Nathan Bransford, Author


Friday, February 2, 2007

Grammar: Do As I Says and Not As I Does

First off, thank you very much to the talented and amazing Miss Snark, who was kind enough to link to me today. I actually think Miss Snark is a tactical mastermind who uses the links to crush her competition under the ensuing deluge of queries, but I am proud to say that I am still alive and breathing after quite the busy morning. Luckily Miss Snark's readers seem to be as talented as she is, so it's been a pleasure reading everyone's queries.

A few of my more anal I mean astute readers have been kind enough to point out the poor grammar choices in my blog posts lately, and this of course has made me quite the sheepish agent because I so readily reject queries on the basis of said poor grammar. I'm a stickler for grammar, diction, and all those other topics that you should have been paying attention to when you were aiming a spidwad at the back of Suzy's head in elementary school. A misuse of its/it's or there/their/they're is enough to send me scurrying for the rejection button (I don't actually have a rejection button, but I like to imagine that I have a trap door like in cartoons that drops someone into the basement at the press of a button. And yes, these are the things I think about all day).

I liken grammar and diction and word choice to playing an instrument. No one can write a symphony without knowing how to play a note, and no one can write a great novel without a thorough and complete command of the English language. I think there's a misconception out there that if you just have a good story it's going to shine through and then a magical copyeditor will come along and correct everything. That's just not the way it works -- if you have grammatical mistakes or poor word choices in your query letter or your manuscript you're not going to make it very far. And if grammar and diction are not your strong suits then you might think twice about your expectations for success as a writer. I'm not saying you can't enjoy the process of writing and sharing it with your friends and family, but you're facing a major uphill climb if you want to be a published writer.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to the 7,278 queries that came in as I was writing this blog post. (I'm exaggerating. Barely.)






53 comments:

BernardL said...

I didn't see the link at Miss Snark until this afternoon. Although you'll probably be getting to my query around the end of the year, I've enjoyed reading your blog. I work across the Bay from you. I hope this immersion tactic with the link works out for you, instead of burning you out like a gas soaked match. :)

The magical copyeditor said...

I'm a stickler for grammar, diction, and all those other topics that you should have been paying attention to when you were aiming a spidwad at the back of Suzy's head in elementary school.

How 'bout spelling and checking your work? ;)

I liken grammar and diction and word choice to playing an instrument.

American Heritage Dictionary, diction, definition 1: "Choice and use of words in speech or writing."

So do you also suggest avoiding and shrinking from redundancy?

You seem like a nice guy. Welcome to the blogosphere!

Nathan Bransford said...

^You've won this round. But I'm more fun than you at parties. Or should I say FUNNER.

Anonymous said...

The its/it's, they're/their/there mistakes are mechanical errors, not grammatical errors.

Anonymous said...

Shouldn't there have been a question mark (?) at the end of this:

Or should I say FUNNER

I know. Don't tease the agent. :-)

Nathan Bransford said...

^That lack of question mark was intentional, believe it or not.

I need a nap. I think the Grammar Police just released a warrant for my arrest.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, it appears that the trolls who torment Kristin Nelson have a new target. Please chew them up and spit them out. It's nice to hang out in a boy's blog for a change (so many female agents you know.) Found you via Snark, who may not actually be human, let alone female.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Well, okay ... let's get this over with. Miss Snark sent me. I looked. One of my most common typos is "it's" for "its." I also forget and fall into "labour" for "labor" and "colour" for "color."

In the light of this post that appears to mean you're not the agent for me. However, I'd gladly consider other work from you in the future.

Do you like goats? I know the world's only goat-author. He's under-appreciated and in need of an agent.

Let me know ....

Best regards,

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies, Queen of Goats, Suzerain of Fairy.

Emmanuel Spartanburg said...

Albert Einstein was a notoriously bad speller. I'm sure no one refused to publish what he wrote because he couldn't spell.

It seems silly to reject an otherwise well written book because of a typo. Are you sure you're in the right trade?

cm allison said...

