My Grammar Handicap

Once, long ago, I ran into an old high school English teacher at a cocktail party. She was thrilled to see me and wanted to spend some time just catching up and, of course, she wanted to pitch her book to me.

The first thing this English teacher asked when we finally had the chance to sit down and talk was how I could have become a book editor when I was so horrible at grammar in high school. Yes, I’ll admit, I was one of those students who regularly got A’s on my writing assignments, but D’s on the grammar portion. Of course high school had been years ago and I didn’t think it was necessary for her to bring it up, but that’s a rant for another time.

What I had to explain to this teacher and what I should explain to you is that there are many different types of editors in all aspects of publishing (book, magazine, newspaper, etc.) and each of these editors has a very specific job. An assignment editor at newspapers and magazines, for example, is responsible for keeping up on news and issues and assigning reporters to the stories they’ll be writing. An assignment editor will often read the story overall to make sure the writer is headed in the right direction and to edit for content. It’s the copy desk and copy editors, however, who have the job of creating the headline to go with the story and editing for grammar and punctuation.

Book publishing is not much different. When I was an editor I was an acquisitions editor, which means my job was to acquire books for the publishing house and edit for story, not for technical issues. That meant working with the author on overall big-picture issues and writing major revision letters. It was the copy editor whose job was to make sure the typos were fixed, the commas were in the right places, and the grammar was what it should be.

I love my job as an agent and I still stay true to many of my acquisitions roots. In other words, I work closely with many of my authors on those big-picture issues and write a number of revision letters. I know my limitations, however, and I leave the real grammar issues to those much more grammar-wise than me.

Jessica

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29 comments

  1. Now that's a unique way to grab an agent's attention: Remind her how she used to split her infinitives. Probably made you want to jump right into her manuscript…

  2. In defense of your former English teacher, at least she remembered you–and your grammar challenges. Years after high school, I called a former Spanish teacher to apologize for my bad behavior in her class. "That's all right, dear," she said. "I had so many misbehaving students that I honestly don't remember you. I'm sorry."

  3. Great post. I was lucky enough to get a YA book published. I remember asking my then editor a couple of grammar questions — a capitalization of a particular place mentioned throughout the ms, and some semicolon issues. She said point blank that she didn't know and I'd have to wait "until the copyeditor edited it."

    To this day I don't know if it's proper grammar to use semicolons in dialouge. Can characters speak in semicolons in dialouge??. The copyeditor changed one and not the others. 🙂

  4. Thank you!

    I am grammar "handi-capped" as well, and I might as well admit to my spelling disability at the same time.

    This post makes me feel much better, sometimes it's embarrassing when you're trying to put yourself forth as a writer, and you put commas in all the wrong places, and can't tell affect from effect. (I still can't. Even with your post the other week. I give up. 🙂

  5. Jessica,

    On behalf of English teachers everywhere: sorry about that.

    It's an occupational hazard–we all think we can write the Next Great Novel, when most of us are just kickass copyeditors, not novelists.

    With a few exceptions, of course. 😉

  6. I am also grammar handicapped, no matter how many classes I take. 😛 Thankfully, that's what my fellow critique group members are for. They often find the errors and help me figure out how to change them. 🙂

  7. Regarding grammar–there are times when you WANT it wrong, and dialog is one of them. I recently had copy edits done on a 500 page manuscript where the copy editor went through and changed ALL my character's dialog into grammatically correct sentences.

    It was a nightmare, going back and changing her changes to reflect the way my characters actually are supposed to sound. I went through two packages of post it notes, marking each spot where I had to "stet" (allow to stand as written) one of the CE's corrections…and then I took a picture of the manuscript, fluttering with post its, and sent it to my editor, warning her what was coming.

    Luckily, all of my work in that book was allowed to stand as written and I've been promised I won't have that particular CE again. It's important for our characters to have their own voices, and those voices and their manner of speech should fit the story, not necessarily rules of grammar.

  8. I have the challenge of teaching my 4th graders grammar.

    Let's just say we're doing good to see a capitalized I.

    Although grammar has come far. I don't know if any of you have heard of him, but Jeff Anderson has several books out that teach grammar in a whole new way. He's pretty much brilliant.

    I'm no grammar expert, but compared to some of the emails I receive from parents…I can see that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

  9. I completely understand the difference between the "big picture" approach and knowing the finer details of grammar. I keep a style guide next to me when I write, and look things up when I'm not sure. There's just not room in my brain to hold all the rules of grammar.

    I can't imagine trying to pitch my book to an agent at a cocktail party. That seems too aggressive and rude–or is it considered "promotion" nowadays?

  10. Oh, Kate. I've heard of stories like yours. That would have been painful.
    I also have problems with grammar, and have read many books on the subject, but those words are all forgotten when my fingers are flying across the keyboard. Last week I ordered a 24 lesson CD from a study course given by an English Prof. It's called Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer's Craft. I can't wait for it to arrive; maybe today with any luck. I'm excited to tackle the course material.

  11. I'm not so much on the grammar technicalities as I am the big juicy plot and characters. Don't ask me what a gerund or an infinitive is. Who cares? I go by what looks right and leave the editing to better eyes/brains than mine.

  12. Don't forget the poor line editor who does most of that nitty-gritty. My grammar is fine, but I think it's much more interesting and important to first look at the big picture, and to point out weak areas in the overall story, not just in one sentence. I found that out the hard way when I worked as a magazine editor and got so bored crossing T's and dotting I's!

