How “clean” should your writing be when submitting it to literary agents and publishers? What if you have some typos? What if your grammar isn’t perfect? How good… is good enough?
Although I won 1st place in my school’s spelling bee in the first grade (I got a ribbon and a trophy), I still make plenty of mistakes as a writer: spelling mistakes (though hopefully not in today’s article since I’m stressing the importance of not making mistakes), extra words (caused by too much cutting and pasting or changing the structure of a sentence during the editing process), and grammar goofs (I’m good enough to get by, but I’m definitely not a grammar guru).
What about you?
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The Down and Dirty Dish
When it comes to submitting your work to literary agents and publishers (query letter, book synopsis, book proposal, chapter outline, sample chapters, and/or complete manuscript), I have good news and bad news. Let’s do the good news first. If you have a few typos and mistakes in your manuscript, it shouldn’t be a deal breaker (as long as they’re not on the first 5 pages). That’s the equivalent of walking into a meeting with spinach in your teeth.
Now the bad news…
If your writing has typos or poor grammar throughout, you might say it’s like a single man with a hairy back trying to find true love (at least here in America where hairy backs aren’t popular at the moment—I’m not sure they’ve ever been, actually). Don’t be offended, hairy guys. I used to have a bit of growth back there myself (more about that later). And don’t leave comments below telling me that back hair is sexy.
No, it’s not.
But not back hair!
Yes, I know…
There are a lot of great guys with hairy backs. They have good jobs and great personalities and love their mothers. They’ll even cook fettuccine for you and massage your feet if you let them. But they might not get a chance if you see the bush on their back during your first date to the beach.
You might get turned off.
Ugh. That’s too bad. He seems like such a nice guy. Why doesn’t he get that thing waxed? Hmm… I wonder what else is wrong with him. Does he use deodorant? Shower regularly? Clip his toenails? Brush his teeth? Floss?
Now, I’m not superficial (although I do appreciate
physical beauty and pretty, perfumed writing).
I’ll still love you if you’re hairy
(or not a super clean writer).
But, let’s be real.
Other people are going to judge you (in publishing, dating, and every other area of life). How you present yourself matters. In fact, it matters so much that I recently decided to clean up my act.
I’m not just talking
about typos, either.
When it comes to the writing I do for my 1-on-1 coaching clients (like query letters), I’m a perfectionist. A neat freak. But I used to slack off with my other writing, like content for my website. I’d tell myself that typos, grammar mistakes, and missing or extra words weren’t a big deal.
I’m busy. I don’t have the time… or patience… to review that article again. Besides, I’m pretty sure I caught everything. If there’s a mistake or two, people can see past that. It’s the content that counts. If someone’s going to judge me over a typo, I don’t want to work with that person anyway.
I’m betting you’ve had similar thoughts at some point, unless you’re a spelling wizard and grammar god. Here’s the problem. You and I get paid to write (or at least that’s your goal). So we need to do everything we can to make a good first impression. That’s because good first impressions create the trust that’s required to get to second base or third base.
Or hit a home run.
In other words, literary agents and publishers aren’t going to respect you if you’re too lazy to fix simple mistakes… or get help fixing them if you’re not able to see them. And it’s going to put ants in their head.
Gee. A typo on page one. Improper use of a semicolon on page two. If that’s the case, I wonder what else is wrong with the manuscript. Is it well-organized? Is there a logical progression? A satisfying conclusion? I don’t know.
I want to invite you to join me in stepping it up. Take the quality and cleanliness of your writing to the next level–and mine. Are you game???
As far as my work is concerned, I’m a former literary agent for crying out loud. And I was the Marketing & Licensing Manager for a well-known publisher. Can I really afford to have dozens of mistakes on my website? And, even if I could get by like that, do I want to?
That’s why I took time this month to review my entire website, again. I even paid someone to help me. What am I too blind to see? Show me!!!
Finally, I thought I’d caught everything.
Then, two days later,
someone else emailed me.
Pointed out a typo.
So now I’m desperate.
I’ll pay you $10 for every mistake
you find on my website.
Some of you are salivating right now
because you know I make
a lot of mistakes.
I need you.
So, here’s the deal.
* * *
There are two main areas on my website:
- My literary agent blog posts (85 of them)
- My main literary agent website pages (125 of them)
What I’m Looking For
Help me find these mistakes:
- Missing words or extra words (usually a by-product of
cutting and pasting during the writing/editing process)
I’m NOT looking for hair-splitting differences of opinion about things that are subjective… like starting a sentence with the word “and”; my usage of ellipses and parentheses; which words I capitalize in titles, headers, and subheads; or whether you think I use more (or less) commas than necessary.
Those things are stylistic and I do them on purpose.
The following areas of my website aren’t eligible:
- My Directory of Literary Agents with agent bios, etc.
- My Coaching Testimonials page
- My Terms pages
- And the many thousands of comments on my website
Lastly, if you find one mistake that’s repeated on a page I’m only going to count it once. And, if you and I disagree about whether something is a mistake, I’m going to email my editor and let her be our mediator.