I also occasionally do typos and word reversal, which spell check does not always catch. Nor do my eyes always catch the errors on the third and fourth read. Another set of eyes can sometimes (thank goodness!) catch the errors, unless the reader is gulping down pages. Surely a typo would not put you off a potentially great ms? (I've caught typos in great books off the book-sellers shelf!)(And no, I would not be querying you as you do not rep what I write. Came over from MS like many others.)

Marva said...

Little does the world know that the equation is really e=nd(2). It changes everything. That's why my novel has FTL drives.

That's 'funnerer' by the way.

Good luck and welcome to blogging!

Amy said...

Nathan, I bet you are more fun at parties. I predict lots of success for you.

OzAl said...

I am a confirmed, dues-paid member of the Grammar Enforcement Consortium.

Anonymous the First: what do you mean by 'mechanical error'? Yes, those mistakes may at times be typos, but they aren't always. Some people simply do not know the rules that apply to its/it's.

Emmanuel S... perhaps you could think of a successful published example who was actually published as a novelist? Albert was indeed awesome, but few writers these days are pitching themselves as the next Einstein. I think we can all accept that expectations can be a little different for non-fiction writers.

If you think the basics shouldn't matter, try judging a few writing competitions. There is a huge difference between the odd typo, and consistently poor grammar/spelling.

And I'm afraid what you are thinking is true: I am no fun at parties. Rodeos, on the other hand...

the green ray said...

Nathan, you are a delight. If my book weren't being considered by someone else at your agency, I would query you in a minute. But just as well that I don't join the 7,000 plus.

Anonymous said...

Well, I AM a published writer and I have reasd plenty of stuff from those who are not, and I say bad writing, not bad grammar, should tilt the table.

Unfortunately, those people who can neither spell nor write a grammatical sentence also tend not to have anything much to say, or to say it well.

So you're right.

I was about to send you a proposal for a new best seller (20m copies guaranteed) but when I read you got 7000 queries - well, son, I decided to give you a break.

Anonymous said...

I will say one thing about it's\its and they're\there\their type mistakes.

It's one of those 'little known facts' about dyslexia, but some forms of dyslexia make it hard, if not impossible, to keep then\than, effect\affect, it's\its, there\their (though not they're, for some reason, at least in my own experience), etc. seperate. As a dyslexic\dysgraphic person, myself, I've had to locate editors willing to do the painstaking work of going through my writing and fixing all of those problems (and related issues, as well. Fortunately, when it comes to spelling, the worst mistakes I can't avoid are ie\ei problems). I know the rules, I just cannot apply them myself.

The problem with this is that my editors are members of my family, and I just don't trust them to be very good at catching these mistakes, themselves. So what am I to do?

littlebirdblue said...

The Panda says NO.

brian_ohio said...

I have trouble with the following:

lose or loose

I or eye

potato or tomato

after that... it's smooth sailing.

Mr. Bransford, I have yet another question. If a wonderful agent (like yourself) at Curtis Brown passed on a query, is it okay to query another agent within the agency(say Elizabeth Harding)?

Some agencies frown on that practice, other's seem okay with it.

And, please, you may use as much poor grammar in your response as you'd like:)

ORION said...

This post and the resultant comments made me snort my afternoon coffee all over my keyboard.
Constant poor grammar and syntax get in the way of telling a story every time. I totally agree with the anonymous that says, "...Bad grammar usually is paired with bad writing..."
Spot on.
I had so many beta readers go over my manuscript I thought I caught everything. I was horrified to find a couple your for you're mistakes after my full was sent.
Yikes!
My agent still signed me. The key was "a couple" not "a slew" (or gaggle).
And I knew what was correct.
I told her I needed "intention check" instead of "spell check."
When she laughed I knew she was the agent for me!

Nathan Bransford said...

Hey everyone -- I want to clarify something. One typo or grammatical error will not doom your query. Heck you can spell my name wrong and I could care less (it's a weird name, I know). What I'm talking about are more thorough mistakes throughout a letter.