  13. I'm relieved to know I'm not the only one. I once broke down and bought a grammar how-to aimed at kids. Surprisingly the one subject that helped me understand grammar better was my Linguistics course. For some reason my brain accepts relationships between words than a rule and a following example and/or correction. 'Cause trust me I've read A LOT of grammar books and all I can remember about affect and effect is that one of them is a verb.

  14. Dave, (anon 12.01)glad you asked. I forgot to leave a link for anyone else who might be interested. The course is through The Great Courses (I've take others before) or otherwise known as The Teaching Company.
    http://www.TEACH12.com
    The package arrived today by Fedex and I couldn't help myself. Slit that box open and put the CD into the changer and took the first course before leaving for my bookclub. It was titled, A Sequence of Words, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Professor Brooks Landon has a great voice (I think this is paramount when taking a class online)he doesn't patronize, his voice doesn't put you to sleep, and the subject matter is presented in a way that stimulates thought. Also, it's just like being in class. There he is on the screen behind the lectern, talking, smiling, using his hands to demonstrate a thought and very engaging. What else can you ask for, eh?
    Next up, Grammar and Rhetoric.

  15. Terrible grammar I has, yes. Lol. Sorry, couldn't help the Yoda reference. But, what I'm really wondering is: Was her pitch at least grammatically correct?

  16. Jessica, your editorial leanings are exactly what I need! I wish my book were the type of thing you represented!

    I AM an English teacher, and my grammar skills (or so I think), are just fine! (When I teach, by the way, what matters most to me when my students are writing is that they WRITE – we deal with the errors and how to solve them as part of the process, but I don’t ever want to discourage them from creating by going straight to the nitpicking).

    I managed to secure an agent with my manuscript, and though we are now parting ways for a multitude of reasons (most of them more serious than editing issues), I guess I had found myself surprised by the idea that not all agents were “editorial” – a term coined to me by this particular agent, when, on more than one occasion, I expressed a desire for “notes”, or at least one editing pass before pitching to houses. He explained to me that my writing was so strong he did not see it as necessary. (No, I did not blindly accept that as a compliment, I was just too green to push the issue, as he had already answered my request with a ‘no’.) Indeed, many an editor expressed an enjoyment for my way with words, but some also let it be known that they had issues with the “flow”, so I again approached this agent to ask if he would take the time to “edit for story” – as you put it, Jessica. I was concerned that this could be the thing that prevented me from garnering a deal. Finally, his response, in a one line e-mail was, “I am not an editorial agent”.

    I will be very happy if/when I finally secure a deal to see all the little grammatical and punctuation errors that are caught by a meticulous copyeditor, but in order to get a deal, I know that the agent who would be best for me is one who is happy to go at my manu with a red pen and mercilessly ask me to remove, rearrange and re-write things. I can only presume that a great agent comes with the expertise of knowing how to make my work the best it can be, and knows what the editors he/she is pitching to will best respond to.

    So, as I make the journey up the “querying hill” all over again, the good news is that experiencing nearly a year with an agent who rarely communicated, chose to offer no editing advice, and (almost admittedly) really put a lackluster effort into trying to sell my book, I know EXACTLY what I would love to see in a new agent! One of those lines on my little checklist has to be “editorial agent”.

  17. Great post. Reading your Twitter, I have to admit it sometimes rubs me the wrong way seeing you confuse "then" and "than" and making other such commonplace mistakes. This explanation however tells me you're aware of it and I think I can follow your Twitter stream with less aggravation now (even though my copy editor soul screams every time I see a typo – including my own!)

    We all have limitations, and to find ways to work around them and focus on what we do WELL is one of life's big challenges. =)

  18. It's always funny to me how people make assumptions based on your job title or where you work. I've been in marketing for most of my adult life, and some of my past employers have included a healthcare system, a photo studio franchise, and an international translation firm. Even when people saw my job title was in marketing, they automatically assumed I was a nurse, a photographer, or a translator (respectively) at each of those companies. Go figure.

    It's great that your teacher remembered you. I'm curious if you ended up reading her manuscript?!?

    Tawna

  19. This is a very cool article. I have had the opportunity to be both copy editor, when I first entered the book publishing industry, and now as a developmental editor. I've found that even in copyediting one must be flexible with grammar and style based on the genre and audience. If you can't edit within those context, don't do it. Grammar is suppose to encourage and protect readability and relatability, not sterilize it and make it sound too different than the way the intended audience communicates.

    Grammar rules provide boundaries; yet, they are not concrete. An editor can ruin a beautiful narrative or dialogue trying to stick strictly to grammar rules.

    I often leave notes in the manuscript for the copy editors to let them know when something should be left as is for effect, tone, or voice of the author. I don't want to make a manuscript suite my personal tastes and preferences. I want to make it standout as coming from this particular author.

    And then, even the most stringent copy editor makes mistakes or misses something. So a little fluidity when applying and promoting grammar rules can enhance teamwork and reduce irritation (and judgmentalism) between editor and writer.

    I always like to create a team environment around the projects I edit: writer, editor, copy editor, and even production. We can go so much further with respecting each one's position and expertise. Even more, the editor is there to serve the writer and propel his/her message to the widest audience and in the way the best represents the author. Grammar is only one element in all this.

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