A couple of weeks ago, a post to one of my e-mail loops regarding being taken seriously as a writer generated quite a firestorm. I’m not about to open that can of worms again. Instead, I’m suggesting three skills that any aspiring author must master if he/she hopes to be taken seriously where it counts–with agents, editors, and ultimately, with readers.
First, master the fine points of grammar, usage, and mechanics. Invest in a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style. When you have a question about which verb tense to use, where to place a comma, whether or not an apostrophe is needed, how to form a plural, instead of asking for the answer on an e-mail loop, pull out your trusty Manual and look it up. A Chinese proverb says, “give a man a fish, he eats for today; teach him to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” Waiting for someone else to supply the answer you need is the equivalent of eating for today. A week from now, a month from now, you might not remember the answer you obtained with no effort, but if you look it up for yourself, the information is internalized and becomes a part of your knowledge base, available to you for a lifetime. In one of her rare interviews, Harper Lee said that she never conducts research online, but instead heads for the library stacks, “because when I work to learn something, I remember it.”
The more you work to master the language, the less dependent you will be on others and the more confident you will become in your writing. Looking up the correct verb form is not as much fun as writing that next scene, but understanding the language, being able to use it with elegance and skill is an absolute requirement if you want to be taken seriously.
Master the art of conducting research. Passion for your subject is a huge part of writing a successful novel. If you are not sufficiently engaged with your topic to want to ferret out the answers you need, maybe you are attempting to write about the wrong subject. Need to know how a body was embalmed in the 19th century? What kind of weapon an undercover cop in Miami might carry? What song was the most popular in 1972? Millions and millions of pages in university libraries, state historical societies, museums, and the Library of Congress are available online. Or, pick up the phone and call an expert. Most people are flattered to be asked and will give you more information that you knew existed. Doing the research yourself enriches not only your writing, but your life. Don’t shortchange yourself by prevailing upon others to tell you what you need to know. If you want to be taken seriously, be responsible for your own research.
Learn to spell. When I studied English grammar, words that sound the same, but that are spelled differently and have different meanings were called “homonyms”. Today some grammarians call them “homophones” but whatever you call them, they are the bane of many writers. So, along with your trusty Manual of Style, invest in a good dictionary and a good thesaurus. You will not be taken seriously if you submit so much as a query letter that is riddled with errors. Here are just a few of the many homophone errors I’ve noticed recently in e-mails, Facebook posts, and elsewhere. Principal/principle. One is the head of a school, a main actor or dancer or musician in a company, or the first in rank or importance, as in the principal reason for the accident. The other is the ultimate source or origin of something; a fundamental truth. They are not interchangeable. Nor are these homophones: clique/click, hear/here, way/weigh, sight/site/cite. Master the differences. It’s a requirement if you want to be taken seriously.
Finally, take heart in the realization that every published author started out unpublished. Those who have successfully crossed the divide and entered the ranks of the published have done so because of the three H’s:
Hunger. A hunger for stories and for sharing them with others. Hard work: mastering not only the elements of story, but the nuances of grammar and usage and the maddening inconsistencies of English spelling. Humility: being open to the lessons of those who have gone before you and being grateful to the One who gave you the desire to write in the first place.
Here’s to excellence. And to being taken seriously.