For the last couple of days I’ve been reading an extremely long manuscript by an aspiring author. It’s absolutely full of basic errors in punctuation, syntax and vocabulary. One of the biggest howlers was when the author meant to write etcetera but actually wrote excreta instead.
Reading something like this, I understand why some agents have a reputation for being grumpy and unapproachable. Why would anyone think they could send out a manuscript so full of errors? I suppose there are only two reasons. Either they don’t see the mistakes or they don’t think they matter. Either way I’m reminded of something the best-selling author Ken Follett wrote.
Most writers I know are interested in obscure questions of spelling and grammar. For example, is there a difference in meaning between "each other" and "one another"? Some people say that "each other" should be used where just two people are involved and "one another" for three or more. Copyeditors may correct a writer who fails to follow this rule. But some authorities maintain there is no difference, and certainly ordinary speech does not distinguish between the two.
Are you thinking this is a perfectly trivial question? If so, you probably aren't going to be a professional writer. Words are our tools, and subtle distinctions are important even if readers are not consciously aware of them. When I first came across this business about "each other" and one another" I was mildly panicked at the thought that I might have been misusing these phrases all my life.
Writers are generally fascinated by puns, word games, variant spellings, regional dialects, forms of pidgin English, new coinages, and everything to do with the language they use. In the same way painters are usually fascinated by the way light falls on surfaces and changes the way things look. You'll never be a writer if you don't love the language you use.
Mr Follett wrote this in the introduction to a book called Writing The Blockbuster Novel. Now I don’t actually aspire to write a blockbuster novel myself but I do agree that if you’re not fascinated by language, maybe you shouldn’t be trying to become a writer. After all, there are plenty of other ways to express yourself.
Writing a novel is not a simple matter. So many people seem to think that it’s all about coming up with a great story. But it isn’t. Of course you do need a great story but it’s the way you tell it that counts – the language that you use. Get it right and agents will not hesitate to sign you up, editors will gladly wave contracts in front of your nose, foreign publishers will bid for the rights to your book, etcetera. But get it wrong and your manuscript is just a great big pile of excreta.