December 12, 2008

Personal essay: Grinding the gears -- the mechanics of language.

This autumn, I was invited by the publishing company HarperCollins UK to be an occasional guest contributor to the official blog for their online experiment authonomy, which Americans can think of as a "Project Greenlight" for books -- writers are encouraged to upload their unsigned novels, at which point they are read and rated by other unsigned writers, with the top-ranking books each month getting "kicked upstairs" to actual HarperCollins editors. Even better, they've graciously given me permission to reprint the essays here at the CCLaP site a few days later. Below is the latest; and you can find all the rest if you want at the main personal essay master list here at the site.

- x -

Grinding the Gears: The mechanics of language

Although I often talk here about the more transient elements of what makes a mainstream book successful -- its commercial appeal, its contemporary hotness -- it's also a fact that no book will ever be a mainstream hit without first having a mastery over the fundamental mechanics of writing itself -- grammar, spelling, punctuation, paragraph structure and the like. It's the crappy, arcane part of creative writing, the part no novelist in the history of time has ever particularly liked, yet let's not forget why it's still such an important first step of any good manuscript; because just like any other artistic medium, language is merely a "code" that artists use to inadequately express infinitely more complex emotions and moods to their audience, and like any code this only works by the people on both ends agreeing on what the codewords mean. It's important as a writer that when you mention a "gloomy day," your audience members almost instantly form a picture in their heads similar to what you imagined; and because of the way language works, this quick cognitive translation (from words to images and emotions) is simply hampered when instead writing "glommy day" or "day gloomy" or "Gloomy? Day!"

But as English speakers, this brings up a fascinating fact for us; that unlike French, say, the English language has no official governing board concerning its usage, no "Supreme Court of Language" declaring from a mount on high on how that language should "officially" be used. Of course, fans of English will say that this is precisely what makes it so particularly great for creative writing -- because words can be simply made up when needed, given new definitions on the fly, used ambiguously for poetic effect -- but it also means that there is no one definitive source one can turn to with English, to get an all-time closed-case answer to any particular language question. Take for example a letter I recently got from a fellow authonomy member, asking for my take on the question of proper pronoun usage when not knowing the gender of the person in question (so for example, "If a writer wants, [he or she] can always contact a publisher directly"). And the truth is that I've heard all kinds of "rules" over the years concerning what is "proper" in this situation:

--When growing up in the 1970s, for example, I was still taught that the male pronoun should always be deferred to as an arbitrary rule, and I'm sure there's still some older holdouts to this sexist option out there;

--And then I also see lots of people use the full "he or she," although that's a wordy option that sorta defeats the purpose of using a pronoun in the first place;

--Then there's the option I often use, the already gender-neutral "they" or "theirs;" but that has its own problems, in that those terms are normally used only to refer to multiple people, used here awkwardly to refer to a single person in the abstract;

--And then there are old-skool grammarians who teach that the correct option is "one" -- as in, "When one is dining with the Queen, one should always avoid placing one's elbows on the table;"

--And then on the opposite spectrum, there are the experimentalists who think we should simply make up a new term altogether to reflect this modern situation, something like "hir" -- which sounds silly at first, until you realize that so did "Ms." when first introduced to the general culture almost four decades ago;

--And then there are the growing amount of young progressives who simply trade off on either "he" or "she" every other time the situation arises, or sometimes simply use "she" all the time to make a political point; i.e. "Hey, guys, see how you like being referred to by the wrong gender all the time. Ain't so great, is it?"

So what's the correct answer to these kinds of subjects, as well as such always-arising new topics such as whether or not to capitalize the term "internet?" Well, in English, it's essentially boiled down over history to a number of competing private organizations, ones that stand up in public and declare themselves experts on language, who publish publically-sold guides to their rules and then in classic capitalist manner compete for public respect and adoption of these guides. I grew up in America, for example, so can only speak for American examples of this (and Brits, I encourage you to list UK examples in the comments below); but among the dozen most popular guides here in the US, the two market leaders include the "AP Stylebook" (created by the Associated Press) and the "Chicago Manual of Style" (created by the University of Chicago), both of them big thick books that have each sold millions and millions of copies, that each essentially say, "Here's how we think is the proper way to write English." And since in reality such competing guidebooks actually agree with each other 95 percent of the time, this is how we effectively create a national consensus concerning 95 percent of how English works. And that's also why there are "UK" and "American" forms of English, and occasional differences between them, despite not a single government employee in history actually ever sitting down one day and declaring, "Right, you people over there will spell it 'colour,' and you over there 'color.'"