So basically, don't even sweat it if you spell my name wrong or if you make a typo... not a big deal. Even a it's/its mistake is fine. But once it starts getting into two or three or four.... you may be going through my imaginary trap door.

Nathan Bransford said...

brian_ohio, once an agent at a agency has passed on your query it's fine to try with someone else, but I might wait a few months. You never know who is sharing whose assistants, and so it's always best to wait a few months so the agent doesn't feel like you're querying everyone under the sun at once.

Copyright 2006 by Carol Scibelli said...

Hi Nathan,
Found you through Miss Snark like so many others. I'm a recent (April) widow married over 30 years and in my fifties.
I'm a humor writer and naturally it is carrying me through this difficult time. Working to turn my blog into a book. I read your feelings about that, but the blog is more bare bones than the book will be and I at some point will no longer blog.
Any interest? Love the way you answer you comments by the way...
www.poorwidowme.blogspot.com

Nathan Bransford said...

Hi Carol, I would definitely appreciate a query, thanks for writing.

Bernita said...

M'dear, I do like your common sense attitude.

Bernita said...

Does your statement - way back in your archives - still hold true?
That you sign clients from referrals and have acquired only a couple of writers from queries?

Emmanuel Spartanburg said...

OzAl said...
Emmanuel S... perhaps you could think of a successful published example who was actually published as a novelist?

Norman Mailer: Bad Speller. Published Author, but dependant on copy editors.

Bryan D. Catherman said...

Mr. Brown (Just kidding. I thought that was a funny point from a previous post.) Mr. Bransford,

This is a great blog even with the occasional grammar choices. I don't know if I would've found this if not for Miss Snark; so if you get the chance, drop her a thank you. If you are thinking gifts, I hear she likes pink boas and pictures of some actor nobody's ever heard of. Thanks for sharing the insights of your business.

whitemouse said...

I actually think Miss Snark is a tactical mastermind who uses the links to crush her competition under the ensuing deluge of queries

Evil Editor called this the "post-Snark communique era". You appear to be weathering it very well, by the way. :-)

Arjay said...

It's spitwad not spidwad. What kind of school did you go to?

Nathan Bransford said...

bernita, yes, most of my clients have still come from referrals, although recently I found a client in the query pile, so that was exciting.

And spidwad is a typo, people. I was bugy maging spidwads in typifngf clasfs.

Alice said...

Strange--my FIRST thought (I would not lie to you, as I'm a lousy liar anyway) when I found your blog was that your grammar, syntax, and spelling were a hell of a lot better than those of most of the other blogging agents out there! So I was kind of stunned to read the comments here. WTF?

My second thought was, "Are you nuts?" What in the world would possess you to ASK that readers send you queries, especially when your only attempt to narrow the field is to say that you're looking for a good story? EVERYONE believes that he has a good story (and everyone jump off me for using "he" here--at least I didn't use "they"--so there).
The little computer screen in my head goes black every time I try to decide whether to use "that" or "which," by the way.

Roxan said...

I want to make a comment about Miss Snark, but as I'm trying to obtain an agent I would be best served by not doing so.
I never spell anything wrong. I just use the wrong word. I suffer from "comma deficiency" according to some and have been told I should sprinkle them liberally about.
I think your blogger hates me. Ha!

brian_ohio said...

Hey, thanks for taking the time to respond to my off-topic comment.

I queried you in August, then Elizabeth in late December after tweaking my manuscript and letter. I haven't heard back from Elizabeth yet, so here's what I need you to do... walk over to...

Kidding, of course.

Man... Miss Snark has a huge following, you're in trooouubbblle now.

Again, thanks for the info.

The Beautiful Schoolmarm said...

Don't feel too bad--I teach grammar and my blog often has typos and otherwise stupid misuses of the English language.

Anonymous said...

Emmanuel,

Einstein was a good speller in German, his native language.