* * *
How To Get Paid
If you find any of the mistakes mentioned above (on any qualifying page or post), leave a comment for me here… underneath this article. Make sure you copy and paste the actual mistake AND the webpage url so I can check it out and fix it. For example, if you find a mistake on the homepage of my website… include this link: https://literary-agents.com/ (that’s my homepage).
I’ll pay you $10 for each mistake you find
(if you’re the first person to point out the mistake).
* * *
I don’t know if you’ll take me up on my offer to find mistakes
on my website. But I do hope I’ve inspired you
(at the very least), to take a closer look
at how clean your writing is.
Nobody wants to read
a dirty writer.
Now, I told you at the beginning of this article that I was cleaning up my act and I wasn’t just talking about typos. Remember? Well, it’s true. Six months ago I got my back waxed for the first time (I know, too much information). But you know what they say. Good writers find a way to turn their most painful life experiences into valuable content.
So, here I am.
In fact, I published this article just minutes before
leaving my house to get my back waxed again.
That means there’s a good chance that a woman
named Heather is causing me pain right now
as you’re reading this article.
I’ll do practically anything to help you
grow as a writer and get published.
Even if it means talking about
my personal hygiene and
grooming habits. 😉
* * *
* * *
Hi Mark, do you have a list of professional editors available on your site, or perhaps a list you’d recommend?
Hi Arwa, I don’t have a list yet… but I’m working on it. In the meantime, check out these two websites. There are a lot of editors there to choose from: http://nybookeditors.com/#sthash.sVpVNntw.dpbs and
http://the-efa.org. Of course, I don’t personally vouch for any of them, so study up and research them carefully before hiring anyone. Mark
I’m confident with grammar, and I’m a perfectionist when it comes to catching typos. Hukt on Fonix Werkt fer Me! My Achilles heel is punctuation. Hello. My name is Jack, and I’m a rampant comma abuser. English has always been my strong suit, but I need to relearn the punctuation rules.
Hi Jack, the best tip I ever heard about this was to punctuate the way you would speak. Play your writing in your head as though you were saying it out loud, then it becomes easier to put those commas in the right place. 😉 Mark
Wow the more time I spend here Mark the more I’m impressed, also the more questions I end up having for you. I’m a Canadian author and as you know certain spellings in Canada are different than US spellings. Do Agents take that into account or should I use US spellings in those words. I have adjusted my dictionary in Word to include the Canadian way of spelling things as well as the US so am curious to which setting I should use when approaching US Agents. Thanks for sharing your expertise!
Hi Lady Caroline, yes… it would be better to use US spellings on those words. Don’t give agents any reason to focus on anything other than your story or content. Mark
I didn’t know about the correct mistakes thing, but I’ve been collecting information that needs to be corrected and thought you’d want to keep your wonderful site updated.
1. Amy Burkhardt is no longer an agent – apparently working work Smithsonian Student Travel.
2 Nicole James moved from Aaron Priest to Challberg & Sussman Dec 13.
3. Ned Leavitt allows no submissions
4. Doris Michaels no new projects
5. Kate Epstein only crafts
6 Jennifer Cayea and Avenue A website apparently abandoned,
Hi Judy, thank you for this… but you’ll be delighted to know that my agent directory is in the process of being completely updated. I’ll be sending an email to everyone about this soon. Oh, and I’m going to have someone updating it constantly now… something that didn’t happen as regularly in the past. Happy holidays! Mark
Having been a news writer and editor, I know the value of error free stories. We get so wrapped up in writing we may not notice our various mistakes. By using a printout, we find the problems and can make notes to correct them more easily than on an electronic file. A printout made by an office supply store is also much less costly and troublesome than hiring an editor. Your prompt to eliminate typos comes at a time while I am perfecting 3 manuscripts, partly on your recommendation.
Hi Joel, reading on paper helps me as well. But I still need to go back through it a few times to catch everything. And even then… well, you know. Here’s to making less mistakes and surrounding ourselves with good people to help us catch the rest when possible. 😉 Mark
Great article. I had way too much fun commenting on the comments! Some of my Toastmaster friends think I am the strictest grammarian they know, but I still make plenty of mistakes…
Don’t forget to put a catnip mouse in Mr. Fudge’s stocking, and if you’re good, maybe Ingrid will buy you a gift boxed edition of Strunk & White for Christmas!
Best wishes to all of you for a joyful Christmas!
Hi Harold, I don’t think you had too much fun… I’d say it was just about perfect. Obviously this article brought out one of your talents that I wasn’t fully aware of. Fudge is grouchy because we started giving him healthier food a few days ago. But he says hello to you. Happy holidays to you and Lucinda, enjoy the day. Mark
I have a question regarding how much license is acceptably allowed when it comes to spelling certain words. For instance, I have noticed in Sci/Fi Fantasy spelling of names and places are quite often pretty creative, but will an editor or agent see it as okay from the beginning, or is it something that they will come to accept as they read on?
