Today’s guest post is from my beloved editing mentor Kathy Ide. Kathy is the person who introduced me to the world of copyediting, and taught me so many of my foundational rules about being an editor. The first being: put your work away when your husband comes home and give him some attention. Okay, that may have nothing to do with the mechanics of editing, but it’s been an important part of my editing life (and maybe good advice for all writers too).
Kathy has a new editing book out, which pairs nicely with my Say What? grammar guide out this month for fiction writers. I always say (or maybe I should start saying) that you can’t have too many great writing and editing books! So be sure to pick hers up here. Kathy shares today 10 points that should get you thinking about learning some proofreading chops.
Have you seen the plaques and T-shirts that say this?:
Let’s Eat Grandma.
Let’s Eat, Grandma.
Commas Save Lives.
I love that! It shows how one tiny bit of punctuation can change the entire meaning and tone of a sentence.
You may think that as long as you’ve got life-changing content in your nonfiction manuscript, or an intriguing story with lots of conflict and interesting characters in your fiction manuscript, that should be enough. And yes, content and story are extremely important. But no matter how good those things are, you’ll be running some pretty big risks if you don’t bother proofreading your manuscript carefully for typos, inaccuracies, and inconsistencies . . . and learning the industry-standard rules regarding punctuation, usage, grammar, and spelling.
OK, you won’t be putting your grandmother’s life on the line or joining a tribe of cannibals. But tiny mistakes in your writing can have disastrous consequences. Here are my top ten:
1. Mechanical errors can decrease your chance of acceptance by a traditional publisher.
Most people who work in the publishing industry know a lot about proper punctuation, usage, grammar, and spelling. And they can spot typos and inconsistencies without half trying. If you have too many mistakes in your manuscript, it may not go any farther than an acquisitions editor’s desk.
2. Mechanical errors can cause miscommunication.
A colleague of mine recently sent me an e-mail about a local writers’ conference, asking if I’d be on board for it. I responded that I would definitely be on board, especially since it was close to my home. When I reread her e-mail later, I realized she had asked if I was interested in being on the board! I gulped. I was certainly “on board” with the idea. But serving on “the board” would require a significant investment of my time.
Now, I have thoroughly enjoyed being on the board for this exciting conference. And this is an example of reader error, not author mistake. But it does point out how one little missed word can change the entire meaning of a sentence.
3. Mechanical errors can cause confusion.
My older son, Tom, is a very busy professional, and even before he moved out of my home, a lot of our communication took place via e-mail. One Sunday, I asked him what he wanted me to make for dinner that evening. His response was: “When you decide what you can say I decided this and if it’s not OK that’s OK.” It took me a while to decipher it. And when I asked my son for permission to quote that, his response was, “Did I write that? What on earth does it mean?” Even he didn’t know! Well, after reading that line several times, I came up with this: “When you decide what, you can say, ‘I decided this,’ and if it’s not OK, that’s OK.” Pretty confusing without the punctuation, isn’t it?
4. Mechanical errors can give an unprofessional appearance to publishers and readers.
Even if your manuscript has already been accepted by a traditional publishing house, if their in-house editor has to spend all her time fixing your mistakes, she won’t be able to catch the deeper, more subtle nuances of your text. Besides, you won’t be presenting a very polished, professional image to your publisher.
5. Mechanical errors can be embarrassing.
A friend of mine once picked up a book at a bookstore and noticed a typo on the back cover. When she reported it to our critique group, she didn’t say she’d found a mistake on a book published by “XYZ Publishers.” She said she found the mistake on a “Jane Doe” novel. She didn’t connect the error to the publishing house but to the author.
6. Mechanical errors may cause readers to take you and your message less seriously.
I once saw a published article with this title: “Crowe Turns Hero to Help Snake Bite Boy.” The story was about actor Russell Crowe helping a boy who’d been bitten by a snake. But by spelling snakebite as two words, this sentence implies that Mr. Crowe helped a snake bite a boy! Now, I got a good laugh out of that. But I sure don’t want those kinds of mistakes showing up in my own writing.
7. Mechanical errors can affect the sales of your book.
Readers who find a lot of mistakes in your book will not be as likely to recommend that book to their friends. And who knows? You may have a high school English teacher reading your book, and she just might recommend it to her students . . . unless there are a lot of mistakes in it.
8. Mechanical errors could cost you money.
If you decide to hire someone to edit or proofread your manuscript, and you haven’t corrected your punctuation, usage, grammar, and spelling, you will be paying extra for someone else to do that for you. And how will you know if that editor is right?
9. Mechanical errors can be distracting.
If I’m reading a book or article, no matter how good the content or story might be, if there are too many typos or mistakes in punctuation, usage, grammar, or spelling, it’s difficult for me to get past those enough to concentrate on the book. I have been known to stop reading a book and put it back on the shelf if I find too many errors. And there are other readers like me out there.
10. Mechanical errors can give you a poor reputation.
If you self-publish, or work with a small, independent publisher that doesn’t proofread carefully, your book may go out to the public with several typos, inconsistencies, or PUGS (punctuation, usage, or grammar) errors. Readers who catch those mistakes may consider you an amateur.
For a lot of avid readers, typos practically jump off the page. And many are familiar with the rules of punctuation, usage, grammar, and spelling. If your reader knows the rules and you don’t, that’s not going to make you look very good.
Professionalism Is Key
If you’re writing just for family and friends, it may not matter so much whether every comma is in exactly the right place or if you have a few typos here and there. But if you want to get your book published in today’s highly competitive commercial market, you need every edge you can get. If you expect people to buy what you write, you need to take the time to do it right.
If you have a hard time finding typos, inconsistencies, and “PUGS” errors in your writing, consider hiring a professional proofreader. A comma may not save Grandma’s life. But a careful proofread might make a life-or-death difference for your manuscript.
Kathy Ide, author of Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors, is a full-time freelance editor/mentor for new writers, established authors, and book publishers. She speaks at writers’ conferences across the country. She is the founder and director of The Christian PEN: Proofreaders and Editors Network and the Christian Editor Network. For more about Kathy, visit her website here or connect with her on Facebook here.