Not that a physicist's spelling ability is relevant to whether authors need good grammar.

Word verification: Zzaoiyyd, the name of a character in "Hitchhiker's Guide."

Anonymous said...

Nathan, don't back down! We need a few more people who actually care about spelling, grammar, and diction, the very things writers are supposed to care about all on their own.

I'm sure you meant you COULDN'T care less if people spell your name wrong. (Really? That seems like a rather bad mistake to me.)

Also, I wasn't quite sure what to make of "more thorough mistakes throughout a letter." Do you mean "more mistakes" or perhaps "more egregious mistakes"? Diction, Nathan!

And finally, try: "...so the agent doesn't feel AS IF you're querying everyone under the sun at once."

Now I feel better! (Did I tell you I love you? I do!)

Nathan Bransford said...

Dear Chicago Manual of Style,

Hi. Thanks for writing. Big fan, and I'm so glad you stopped by the blog.

Chicago Manual of Style, did you happen to notice the part in my blog where I admit I make grammar mistakes? No? It's in there, I swear. You can stop pointing them out now.

Thanks again for stopping by! Say hi to Elements of Style for me!

Yours,
Nathan

Alice said...

You go, Nathan! I repeat: WTF? The man is approaching sainthood with this blog, and you're all going to drive him off right off the bat by subjecting him to this nitpicking crap? He lives in San Francisco. People actually see the virtue in being NICE there.

(By the way, Nathan, your sly little "internets" insert made me very happy.)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous the first, grammar is mechanics. People often use it to refer to lexicography, semantics, spelling, punctuation and anything at all they consider nitpicky, but the difference between they're and there is - wait for it - grammatical.

Grammar is the mechanics of a language, word order, endings, choice of tense, subjects, predicates, in short, how you put words together to make a coherent sentence and how to indicate the function of a word in a sentence.

Sha'el, labour and colour are mistakes?? I'll have to inform all of Canada and the UK... ;)

Nathan, yup, you've set yourself up, I'm afraid. But console yourself with the fact that Miss Snark makes mistakes rather regularly herself, as do many of the other blogging agents. I leave them alone because blogging is pretty spontaneous stuff and should not be judged with the same criteria as a manuscript.

So thanks for blogging and I for one am willing to forgive a few typos.

J

Anonymous said...

Nathan,
Sorry to hear that the vocal minority is giving you such a hard time on spelling, diction, and everything else. I think you might be the target of a little bit of revenge directed towards agents at large.

Of course, it is comparatively easy to manage the elements of style when you consider what it actually takes to create an original, interesting story. I'm pretty picky about typos, too, but I can differentiate those from substance.

Here's a funny thing--often there are still numerous typos in the revised editions of blockbuster books. Stephen King's THE STAND is one (there are at least 7 typos in that gigantic tome), and Orson Scott Card's ENDER'S GAME is another (there are at least 3 there). Still, both of those writers are rightly recognized as masters of their craft.

Focus, people! See the forest, not the trees!

ScaramoucheX said...

Oh please don't tell me you reject on the basis of grammar...!?! What if it were Joyce's 'Ulysess' you rejected, or 'On the Road', or 'Tropic of Capricorn' or 'Death on the Instalment Plan'?
Tell me it's the spirit of the work that catches you, and not the common logic of it...

What is happening to the world?

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Well, I hadn't intended to post further ... But I will to respond to Anon. who said: "Sha'el, labour and colour are mistakes?? I'll have to inform all of Canada and the UK..."

I didn't mean that "labour" and "colour" were misspellings. They are the word forms I was taught as a child. To me they are the best way to spell these words. They imply a sound, a way of pronunciation, with which I'm comfortable. But, they aren't standard American spellings. I was born in the USA, and I live in the American West. I have mixed feelings about giving up a long established way of spelling, and those spellings represent life-long habit for me.