Your job as a writer, then, is simply to pick one of these guides and then stick with it; and even when you're just making up your own rules (appropriate more often than you might think), still the most important aspect is to simply pick an option then stay consistent. For example, ever since I was 22 or so and first made the decision, I've dealt with numbers the same exact way in every single thing I've ever written -- I always spell out zero through nineteen, always use numbers for 20 and over, despite there being all kinds of different ways to "properly" handle the matter. Never forget, it's increased comprehension you're seeking with your audience by adhering to these rules; by making the codewords as standardized as possible, the actual act of de-codification tends to disappear in the reader's mind during the physical act of reading, leaving them free to simply ponder the story being told and the complex emotions being conveyed. Each typo in a manuscript brings a halt to this comprehension, requires a reader to stop for another half-second and ask themselves, "When the author says 'wold' here, did they really mean 'would' or 'wood?'" And that's like being in a car with a driver who is constantly slamming on the gas then slamming on the brakes, slamming on the gas and slamming on the brakes; it'll no doubt get you to your destination eventually, but it certainly won't be a pleasant ride.

"Well, that's all fine and good," I hear you saying, "but isn't this part of an editor's job, to clean up such problems before the manuscript is actually printed? Isn't that why they call them 'editors?'" Just how much do such mechanics of language influence what an editor thinks of an unsigned book, anyway, and whether or not to sign it? That's yet another question I was recently asked by a fellow authonomy member, and frankly I didn't know the answer; so I turned to our friends over at HarperCollinsUK themselves, the editors in their London office who actually review the top five manuscripts determined here at authonomy each month*. Their responses were inconsistent, too, which I found surprising and interesting; here's a collection of quotes I heard, listed anonymously...

"I have to say it really does make a big difference and can often put me off completely. If the idea is very sound I’d probably overlook a few errors, but if it’s poorly presented and littered with typos I’d feel that the person hadn’t taken the time to read through it before they sent it, and I’d worry about their ability to write a whole book."

"Bad spelling, grammar and sloppy mistakes definitely put me off -- if the author is willing to send me something sloppy then I would question their commitment to what they're submitting. If they can't be professional about the way that they submit a proposal then I would be concerned that this would also reflect in their delivery and general attitude throughout the editorial process."

"I would say that small spelling mistakes etc. don't really matter in a book as long as you can get a good feel for the narrative voice. However, it doesn't take much to run a spell check on a piece of work and mistakes could be symptomatic of an author who dashes work off rather than carefully considering the words on the page. It's interesting that all the submissions we get from agents have spelling and grammatical errors fixed -- you can usually spot an unsolicited MS from these errors being left in the text."

"To me it does matter, undoubtedly. Small errors here and there obviously don't -- everyone makes typos -- but a general sloppiness does. I think it's mainly a question of good sense and good manners; good sense because every editor has an enormous pile of manuscripts on their desk all the time, and one that is annoying to read because of lots of easily avoidable errors isn't going to endear you to the book, and good manners because otherwise you're asking the editor to do work that you should have done."

"I think obvious typos and the occasional spelling are okay -- we all make them. Even ms submitted by agents contain the odd mistake. But if a ms has poor grammer and sloppy mistakes throughout and this also is evident in the submission letter, the author would have to be outstandingly talented for it not to annoy and influence. It does not have to be perfect, but it should be of a certain standard."

So in other words, some of these editors aren't that bothered by typos and some of them are; but every single one of them, though, are more and more impressed by better and better manuscripts. And in a highly competitive arena like mainstream novels, you need every tiny little advantage you can get; so let this serve as an important one, of how much such piddly little topics as spelling and grammar really do matter, precisely because they're piddly little maddening subjects that no writer wants to deal with. Until you can afford your own entire personal editing team -- no doubt toiling away in the charming seaside Victorian mansion you converted into an office for your sprawling literary empire, paid for from the first dozen bestsellers of your ouevre -- until that moment, the onus of a well-formatted manuscript falls on your shoulders and yours alone. Even if it's a tiny bit**, writers owe it to their own careers to become as much of masters over the English language as possible, not only for producing more professional manuscripts but just for becoming better writers in general.

As always, I encourage you to leave your own thoughts on these subjects in the comments below; and if you have something specific you'd like to see me address here in the future, by all means drop me a line directly at ilikejason[at] Happy reading!

*Thanks to Laura, by the way, my liaison at HC, for helping me gather these opinions from their London editors.

**And by the way, here's a fast and dirty tip regarding all this stuff, that works great but that you will never want to admit to others: start by picking up one of these stylebooks, so you can look up questions whenever you have them (is "governor" capitalized or not?); then actually reteach yourself the basics of language again, literally by picking up a school textbook at a garage sale or used bookstore, or reading a guide online written specifically for kids. It's a great but secretly guilty way to get reacquainted with all those arcane concepts you haven't thought of since you were a child.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 12:46 PM, December 12, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction |