“Thanks for the cookies Millicent,” “What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” and other easily-averted holiday faux pas

This time of year, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver sees it all the time: a reason to move otherwise good girls and boys from the Nice to the Naughty list. Yet often, as both he and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, know only too well, the difference between a properly-punctuated sentence and one that is, well, not, lies in a simple slip of the writer’s finger — or lack of one. Take a gander at the type of hastily-scrawled note that often greets our St. Nick.

Hello Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy. Wow do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

No wonder the otherwise jolly elf weeps at the sight: clearly, the Punctuation Vacuum has beaten him to this household. Either that, or Janie has really, really lazy fingers. The note he had expected to see nestled next to a plate of cookies would have read like this:

Hello, Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy. Wow, do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

Let me guess: to many, if not most of you, these two notes are essentially identical: the words are the same, right, so the meaning must be? That’s an understandable interpretation, given how often we all now see direct address and exclamation commas omitted all the time. Indeed, some modes of electronic expression, such as news program bottom-of-the-screen crawls and Twitter, seem actively to discourage proper punctuation.

But that doesn’t make it right. Santa’s a stickler for rules.

As it happens, so are Millicent and those of us who edit for a living. Punctuation matters to us — and, frankly, folks in publishing tend to laugh when aspiring writers express the astonishingly pervasive opinion that it doesn’t.

Why the ho, ho, ho? Well, leaving aside the perfectly reasonable proposition that one of the basic requirements of a professional writer is the consistent production of clearly expressed, grammatically correct prose, in some cases, improper punctuation can alter a sentence’s meaning.

And that, boys and girls, can only harm self-expression. Take, for instance, the two faux pas in the title of this post.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Most readers would assume, as those of you who didn’t notice that commas had been purloined from Janie’s original note probably did, that what she actually meant to say was this:

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof? Reindeer?

That’s not what the first versions actually said, though, was it? Basically, Janie operated on a presumption evidently shared by an amazingly high percentage of queriers, literary contest entrants, and manuscript submitters: that it’s the reader’s job to figure out what the author probably meant, not the writer’s job to express it so clearly that there would be no question.

In practice, most of us are perfectly willing to translate casual communications into more comprehensible prose, at least mentally. People often tap out or scrawl notes in a hurry, or, since the advent of mobile electronic devices, under less-than-ideal conditions. It’s relatively safe, then, to presume that your third-best friend will understand if that text message you sent while hanging upside down from the monkey bars omitted a comma or two.

Writing intended for publication is expected to adhere to a higher standard, however: even an editor wowed by the sentiments expressed in that last set of examples would not seriously consider publishing them without revision. Although the rise of on-screen editing has increased the number of punctuation, spelling, and grammar errors that slip through editorial fingers and onto the printed page — nit-picks are significantly harder to catch on a backlit screen than in hard copy — no one who reads for a living would believe for a second that clarity and proper punctuation don’t matter. A manuscript that seems to imply that the writer believes they are unimportant not only is unlikely to impress a pro — to an experienced agent or editor, it simply screams that this is a writer who will require extra time, effort, and, yes, proofreading.

Why might that harm your submission’s chances? Think about it: if the agent of your dreams already has 127 clients, who is his Millicent more likely to regard as a viable candidate for #128, the writer who expects her to guess whether What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer? means what it literally says, or the writer whose prose is so clear that she’s not left in any doubt?

Remember, too, that your garden-variety agency screener or contest judge has very little of a writer’s prose upon which to judge talent and facility with language. How on earth could Millicent possibly know for certain whether the speaker of that first sentence was simply sliding back up the chimney while he was writing, and thus was too busy to devote the necessary thought to the beauty and rigors of proper punctuation, or simply was not aware of the relevant rules? She’s not allowed to base her reading upon what she guesses a writer meant, after all; she can only evaluate what’s actually on the page.

All of which is a nice way of saying: don’t expect her to cut you any slack. A writer familiar with the rules of punctuation and conscientious about applying them is simply less time-consuming for an agent to represent than one who believes that the fine points of how a sentence looks on the page doesn’t really matter. Someone at the manuscript’s future publishing house will take care of the copyediting, right?

Well, no. Not if Millicent or her boss, the agent of your dreams, stops reading after the second missing direct address comma on page 1.

Yes, really. Since this particular rule is pretty straightforward, it’s fairly common for screeners and contest judges to regard non-adherence — or, equally pervasive in submissions, uneven adherence — as an indicator of, if not necessarily poor grammar in the manuscript as a whole, then at least an authorial lack of attention to detail. Any guesses as to why detail-orientation would be a desirable trait in an agency’s client?

