Back in grade school English class, I used to love grammar lessons—nerdy, I know. To me, they were a breeze because you typically have an example sentence at the top of the worksheet and then just have to repeat the rule over and over. With all due respect, I can’t understand how anyone could flunk those assignments.
Once you commence your independent journey into the literary world, you discover how much you really retained from those lessons. Admittedly, I disappointed myself in the first draft I ever wrote because of all the sloppy mistakes I made…and just a couple of years after I graduated with honors! Yes, repetition for effect only gets you so far—especially if you don’t know the difference between effect and affect.
More than that, my time in the publishing industry has taught me something that would make any English teacher grind his/her teeth: Grammar is often subjective. As kids, we’re told grammar rules are clean-cut rules, and that’s why those trusty worksheets are so easy to polish off. At the professional level, however, the waters get a bit murky, as editors and companies vary in their standards.
The first time I worked with an editor, it didn’t take me long to catch on to this fact. In school, I learned commas should be placed between independent clauses; this editor liked her commas, though, and scattered them liberally. As a newbie without college experience, I wasn’t about to dispute it and accepted it as the new normal. After working with her, I tried to emulate her style and even persuaded my writing coach, who’s an English teacher, not to worry about the excess commas.
Well, that strategy worked out…until I met up with my next editor. She took out the commas I intentionally put in to look cool and proved to have her own criteria—some of which seemed natural to me and some of which didn’t. Nonetheless, I adopted her ways, beginning to realize the process is like transitioning from one teacher to another. During the past year-and-a-half, I observed that more than ever, as I’ve collaborated with two different editors from the same company, who each manifested their unique preferences.
So, then, does this mean our grammar skills don’t matter and that it’s just a game of editor roulette? Not at all. If you submit a piece with bad grammar, you can expect a rejection. It distracts from the story, and editors aren’t there to correct mistakes the way a teacher would. You should absolutely put your best foot forward, using those classic grammar techniques, and get help from a qualified proofreader or copy-editor.
At the same time, you need to be ready to compromise and pivot. If you earn an editor’s favor and an acceptance letter, your editor has already championed your book, so they deserve your cooperation. Even if some of their tips don’t mesh with your style or seem downright silly, make the adjustment and be open to learning something new.
Writing may appear black and white—after all, we are typing on a black and white page—but like so many other aspects of life, it isn’t. Opinions vary and circumstances change, and regardless of background, we always have something to learn. Thus, don’t squander your chance at success by resisting instruction just because it runs counter to your long-standing methods. Accommodating an editor’s taste may prompt you to make a scene better than you first envisioned…perhaps after some internal whining and groaning!
Editors: A One-Person Jury or a Friendly Doorman to the World of Readers?