by Dr. Diana Stout
Over the years, I’ve heard writers say, “I don’t need to learn grammar and punctuation. That’s why I have an editor.” When one student discovered he’d be editing his writing, he said, “I’ll be handing my correspondence to my secretary. She can fix my mistakes.” While he got a laugh from his peers, the problem with these kinds of responses is that these individuals don’t understand how they’re handicapping themselves by having to rely on others for a skill they could easily learn.
Before the internet and indie publishing, publishing houses had staff editors who would perform both developmental and line-editing, then submit galley (printed typeset) pages to the author who would perform a last read and approve the pages.
Today, the publishing landscape is entirely different. Because of rising costs, publishing houses are reducing staff numbers. Consequently, publishers want polished manuscripts, not drafts that require a hefty fix.
Recently, I heard an agent tell a group of writers that writers need to learn how to become self-editors or hire someone to do their editing before submitting to an agent or publisher. The explanation was that publishing houses don’t have editors to do the line editing anymore; they’re hiring it out. That a book could be rejected based on how much editing is required before it becomes publishable—meaning how much money will the house have to invest?
Should a writer go the indie route of self-publishing, they will still want to learn self-editing skills or hire the editing out. Many readers won't read books that have errors throughout.
So, why do writers balk at learning how to become better self-editors? The reasons I’ve heard are:
First, you want to know the why behind these rules. If you don't know the why, the rules will make little sense and won't be remembered.
Second, the rules don’t apply to all writings, something we were not taught in high school. In school, we learned basic grammar and punctuation rules, which prepared us for business writing in the workforce and for academic writing in college.
Third, the rules for any writing depend on its genre, point of view, style, audience, and author voice. While some definitive rules cross all these thresholds, there aren't that many, truthfully.
Business writing is as different from nonfiction as is from fiction, where rules are frequently broken. The problem is that those broken rules shouldn't be applied to most nonfiction and not in business writing to agents, editors, and publishers.
Business writing is about query letters, résumés, business letters, and other business correspondence, such as synopses, proposals, and treatments. Often, these documents can receive a yes or no based on how polished they are.
Nonfiction rules depend on the genre: memoir, how-to, newspaper, white paper, academic paper… Each type of nonfiction has its own rules, style, and standards.
In fiction, rules are broken all the time. Some authors don’t use quotation marks. Others use short, choppy sentences. Others use long, flowery paragraphs without commas that can be a page long. In fiction, it’s about the author’s style choice and their voice. That said, if the author is being traditionally published, they are obligated to follow the publishing house’s style standard, even if the house is incorrect regarding a traditionally known rule.
It isn’t necessary to recite the terminology as you did in high school; it’s more important to know the why behind the rules. To be honest, I’ve forgotten some of the terminology, but I know where to find the correct term if needed: in my old high school English book or any pocket-style handbook assigned to most college freshman composition classes.
My favorite handbook was authored by Diana Hacker. If there’s a local college near you, check out its bookstore. You don’t have to be a student to buy books there. If you buy used online, be sure to get a recent edition. While most grammar and punctuation rules haven't changed over time, the style guides (APA, MLA, and Chicago) do.
One of the best online sites is Purdue's OWL's online writing center. Here's their site map: https://owl.purdue.edu/site_map.html
If you're interested in self-editing, you'll want to understand basic grammar and punctuation, which includes helping verbs, the timeline of tenses, the difference between telling and showing, the difference between passive and active writing, how to eliminate wordiness, and a few other key elements.
I discovered the more tricks I created for various rules, the easier it became to apply them. I’m all about sharing and teaching these tricks and shortcuts with other writers.
Learning how to become a better self-editor is a key element in learning the craft of writing. I used to tell my students that if they could master just those few rules I listed above, they'd become better writers. By mid-semester, they were amazed at what a difference learning a few self-editing rules made in their writing.
Yes, learning and applying the rules will feel hard at first. Writing is hard, just like when one first learns how to play ball or play a musical instrument. Over time and with practiced learning, self-editing skills become easy and automatic.
Writing that first draft is like throwing clay (words) on the wheel (page). It’s the spinning (rewriting) of the wheel as the potter’s (writer’s) hands turn the clay (manuscript) into a worthy finished product where craft shines.
So, the earlier statement of Why you should want to become a self-editor becomes a question of Why wouldn’t you want to become a better writer?
Do you struggle with self-editing, especially with grammar and punctuation? If not, how did you learn that skill?
Dr. Stout is teaching a Master Class, Punctuation and Grammar Made Easy, in January 2024, with limited seating. If interested, sign up now!
She's an award-winning writer in multiple genres as a screenwriter and author. Also, she's a blogger, writing coach, and former English professor of writing classes who enjoys helping other writers. Learn more about Dr. Stout via her website, Sharpened Pencils Productions.
Top Image from Diana Stout, purchased via Depositphotos.
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