Slap a great, big gold star on your tree if you leapt to your feet, shouting, “By gum, a detail-oriented writer could be trusted to produce clean manuscripts!” You’re quite right, shouters: since few agencies employ in-house editors (although some agents do like to edit their clients’ pages), signing a writer who had already demonstrated that he regards the world as his proofreader would inevitably be a more time-consuming choice than snapping up one that could be relied upon to spell- and grammar-check his own manuscripts. On a revise-and-resubmit deadline too short for anyone at the agency to proof pages, that could be the difference between selling a book to a publisher and rejection.

Comma placement is starting to seem a trifle more relevant to your life, isn’t it? Fortunately, the rules governing direct address and exclamations are quite easy.

Hey, wake up. Were you aware that you were snoring, Janie?

There — that wasn’t so difficult, was it? Hey is an exclamation, so it is separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma. And because that second sentence was directly addressed to Janie, a comma appears between the rest of the sentence and her name.

Armed with those valuable precepts, let’s revisit the punctuation choices that made the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver choke on his milk and cookies — or cognac and truffles, as he always insisted on being left for him in the Mini household throughout my childhood. (My parents said that he deserved the upgrade for shinnying down our unusually small flue.) How do they look to you now?

Hello Santa.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy.

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Now that you’re looking for those commas, the paucity of them — and, I hope, the extra one in that last sentence — is distracting, is it not? Let’s talk about why. Sentences 1 and 4 are aimed at Santa and Millicent, respectively, right? The names are a tip-off that each requires a direct address comma.

Hello, Santa.

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

Sentence #2 is a bit trickier, since what Janie is calling the reader (old boy) is not a proper noun. If we don’t apply the direct address rule here, though, the most logical interpretation is actually this:

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave for the old boy.

Yet Janie’s household does not contain any old boy, or indeed any boys at all — and if Santa knows when they are sleeping and knows when they are awake, he must logically be aware of where said boys are sleeping, must he not? He might be forgiven, then, for finding this sentence perplexing. Fortunately, all it would take is a single stroke of the pen to render Janie’s intended meaning crystal clear.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy.

No question that the reader — Santa, presumably, if Janie’s been a good girl this year — is the old boy being addressed, right? Now that we’ve cleared up that cosmic mystery, what should we note-proofers do with this?

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Wow is an exclamation — and we have a rule for that, do we not? Let’s try applying it. While we’re at it, why not allow Janie’s punctuation to reflect the intensity of her gratitude?

Wow, do I ever appreciate it!

If you’re ever in doubt about whether an expression is sufficiently exclamatory to require separation from the rest of the sentence, here’s a nifty test: vehement exclamations can stand alone. As in:

Wow! Do I ever appreciate it!

Oh, my! What a beautifully-wrapped present!

Heavens! What an enormous cake! You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge!

What a difference a punctuation choice can make to a sentence’s meaning, eh? (See what I just did there? Eh is an exclamation, albeit not a particularly intense one.) A detail-oriented punctuator could become even more creative, depending upon context. Let’s have some fun.

Wow — do I ever appreciate it? I would have thought my reaction to your having given me a rabid wolverine last Christmas and the Christmas before would have told you that.

Oh, my, what a beautifully-wrapped present…if you happen to believe that bacon is an appropriate wrapping medium for a desk lamp.

Heavens, what an enormous cake. You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge: as much as we all enjoyed seeing your immediate family leap out of that enormous pie at Thanksgiving, that’s really the kind of surprise entrance that works only once, don’t you think?

Speaking of how punctuation can alter meaning, our remaining example presents some difficulties, doesn’t it? Let’s take another peek at it.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

At first glance, this may appear to be a proper use of direct address: the narrator was simply speaking to a reindeer that happened to be lingering nearby. In today’s incredibly rich fantasy novel market, it’s not at all difficult to imagine a context in which that comma use would make sense.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie shouted. “Your ears are better than mine.”

Blitzen shook his antlers in annoyance. “Ceilings are opaque, you know. I can only fly; I don’t have X-ray vision.”

However, being an intimate friend of the writer’s — we could hardly be closer — I know that the original sentence was tucked within a thriller. I ask you: does a direct address interpretation make sense here?

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie whispered.

The Easter Bunny did not bother to stop stuffing presents into his basket. “Oh, stop jumping at every sound. Santa’s not due for an hour.”

“I still say that we should have hidden in a closet,” the Tooth Fairy hissed, “and waited until after ol’ Kris dropped off the swag.”

“And let Fat Boy snag all the cookies?” The rabbit snapped off a small branch from the tree to use as a toothpick. “I’m in it for the sugar, baby.”

“Then we should have gone to the Minis,” the fairy grumbled. “They have truffles.”