Names, places or words need to be consistent throughout your work. Any error, no matter what kind, may be defined as an inconsistency. Creative people are by nature inconsistent. If we were all conformists, we would still be nomads living in caves. So, there is a virtue in purposeful typos and other errata, if your writing conforms to itself and thereby communicates. Read Philip K. Dick’s novels, such as “Ubik,” or “Valis,” for example. I am a retired news writer and editor now writing novels.
Thank you Joel, I value your advice.
Hi Marilyn, it’s fine to have words like that. Just be careful that they don’t look like mistakes or misspellings but, instead, creative names. And happy holidays!!! Mark
You know, Mark, I had actually caught several typos and extra words in your articles in the past and my thought was, He’s teaching people to write well and he’s not even making sure his own writing is clean!’ I thought of letting you know about it but then I didn’t want to bother you over it. I have never seen typos and grammatical mistakes as trivial because I know it’s going to make or break your chances of getting your writing published.
Hi SawLian, happy holidays! And I’m not overly worried about my typos, although I’m obviously trying to clean up my act. I saw I’m not overly worried because what I do best is help people with book concepts and marketing. I’m not a professional copyeditor. But I also know that perception is important and we should all improve whatever we can whenever we can. Love and light to you and your family this holiday season. 🙂 Mark
Saw in the third sentence should be say.
Hi Kenneth, I give myself a pass on comments… usually if you find me making mistakes there it’s simply because I’m going fast and don’t have time to review everything that closely. Articles yes, but not comments. I’ve written more than 100 in the last 24 hours. But thanks for keeping your eyes open. By the way, I pay $10 for every typo found per the guidelines on this page: https://literary-agents.com/typos-and-grammar/. Let me know if you have a PayPal address where I can send it or if you prefer an Amazon gift card. That’s the other option. Mark
WOW, Mark. I never thought about typo’s as being such a big deal. I read books all the time that have errors, almost always in punctuation. Spelling is more difficult to screw up because we all have spell check on our computers. Still, being human we depend on it too much. Using the wrong word, such as your, verses, you’re, is all too common for writers and unfortunately, not always caught in editing. Perfect I’m not, but I really try to ‘edit’ my own work before it goes to an editor.
Little-known spelling rule: Never use an apostrophe (‘) for plurals. The correct plural of “typo” is “typos.”
When I self-published my first book, I hired a professional editor, had my wife (who is very picky) proofread it twice, and I proofread it at least 6 times, and I STILL found a few mistakes in the printed edition. To some extent, I fault the editor; but it shows how hard it is to get perfectly clean copy.
Hi Harold, I had to look up the correct spelling of “typos” before I wrote this article. Ha ha ha. Here’s to always striving to be perfectly clean. 😉 Mark
Hi Elizabeth, in a super competitive world we need every edge we can get… right? Easy to make mistakes but almost as easy to fix them. If we’re patient and willing. I’m learning. Anyway, here’s to being free of mistakes in the new year, or as close as we can get. Happy holidays to you and yours. We’re thinking of you! Mark
I’m glad Mr. Fudge is healing from his surgery. Yikes! That was a big old thing for him to have on his little chest. I love cats and I’m glad you got his problem taken care of. I’m glad he didn’t have something terminal. I hope he feels better soon. Take care and Merry Christmas.
Hi Bev, Fudge says hello and thank you. He’s a little grouchy this morning though because we just changed his diet to low-calorie. He doesn’t think that’s a very good Christmas present. But him being alive is a gift for all of us so he’s going to have to deal with it. 😉 Thank you for the well wishes and have a Merry Christmas. Thinking of you. Mark and Fudge
This is my first time reading one of your articles and I’ve got to say I’m impressed with your writing style, however gross it may be. Perhaps that’s just the secret to good writing. I tend to find more mistakes in my own work after I take a little break from it. The things that I didn’t see before will stick out like a crow in the middle of the snow that I wish I took a picture of a couple of weeks ago. Otherwise, I just slap my friends around until they edit my work for me.
Hi Gena, welcome to my site and thank you for the compliment. As long as you read the whole article and my gross vision of hairy men helps you remember to keep your writing well-groomed… I’ve done my job. 😉 Although a crow in the snow is an equally effective image. Ha ha ha. Here’s to clean writing and a happy new year. Thanks for taking time to say hello. And have a great day! Mark
Hi Mark – As I’m busy editing my manuscripts, I can say how amazing it is how much we miss. Immediately following my writing for the day, I read it over twice to catch typos, etc. Then, when the novel is complete, I read it through from beginning to end, twice. I’m so glad I do! The stupid mistakes I’ve missed before are glaring by the last round – but many, my eyes fixed for me the first few times. And, yes, I will take you up on your offer. I’ll let you know if I see anything. Thanks! Lynn
Hi Lynn, it’s amazing… isn’t it? And it never seems to get better. Just part of this writing business. Don’t be too hard on yourself, but do get another set of eyes on your work when you can. Anyway, happy holidays! Sending you and yours love and light for a wonderful day. Mark