The Most Important Tool – Language

If you’re serious about writing, sooner or later you will start asking the big question – will I get published? There might be many answers to this, but the very first answer is: how well are you using language?

Why is this the first answer? Because if you don’t understand how language works, how to create a well-constructed sentence, how to use correct verb tenses, where to put commas and fullstops … you can’t revise effectively. A writer who wants to be published must be a master of language, or working towards mastery, and be able to apply it to their revisions.

Over the years, I’ve had students who have blithely told me, “I don’t need to know all that stuff because the editor will fix it for me.” What editor might that be? These days, anyone ploughing through an agent’s or editor’s slush pile (and it’s often an assistant) will almost always automatically reject a manuscript with lots of errors.

That kind of close editing is not within 98% of publishers’ budgets. You’re the writer – you have to get a grip on grammar yourself. But it’s more than just the amount of time fixing those errors would take/cost. It’s about the effect of poor language skills on the actual writing.

Someone who doesn’t understand sentence construction can’t pick up that their sentences are all constructed the same way (which leads to tedious style), nor can they work out how to rewrite those sentences for variety and pace. They can’t see how many times they’ve used prepositional phrases, or too many gerunds, or that their misuse of pronouns has led to confusing ambiguities.

And what’s worse is that these writers don’t understand when it’s explained to them, and they also don’t understand the effect it has on their prose. So unless they have an editor who’s going to rewrite for them, they don’t know how to make their prose readable, let alone vastly improved.

I was reminded of this the other day when I read this blog post about style – because what she is talking about has, at its roots, an understanding and working knowledge of grammar.

Yes, grammar and punctuation are hard if you weren’t taught it properly at school – many people weren’t. But it’s not impossible to learn, and reading critically for style and language and sentence construction will also help. It’s part of our craft after all!

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