Blitzen’s hoof poked into the small of Janie’s back. “Move, sister, and you’ll find yourself with a face full of tinsel.”

Since the reindeer doesn’t enter the scene until five paragraphs after Janie’s speech, it seems unlikely that she’s addressing him. What the writer intended to convey by that comma was not direct address, but something closer to my original suggestion:

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Reindeer?”

In fairness, though, you can see why even a meticulous self-proofreader might not have caught this one. If Janie had speculated that the sounds were caused by an inanimate object, that comma might have passed muster.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Unless this is a book about a madwoman or a psychic whose ability to cajole roofing substances into telling her Santa’s whereabouts, direct address doesn’t make sense here, does it? Even a skimmer is unlikely to fall into that interpretive trap. Several alternate constructions would obviate the possibility entirely, though. The first option should look slightly familiar.

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Falling shingles?”

“What’s that I hear on the roof — falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Am I sensing some growing excitement about the possibilities? “Hey, Anne,” some of you exclaim, beautifully demonstrating your grasp of how a comma should offset an exclamation, “something has just occurred to me, you sneaky person.” (Direct address!) “Since the natural habitat of both direct address and exclamations is conversation, wouldn’t it make sense to zero in on dialogue while proofreading for these particular faux pas? If I were in a hurry, I mean, and didn’t have time to read my submission or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?”

Not a bad timesaving strategy, exclaimers — they do tend to congregate in text written in the second person. (Hey, I’m talking to you, buddy!) You might be surprised, though, at how often direct address and exclamations show up in first-person narratives, or even chattier-voiced third-person narratives. For instance:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly, searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove, I was in a pickle.

Before anyone suggests otherwise, may I hastily add that the rookie strategy of attempting to make first-person narration sound more like common speech (as opposed to what it’s intended to represent, thought) by eliminating necessary punctuation and grammar has become awfully hard to pull off in a submission, at least for adult fiction or memoir. You wouldn’t believe how often Millicent sees text like our last example submitted like this:

Oh God I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Or even — sacre bleu! — like this:

OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Yes, yes, we all understand that both versions could arguably be regarded as conveying breathlessness. So could this:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. I felt every last oxygen molecule being sucked out of my lungs.

While style choices vary, naturally, from book category to book category — there honestly is no adequate substitute for reading recent releases of books similar to yours, particularly those written by first-time authors, to gain a sense of what is considered stylish these days — generally speaking, relating what’s going on via actual words tends to be considered better writing than offbeat presentation choices. All the more so if those words show what’s going on, as we saw in that last version, instead of telling it — or requiring Millicent to perform a dramatic reading of the text in order to grasp the fully intended meaning.

Oh, you thought that OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat didn’t convey an expectation that the reader would try saying it out loud? Isn’t the sound of this sentence spoken as a single word the point here?

Style is not the only reason that you might want to give careful thought to whether non-standard presentation choices would be more effective than other means of narration, however. While they may seem like a shortcut, they can actually mean more work for you. Not only must any such punctuation and grammar voice choices be implemented with absolute consistency throughout an entire first-person narrative– quite a bit harder than it sounds, if one happens to know the rules or wants to be able to use Word’s grammar-checking function — but honestly, it’s really only clever the first few times a reader sees it done.

Trust me, any experienced Millicent or contest judge will have seen this tactic crop up too often to find it original at this late date in literary history. And how could either of them tell on page 1 whether the omissions were the result of a manuscript-wide authorial choice or the writer’s not being conversant with proper comma use? Heck, are they even sure that the writer of that last version even knows where the comma key is located?

Judgmental? You bet. If Millicent, a literary contest judge, and Santa’s job descriptions have anything in common, it’s that they are tasked with separating those who make an effort to follow their respective spheres’ recognized standards of niceness from those who do not. Rejection is the literary world’s lump of coal, available year-round.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, unlike so much of the manuscript submission process, proper comma use lies entirely within the writer’s control. Personally, I find that rather empowering — unlike style judgment calls, which must necessarily rely in part upon Millicent’s personal reading tastes, punctuation is governed by rules. And rules can be learned.

Does that huge thunk of jaws hitting the floor reverberating throughout the ether indicate that some of you had been thinking about acceptance vs. rejection purely in terms of writing style? If so, you’re hardly alone: why do you think so many submissions and even queries turn up on Millicent’s desk apparently unproofread? Or spell-checked? Obviously, there are a heck of a lot of aspiring writers out there who think punctuation, spelling, and grammar just don’t matter — or that it’s an agent’s job to see past rule violations to story and talent.

Had I mentioned that to the pros, these things matter very much? Or that in publishing circles, providing error-free manuscript pages containing only sentences whose meanings are clear on a first reading is considered the minimum requirement of professional writing, not an optional extra?

