give it a final polish. To catch all those annoying typos that slipped in while you were creating your masterpiece. To make sure all the formatting is consistent. That the sentences are punctuated correctly, the grammar is accurate, and the words are spelled right and used right.
“Why bother with that sort of thing?” you may ask. “As long as readers know what I mean, does it really matter whether there’s a typo here and there, a comma in the wrong place, or a few words misspelled?”
Yeah. It does.
Acquisitions editors receive so many manuscripts from so many authors these days, they can afford to reject them for the most minuscule reasons. And one of the top pet peeves of editors from major publishing houses is sloppy manuscripts full of errors.
Why make such a big deal out of the little things? Because if there are too many mistakes in a book, the message in that nonfiction, or the story of that novel, may get lost or even misunderstood. A misspelled word, misused word, or missing word—or even a comma in the wrong place—can change the entire meaning of a sentence. And readers today have so many options, it’s easier than ever to simply stop reading one book and move on to another if there are too many annoying errors. Which means that a book with mistakes in it won’t sell as well as one that has been carefully proofread.
So get a good basic grammar book and study it. Find out which style books are used by the publishers you want to submit your writing to and learn the punctuation rules. Look up every word you’re not 100 percent sure of the spelling for—in the dictionary used by the publishers you want to submit to—and read the definition and part of speech to make sure you’ve got the right spelling for that usage.
Before you submit anything to an agent or a publisher, check it carefully for typos, inconsistencies, and inaccuracies. Run spell-check, but don’t rely on it. All too often, a mistyped word is a correctly spelled word, just not the right one. If you use numerals for chapter numbers, make sure you don’t have any chapter numbers spelled out. If you choose to capitalize pronouns for deity, check carefully for any lowercased ones (except for who/whose/whom—those should not be capitalized). Research everything in your manuscript. If you’ve stated facts or presented statistics, make sure you’ve quoted them accurately and properly cited the original sources.
If you want to be a surgeon, study anatomy and biology. If you want to be a writer, learn how to properly use the tools of your trade.
And after you’ve gone through your manuscript with a magnifying glass, ask (or hire) someone else to check for mistakes you may have missed.
Carefully proofreading your manuscript won’t guarantee that your manuscript will be accepted by a major commercial publisher or that your book will end up on a best-seller list. But if you proofread carefully, you’ll be one step closer to whatever type of “success” God has in mind for your writing.
Kathy Ide is a professional freelance editor who speaks at writers’ conferences across the country. She is the author of Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors (Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, January 2014). Kathy is also the founder and director of two organizations for editorial freelancers: The Christian PEN: Proofreaders and Editors Network and the Christian Editor Network. Find out more about Kathy on her website.
WRITER’S TIPS is a weekly column for Christian communicators with tips and information about various aspects of writing. Our panel of experts are published authors and publishing industry professionals.