I agree with Mr. Bransford to the extent that I believe good grammar is an essential for a writer. I also believe that the rules should be broken, just artfully so. A sentence fragment doesn't bother me if it contributes to the flow and is intentional. An intentional misspelling used as part of dialogue is okay too. As long as I can easily make sense of the dialogue, I'm not discomforted by that.

Someone mentioned dyslexia and similar conditions. It is true that dyslexia and certain neurological problems effect spelling. I have a neurological problem that does that. I also have a beta reader who is an English professor and who painstakingly reads and spots the errors I cannot see.

Mr. Bransford made his explanations. I'm not certain he has said what he meant to say, but I understand that he's pointing to the marks of semi-literacy as a disqualifier. One must be careful when assessing mechanical, grammatical and language errors. It is very hard to tell from spelling alone if you are dealing with a semi-literate person. Still, one can learn much from how a writer uses words. More can be learned from that than how a person spells.

When I was in my non-Pixie persona and lecturing, you may have been one of those attending. Hopefully, you attended because you wished to learn. And I believe you did not find me to be illiterate. However, in my last query letter I managed to use "tail" for "tale."

I know why I do that. I work hard to catch those things and have developed routines to circumvent the neurological problem behind them. Still, they slip through. The person I queried may have thought me illiterate.

I can't really speak for Mr. Bransford, but I believe what he meant was that he can tell a general level of competence by a query letter, including the spelling ability revealed in it.

And as a last thought: Yes, Einstein was spelling-challenged. How does the person who suggested he could spell in German know that? Have you examined his manuscripts? I do not know when he learned English, but it had to be sometime before 1932 when he taught at Princeton. He was still misspelling English in the early 1950s. His ability to spell did not reflect his brilliance. I agree with Mr. Spartanberg. (I am assuming that Emmanuel is not a woman. It's hard to tell with that name.)

Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks for weight in, sha'el. I definitely agree that if someone has a neurological condition that makes spelling and grammar difficult they really should think about having someone read their letter who is good at those things and give it a once over. It's the author's responsibility to take steps to compensate for these types of challenges.

Let me also reiterate that a single mistake or typo is not going to doom you. I'm only pointing out the importance of having a clean, correct letter.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. Bransford,

Great blog. Thank you.

I have a question about policies in book publishing, or perhaps fads is the better term because these policies seem to change so frequently. I sold a nonfiction book in 2001, and no agent or publisher said a word about my lack of a national platform. Now I hope to sell another nonfiction book, and platform seems to be the prime issue on agents' minds. How long has it been policy for publishers not to acquire a nonfiction book unless the author has a national platform? What triggered this policy?

Thanks.

Nathan Bransford said...

^I think to some extent platform/credibility have always been important for books, but if you think about society at large, the way in which one establishes credibility has changed. 50 years ago the way one established credibility was with a book -- the fact that they were published gave them credibility. With the rise of television and the internet, though, the reverse is true -- now people establish prominence first through TV and other media, and the book comes second. So I think one element of the higher bar for "platform" comes from the fact that we as a society consider our experts to be the people we see on TV, not necessarily the people who are writing books.

There's also a marketing component here. Publishers' belts have tightened up in the last five years, and they want to know that an author can deliver a built-in audience through the ability to get on TV, through having their own network and generating their own publicity. I think that's another component.

I talk about this issue a bit more in my previous blog post "Are you the right one to write that book?"

Anonymous said...

Don't know about spelling and grammar and such, but think you might have gotten something wrong here: "no one can write a great novel without a thorough and complete command of the English language". This may come as a surprise, but there are writers in the world without any command what so ever of the English language known to have written quite a few great novels! ;-)

A Writress from Elsewhere

Anonymous said...

And if grammar and diction are not your strong suits then you might think twice about your expectations for success as a writer. I'm not saying you can't enjoy the process of writing and sharing it with your friends and family, but you're facing a major uphill climb if you want to be a published writer.