Frankly, every writer who has taken the time to learn her craft should be rejoicing at this. Imagine how hard would it be to get on Santa’s Nice list if you had no idea what he considered nice.

While I’ve got you pondering the hard questions, here’s another: is resting your book’s future on a manuscript draft that does not consistently apply the rules you already know people in publishing expect to see respected really any less of a stab in the dark? Wouldn’t it be a better long-term strategy, as well as a better use of your scant writing time, to invest in making sure that the factors you can control are tweaked in a manner more likely to land you on Millicent’s Nice Job list?

Ah, that suggestion got under some skins, didn’t it? “But Anne!” bellow those who find thinking about rules a barrier to the creative process — and you are legion. “I understand that it’s the writer’s job to make a story come to life on the page, not the reader’s job to decipher convoluted text, but to be absolutely truthful, I don’t feel completely comfortable wielding all of the various rules of grammar and punctuation. I had kinda hoped that once I landed an agent and sold a book, the kind folks who handle books for a living would walk me through all of that.”

I’m glad you brought this up, wobbly rule-appliers — this is one of the greatest divides between how the publishing world thinks of what constitutes a well-written manuscript and how most aspiring writers tend to envision it. To a pro, the technical side of writing is not separable from the overall writing quality; to a new writer, though, punctuation, grammar, spelling, and even clarity are primarily sentence-level issues, easily fixed down the line.

No wonder, then, that it comes as such a shock to most first-time queriers and submitters to learn that the overwhelming majority of manuscripts get rejected on page 1. While the pros see a book’s opening as a representative writing sample, writers regard it as a minuscule fraction of a larger work, each page of which is entitled to its own assessment.

“What do you mean, a couple of punctuation, spelling, or clarity problems on page 1 could have triggered rejection?” they wail, and who could blame them? “Shouldn’t a book be judged by — wait for it — the writing in the whole thing?”

Perhaps, in principle, but very, very few readers wait until the end to come to conclusions about a book, even outside the publishing industry. A Millicent at a well-established agency will read literally thousands of submissions every year. If she read each in its entirety, she would have time to make it through only hundreds.

Believe it or not, this way actually provides a writer with a fresh idea and original voice with a better shot of impressing her. It means fewer book concepts are weeded out at the querying stage than would be necessary if agencies routinely assigned Millicents to read every single syllable of every single submission.

And, lest we forget, to a professional reader, a hallmark of a fabulous new literary voice is its consistency. The Great American Novel should read as lyrically on page 1 as on page 147, right? And shouldn’t it all sound like the same author’s voice?

See why I always encourage writers to read their manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before submitting them? All too often, aspiring writers new to the game will start sending out their work practically the moment after they type THE END on a first draft, without double-checking that the voice, style, and — as an editor, I must ethically add this — story are 100% consistent throughout the manuscript. It’s completely normal, however, for a first-time novelist’s voice and sense of the story to develop throughout the writing process; going through, figuring out what you like best about your own writing, and revising the whole so it sounds like that (to use the technical term) before you submit can increase your story’s chance of winning friends at an agency by leaps and bounds.

Or, to put it another way, are you the same writer you were the first day you sat down to work on your book? Aren’t you better at conveying your intended meaning now? And, if you take a long, hard look at your objection to Millie’s rejecting manuscripts on page 1, isn’t part of your chagrin that she might not read long enough to get to your best writing?

Heavy thoughts for a holiday, perhaps, but the Literature Fairy’s annual gift to those of us who work with writers is an awareness of just how many of you lovely people spend the last few weeks of December kicking yourselves for not having landed an agent or gotten published in the previous year. If the past is prologue, a phenomenally high percentage of you will translate those feelings into a New Year’s resolution to be a more active aspiring writer next year — to send out a barrage of queries, for instance, or to come up with a really solid list of agents to query. Perhaps you’re going to finish that manuscript, or get the one an agent requested eight months ago out the door. Or maybe, finally, you are going to rearrange your schedule so you can write a specified number of hours per week, rather than the more popular method of trying to squeeze it in whenever you can find the time.

All of these are laudable goals — don’t get me wrong. I would like to suggest, though, that while you are shuffling through the resolution possibilities, you consider adding one more: promising yourself that this will be the year that you spend January sitting down and reading your manuscript from beginning to end, in hard copy, as a reader would, to gain a sense of what is best about your own writing.

Because, really, wouldn’t you have an easier time presenting your work professionally if you didn’t just know that it’s good, but also why? And wouldn’t you be happier if Millicent judged your page 1 if it actually did represent a consistent voice and style throughout the book?

