Erin here again today, while Chip is sunning himself in Hawaii (and I’m still working on getting my own blog credentials so I can stop using Amanda’s.) Okay, listen: I have a superpower. Most agents do, actually. It’s not terribly useful unless you’re trying to decide whether or not to stake a large amount of time and energy on a person’s potential as a writer, but it comes in real handy in that situation. My superpower, which I share with many agents and editors, is this: I can pass judgement on a person’s writing after reading just a few pages. A few paragraphs, in some cases. Heck, I’ve read some opening sentences that have deterred me from reading any further (see Tuesday’s post for the discussion on effective opening lines), and generally, the criteria that make it easiest to say no to a project are recurring errors in how words are used or spelled and a complete “spray and pray” approach to punctuation (in which the author loads a machine gun with commas, apostrophes, and quotation marks, sprays the manuscript with them, and prays everything lands in approximately the right place). That doesn’t seem fair, the general public may cry, my writing gets really good in chapter two! Or, my story is so compelling, you won’t even notice the mistakes once you get hooked.
I got my degree in English. In case you don’t know, English majors basically do two things in college: read and write. This means that we not only become very familiar with the rules of grammar and mechanics that some of the rest of the world forgets after middle school, but we SEE those rules in action in book after assigned book, and the main result of that language-based education is an inability to read anything– books, cereal boxes, instruction manuals, the birth announcement for our best friend’s baby (“Its a boy?” Really?)– without an internal red pencil circling errors and crossing viciously through incorrect word usage. We can’t turn it off. And yes, we realize that your writing is more than your punctuation, and that a good story can be told with less than perfect grammar, but the problem for a lot of authors who query me is that I can’t get INTO that good story if usage errors and punctuation mistakes keep yanking me out.
Now, no one is perfect, obviously, and I understand making mistakes by accident, but when I read a manuscript with certain errors in it, the words tell me two things right off: 1. You’re not a member of a writing group, or if you are, you aren’t surrounded by very good writers, because if you were, they would have caught some of these errors. 2. You don’t read a lot– you haven’t developed your craft by reading extensively, because if you had, you would have unconsciously learned the correct usage for most of these words simply through seeing them used correctly time and again. Both of these are red flags when it comes to choosing whether or not to work with an author because they indicate that the author may not respond well to feedback (or think he needs it) and that the author hasn’t spent a lot of time getting to know good story and writing by READING good story and writing. That said, here are the first four of eight common usage errors that will instantly lower my opinion of you.
1. Should of/would of. I truly don’t understand how anyone ever decides this is correct. “Should” and “would” qualify verbs– I should DO something, she would DO something– and the contraction “should’ve” which sounds like “should of” is actually a contraction of that conditional “should have,” which either implies or is followed by an action, such as “should have run” or “would have answered.” It’s never, ever “should of.”
2. Lose/loose. I seriously doubt many people who confuse these in writing would have trouble defining “lose” or “loose” correctly if quizzed orally, but for some reason, a lot of people don’t seem to have the sound of each word paired mentally with the appropriate spelling. Long story short, “Loose” rhymes with “noose.” Memorize that.
3. Hear/here. I see this one all the time! “Hear” has an “ear” in it and references the sound processing you do with your EARS. “Here” is a location.
4. Who’s/whose. I know an apostrophe usually signals possession– her’s, John’s, etc.– but in this case, the apostrohphe marks a contraction. If you have trouble with keeping these two straight, always replace an “apostrophe s” with the word “is” and see if it still makes sense– “You are one who’s music I really love” vs. “You are one who is music I really love” doesn’t make any sense, so it must require the possessive, “whose.”
Those are the first four, and I’ll add to the list soon! But I want to ask… what are some of your mechanics/usage pet peeves? Do you think an agent is overreacting if they reject a manuscript after three or four of these issues show up?