Hi Nathan,

I found your blog through Miss Snark as well. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

In reference to the above quote, wouldn't you say that proper grammar, diction, etc. is a learned skill rather than a raw talent, and can be improved through practice and study? Wouldn't you also say that storytelling is harder to learn or to teach than grammar? It seems to me, speaking merely as someone who isn't close at all to being published, that one should think twice about a career as a writer if one cannot create a compelling story or believable characters, but should take a course, read Elements of Style, and practice, practice, practice if one cannot conjugate a verb.

Nathan Bransford said...

^Yes, I'd agree with that. Nothing can replace natural storytelling ability, and grammar can be learned. I still think the music analogy applies. You may have all the natural musical ability in the world but you still need to learn how to play the instrument first.

Christopher M. Park said...

"Wouldn't you also say that storytelling is harder to learn or to teach than grammar?"

I definitely agree. However, I also think that storytelling is something that can be learned, as well. I'm pretty close to having an agent pick up my novel (I hope), but the writing and storytelling has been something I've had to work on honing for just about ten years now.

I mean, at least one professional writer has really thought my current story was great, and called me a natural storyteller--same as Bransford worded his last comment--but the fact is, I wasn't always that way. I'd love to say that I was a child prodigy that always knew how to do everything, but if you were to read my earlier attempts at novels you would then know I was a liar.

I've always had a good imagination, and the ability to come up with interesting scenarios, but giving depth to characters was something I had to learn, as was the proper ways in which to introduce back story into the narrative. In my first attempt at a book (a fantasy), I had little "history of the world blurbs" at the start of each chapter. These were terribly boring (I now see), and an awful way to give a reader familiarity with my created world. But five years after that, after much reading of other people's novels, and more practice writing, things started clicking in my mind and everything started coming together.

My point is not to disagree with you, but simply to say that I don't think someone should just hang it up because they can't tell a coherent story at first. That, too, can be learned if they have the patience and the dedication (and maybe a decade or so to do it?).

Anyway, Mr. Bransford, I'm new to your blog (Miss Snark, of course), but I very much like it. I think most everyone is taking the time to look back through your older posts, and there's some good stuff in there. Thanks for taking the time on something like this!

Chris

My blog on writing

Anonymous said...

My point is not to disagree with you, but simply to say that I don't think someone should just hang it up because they can't tell a coherent story at first. That, too, can be learned if they have the patience and the dedication (and maybe a decade or so to do it?).

Agreed. Certainly, both skill sets can be improved, and maybe it's the drive to improve our weaknesses that makes it possible for us to become published writers. Maybe that separates us from those who daydream about being published but don't take the necessary steps.

Christopher M. Park said...

"maybe it's the drive to improve our weaknesses that makes it possible for us to become published writers."

Quite so. I think another thing that separates those who succeed from those who don't is the ability to even see those weaknesses in the first place. I think that some writers see themselves as infallible gods, and that attitude makes it really hard to improve. Some people can be so touchy when hearing any suggestions about their work that it makes others stop even offering suggestions--but no one is offering them representation, either.

And then, there are those who just give up way too easily, as you say. They find out writing is harder than they thought at first, and then that's just it for them. I guess it's those happy mediums who see their problems, but aren't afraid to attack those problems head on, that will hopefully persevere.

Chris

My blog on writing

Maureen McGowan said...

You know... I've always thought that blog entries (and comments, expecially) get a free pass re: grammar and spelling and diction. (Oh my!)

Aren't blog entries supposed to be akin to off-the-cuff thoughts?

Query letters and manuscripts are a whole different thing in my mind. (But hey, everyone makes the occasional mistake there, too.)

Great blog! Love the entry on publishing time. We writers have a lot of agnst and it's unbelievable what we can read into our agent taking an extra few days to reply to an e-mail. (Not to mention ages to read a manuscript...) Not that mine does... LOL

Maureen McGowan said...

expecially agnst

Ha!! My point, exactly. I don't spell check on blogs and sometimes my fingers get ahead of me.

Hope you won't hold it against me.

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