Just a thought. While you’re reading, of course, you could always humor me by keeping an eye out for omitted commas.

Hey, nobody ever said that making it onto Millicent’s Nice Job list was going to be easy. Who did you think she was, Santa?

Enjoy the holiday, everybody; try not to run afoul of any reindeer. I hear that you wouldn’t want to run into Blitzen in a dark alley. Keep up the good work!

This time, I mean it about the deadline — and I always mean it about logical flow

I’m going to keep it short and semi-sweet today, campers — tomorrow, if you will recall, is the deadline for entries to The Sensual Surfeit Literary Competition of 2012, this year’s edition of the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence. To be specific, your fabulously-detailed scenes must be submitted by midnight in your time zone on Monday, December 3.

Some helpful links for those of you whose writing chops bloom under last-minute pressure: you’ll find the rules here. You’ll also find, for your rushed entry-proofing pleasure, a handy post in which I show precisely what a winning entry for this contest might look like on the page. You’re welcome; have at it.

I have a nice treat in store for all of us once contest-entrants once again have time to read, something that I think is really going to provide a launching-pad for some fabulous big-picture discussion. I’d like to free up some time for those of who whose creative brains are this very instant suggesting, “Hey, Mavis, I know you hadn’t planned on entering this contest, despite the genuinely pretty great prizes, but wouldn’t that scene in Chapter Five precisely fit the bill?”, though, so for the nonce, let’s concentrate upon something nit-picky.

Fortunately for the cause of relative brevity (hey, we are talking about me here), as so often happens, the universe leapt to provide an apt blogging topic for our immediate need. See if you can spot the notorious editorial pet peeve in the following sentence, courtesy of a news program’s bottom-of-the-screen eye distraction headline ticker. So as not to tar the catastrophe in question with the additional stigma of reader-irritant, I have altered the sentence’s subject matter.

The governor blamed the storm on the extensive flooding.

My, that would be newsworthy, wouldn’t it? How unusual for flooding, extensive or otherwise, to cause a storm, rather than the other way around. May we also conclude that sand build-up on a beach is the ultimate culprit for all of those waves?

This kind of sentence has resulted in more handfuls of editors’ and agents’ hair ending up on carpets, parquet, and desktops than I can even begin to estimate. It’s unclear, of course, but in a way that the rise of reality television, misread teleprompters, and hastily-typed Tweets has led your garden-variety member of the general reading public to shrug and accept: the sentence’s running order runs counter to what the reader must assume was the writer’s intended meaning.

Causation, in short, is flipped here. (Either that, or that governor’s mental processes could bear some psychological scrutiny.) What the writer almost certainly meant — and what the news program’s producers were evidently cavalier enough to presume viewers would be willing to put in the effort to extract from this convoluted logic — was this.

The governor blamed the extensive flooding on the storm.

Not nearly such an eye-catching headline, admittedly, but I hope we can all agree that this version poses less of a brain-teaser. It’s also, to be purely practical about it, significantly less likely to cause a professional reader like our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, to stop reading.

Does that immense clank of ten thousand jaws hitting the aforementioned floor tiles indicate that we hadn’t discussed this sad fact in a while? I hate to be the one to break it to those of you brand-new to the submission process, but due to the sheer volume of aspiring writers clamoring for their literary attention and the concomitant necessity to narrow tens of thousands of requested manuscripts down to the four or five new clients even a very well-established agent could hope to take on this year, Millicent tends not to read each and every submission in its entirety before passing judgment upon it. She simply does not have the time.

She does not, in short, approach each fresh manuscript like an ordinary reader, any more than her boss, the agent of your dreams, or the acquiring editor you’d like to pick up your book would. Generally speaking, at least for a submission’s opening pages, Millie will read one or two lines. If they are well-written, book category-appropriate, current market-appropriate, presented professionally, and sound like the kind of book her boss likes to represent, she’ll move on.

For a line, whereupon the assessment process begins anew. Repeat as needed until a rejection red flag pops up — or Millicent becomes sufficiently engrossed in the story to follow it for its own sake.

That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, the overwhelming majority of submissions to agencies get rejected on page 1. Can you imagine how many Millicents a truly popular agent would have to hire if they did not?

Oh, dear, I didn’t mean to send those of you new to this blog curling into the fetal position. “But Anne,” shocked writers everywhere moan, and who could blame you? “Speaking of logic, that doesn’t make sense. Why would an agent request a full manuscript if he doesn’t intend to read all of it?”

In a word, time. Some small fraction of those requested manuscripts will make it past Millicent’s line-by-line scrutiny, after all, and isn’t it fortunate that she’ll have the rest of those books on hand when she does? If all the agent asked to see was the opening page or two (which, I should note, some agencies do ask queriers to include; check individual submission requirements), then Millie would have to stop after being wowed by an opening, contact the writer, and ask for another chunk. If her boss asked for the full manuscript, she can simply read on.

To be fair, requesting the full manuscript used to mean precisely what excited successful queriers and pitchers still usually believe it does: that the query or pitch excited great professional interest on the agency end. In days of yore — which is to say: more than years ago, a lifetime in a trend-based business — the usual positive response entailed asking to see the first 50 pages, or perhaps the opening chapter.

Before you sigh gustily and long for a time machine, so you could pop back to the 1980s, land an agent, and wing back to find yourself a well-established and long-beloved author, though, consider this: accepting electronic queries or submissions was unheard-of then. Many an aspiring writer still produced her manuscripts on typewriters then, rendering very real the possibility that she would accidentally send an agent her old copy. It would also have been much, much harder for that writer to learn much of anything about the agents she intended to approach: agencies posting websites at all is a relatively recent phenomenon, even by Internet standards.

Does any or all of that make you feel better about the fact that the advent of widespread personal computer ownership and the later easy access to worldwide connectivity have caused an astronomical rise in the number of queries and submissions those agents receive in any given week? Probably not, at least if you’re like the hefty majority of first-time submitters who believe that the only factor an agent or editor could possibly consider in deciding whether to acquire a manuscript is the quality of the writing.

Oh, are some of you still curled up like shrimp? I am sorry. “This logic is making my head spin,” those maintaining the fetal position protest. “I get that agencies are busy, busy places, but how is it possible to judge the talent of a writer of book-length works by the first, second, or fiftieth line of text? Shouldn’t novels be judged, you know, as a whole?”

In an ideal world, yes, but as you may have noticed, we don’t live in one.

Or so those of us who read for a living surmise from the fact that the reading public is perpetually barraged with so many logically-convoluted sentences every day. Apparently, we’re all just expected to rearrange the running order ourselves. In a well-ordered universe, that surely would not be the case.

Admittedly, that’s not all that difficult in our example — unless either the news ticker-writer or the governor knows something about how storms work that the rest of us do not, reason dictates only one possible intended meaning, right? Storms cause flooding, not the other way around. But as any hair-rending agent, editor, or literary contest judge would be only too glad to tell you, it’s the writer’s job to produce clear text, not the reader’s job to guess what the writer actually meant.

Or, to put it another way, logical flow is the minimum requirement in professional writing, not an optional extra. Readers of published books have a completely legitimate right to expect every sentence in a narrative to make sense, without having to put in the extra effort required to change running order, as I did above.

And no, in response to what half of you just thought (and quite loudly, too), logical flow is not just the acquiring editor’s problem. Yes, your future publisher will most likely employ copyeditors to spot this type of gaffe, but in the current over-stuffed literary battleground, it’s rare that editors, contest judges, or agents will not expect a talented writer serious about getting published to proofread his work closely enough to catch it himself.

Ah, how gratifying: my regular readers automatically shouted that they habitually read every syllable they submit or enter IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and preferably OUT LOUD. That’s solid strategy, as well as the best way to weed out such inadvertent errors. It’s also a means of obtaining a competitive edge at submission time, because, frankly, the overwhelming majority of manuscripts appear to Millicent not to have been proofread at all.

Heck, many of them don’t appear to be spell-checked. Folks seem to be in too much of a hurry.

That’s a genuine pity, because as I like to point out early and often on this blog, one of the double-edged differences between writing on a typewriter and composing on a computer lies in the latter’s comparative ease of revision. Changing even a single word in a sentence used to require White-Out (ask your grandparents, children); altering a description could require retyping entire pages. And let’s not even talk about how much easier automatic pagination makes life for writers; imagine having to renumber pp. 328-472 by hand, just because you had a second thought about that scene ending on page 327.

Don’t see a down side to being able to copy and paste your favorite paragraph from Chapter 3 and plunk it down in Chapter 1, where a line-by-line reader like Millicent might be better able to appreciate it, or to insert a startling new descriptor in a formerly lackluster sentence without being forced to ink over the original verbiage? Millie does: all too often, a self-editor in a hurry will forget to read over the resulting scene, to check for logical flow. The result, I tremble to report, frequently looks like this:

“What is that a tidal wave?” Gabriella glanced toward the horizon, turning toward the window. “I’m worried by that news report. Maybe I should see what the ocean is doing today.”

Oh, you may laugh, but Millicent actually does see incomplete revisions this logically mixed-up. Yes, we could invest the energy in figuring out the possible intended running orders, but is it legitimate for the author to expect us to determine whether she meant to say this?

“I’m worried by that news report. Maybe I should see what the ocean is doing today.” Gabriella turned toward the window, glancing toward the horizon. “What is that? A tidal wave?”

Or this?

“What is that?” A tidal wave?” Gabriella glanced toward the horizon, checking for violent cloud activity.

Musette remained focused upon her newspaper and warm fire. “Yes, I’m worried by that news report, too. Maybe we should see what the ocean is doing today.”

Quite different situations, are they not? Can you think of any particular advantage the writer of the original version derived from expecting us to tinker with the logic to this extent?

Only one strikes me as at all likely: time. Our author was in a hurry, clearly, either at initial composition time or when revising this excerpt. Perhaps he even intended to come back and rework it, but all of a sudden, Millie’s boss, the agent of his dreams, requested the manuscript. Besides, a copyeditor will catch any lingering problems down the line, right?

Perhaps — but she might not get the chance, if Millicent stops reading. And could you really blame Millie for not fighting her way through the twisted version?

Since a disturbingly high proportion of you just mentally shouted, “Yes! It’s her job to see past the rough edges to the underlying brilliance of that submission,” allow me to tinker with this example in order to render it more reflective of what screeners often see. Slip into Millicent’s well-worn moccasins for a moment, and picture a manuscript featuring the following four gems on three consecutive pages:

Jacob ran his hands through his full head of hair. “I can’t believe I forgot to proofread the news ticker before put it on air.”

Arleen reached a sympath hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, Jared. It could happen anybody.”

Still reading, Millie? You’re a trooper. We’ll press on with you.

“But Governor,” Jared gasped, slapping his bald scalp, “you can’t be serious! I can’t tell viewers that gravity is no longer operational?”

Governor Medfly frowned. “Our citizenry deserves we can’t lie to them to know the truth.”

Persisting in your love of literature? Read on.

The house would soon be swamped by the rising flood, that was apparent. {Insert some show-don’t-tell stuff here.} Boats were already flying into the sky, knocking rain from the ominous cloud cover.

Stop rolling your eyes at me; submissions occasionally turn up in agencies with writers’ revision notes included this obviously. So do contest entries. (I speak from experience, but because I love you people, I shan’t induce nightmares by describing any specific occasion.)

Let’s say for the sake of argument, though, that Millicent has become intrigued by the fascinating pretzels into which the laws of physics seem to be bending themselves in this manuscript. Let’s take a gander at the context for the earlier example.

Water flew skyward. Droplets covered the window so rapidly that she had to open it to see the horizon.

“What is that a tidal wave?” Gabriella glanced toward the horizon, turning toward the window. “I’m worried by that news report. Maybe I should see what the ocean is doing today.”

Musette squirmed in her cozy chair. “The governor said not to worry. Knock it off your whining, already.”

Starting to sense a pattern here? Millicent would. Clearly, this is a manuscript still in the throes of revision; it might be wonderful down the line — I, for one, would like to know how that whole sky-flooding thing works out for Gabriella and the gov — but it certainly is not yet ready for publication. So why, Millie is left to wonder, did the author send it now, rather than when the revision-in-progress was complete?

I can answer that one: time. The author may not have any more of it to spare than Millicent or her boss. The crucial difference, though, is that while rushing an unproofed manuscript out the door — often, these days, by the simple expedient of hitting SEND — will usually merely save the fine folks at the agency some time, it can doom the author to rejection. Think about it: what would tell a busy agent that this would be a time-consuming author to represent more effectively than the run of text we’ve just seen? Wouldn’t some luckless soul at the agency have to proofread everything he submitted before the agent could possibly submit it to a publishing house?

So yes, knee-huggers, it is a trifle unfair to judge an entire manuscript by just a few lines, but most professional readers can tell pretty quickly whether that small logic flow problem on page 2 is indicative of a larger pattern across the manuscript. Manuscript gaffes are like ants, after all: one does occasionally see one trudging along in isolation, but generally speaking, they travel in groups.

Oh, you thought that the news ticker text contained only one faux pas? Want to help me count up the number of necessary apostrophes it omitted that day, or how many repetitions it took before someone on staff noticed that Egypt had been spelled without a y?

As I said, we see evidence of writing haste all the time, but that does not mean that the level of gaffe-forgiveness most of us extend to our e-mail correspondents has permeated the publishing industry’s expectations for exciting new manuscripts. Take the time to make sure your text makes sense, not only on the story level, but in every sentence as well.

Millicent’s scalp will thank you. Old time may be still a-flying, but her lovely hair need not. Keep up the good work!

These are the times that try editors’ souls

No time for a lengthy missive today, I’m afraid, but I could not resist sharing a bit of tangible evidence in support of a theory long lurking in the minds of editors across the English-writing world: in recent years, many people’s eye-brain connections seem to have ceased working reliably. At least insofar as signage is concerned, citizens of this great land have evidently decided that if a piece of prose sounds vaguely like what its writer had in mind, well, that’s close enough to print.

To an editor, that logic represents the first step down the slippery slope that leads to, well, a heck of a lot of work. If nailing down a precise meaning in writing has ceased to have social value, what’s next? Widespread confusion of colons with semicolons? Ravening packs of the untutored roaming the streets, doubling or even tripling prepositions? Or even — avert your eyes, children — eschewing proofreading altogether?

Whom the gods would destroy, Euripides informed us, they first drive mad. Clearly, this was the kind of thing he had in mind.

I’m not merely talking about grocery store signage that adds an extraneous -e to potato or tomato, the misguided belief that pointless abbreviations such as tonite, thru, and alright have ever actually saved anybody any time, or even the bizarre gender blindness that struck otherwise perfectly reasonable people in the media to toss subject-object agreement to the winds in the mid-1980s, causing everyone and their monkey to crowd everyone and her monkey practically out of the language as she is spoke — although, naturally, the literate find such slips inexplicable. Many of my fellow editors insist that we should expect no better from people incapable of understanding why a female member of Congress might conceivably be known on paper as a Congresswoman, rather than a Congressman. Once it became necessary to begin explaining to even fairly well-educated people why paragraphs should be indented, handlers of manuscripts everywhere began hearing the resounding thumps of barbarian weaponry upon the gates of civilization.

I do not take such a dismal view of the matter, but I must confess, bungled logic in print drives me precisely as nuts as our pal Euripides predicted. Take, for instance, the undoubtedly generous offer that appeared in a local paper recently:

Did that second paragraph make you beard the heavens with your bootless cries? Or, like vast majority of the comparatively carefree denizens of the greater Seattle metropolitan area, did your eye simply gloss over it?

Unfortunately for editorial sanity, but fortunately for literature, those of us that read for a living do not enjoy the luxury of believing that close enough is fine for print. English is a language that permits, nay, positively encourages precision: just look at the stunning array of adjectives you have at your disposal. The benighted composer of the free pizza offer above had every bit as many tools at his disposal (nice subject-object agreement, eh?) as the next fella, yet fell down on the descriptive job.

To his credit, he does appear to have realized that his prose might be just a tad confusing to those who believe that words carry specific meanings. To an editorial eye, a phrase like to be clear can indicate only one of two authorial fears: either the writing immediately before it lacks communicative oomph, or the writer isn’t too sure of the comprehension capacities of the reader.

In this case, both terrors probably governed word choice. Let’s take a closer look. Because I love you people, I shall spare you the — sacre bleu! — all-caps presentation of the original.

After the costume parade, head up to Pagliacci for a free slice for your little monster! And to be clear, only kids in costume accompanied by a parent will be served.

Did you catch it, now that the eye-distracting formatting is gone? No? Would it help to know that what the writer almost certainly meant was this?

After the community-sponsored costume parade has run its course, we at this fine pizza emporium would be pleased to serve a free slice to any child in costume who shows up clutching the hand of either a biological or adoptive parent.

But that’s not what the original actually said, was it? Read literally, these were the preconditions for scarfing down some pie gratis:

(1) The potential scarfer must be a minor.

(2) The potential scarfer cannot show up before the parade has ended.

(3) The potential scarfer must be in costume.

(4) The potential scarfer’s costume must also be occupied by a parent — and, the use of the plural kids implies, possibly one or more other children.

Now, I can certainly picture a few charming two-wearer costumes — if the child in question were open to being strapped to a guardian’s chest at a 45-degree angle, the pair could form a wonderful spider. However, long practical experience with both advertising and careless writing leads me to conclude that the pizza-hawkers almost certainly did not intend to limit their offer to only literal readers with creative multi-party costumes on hand.

Oh, don’t roll your eyes at me. It’s my job to nit-pick. “But Anne,” eye-rollers everywhere protest, “I was not confused at all by the original version. It was clear enough what the pizza-mongers meant. I can see why prose imprecision might be unacceptable in a high literary manuscript, but why get so exorcised about a small slip?”

However did you manage to slip through that gate, barbarian? We in the editorial keep already have boiling pitch prepared to fling onto the noggins of all comers.

Seriously, those of us that read for a living are perpetually flabbergasted by how many writers seem to cling to a close-enough-is-good-enough philosophy. Clarity constitutes the minimum requirement for professional writing, not an optional extra. As a reader, I’m sure you would agree: on the printed page, you don’t believe it’s your responsibility to guess what the author probably meant, do you? It’s the author’s job to convey precisely what she had in mind.

Contrary to astonishingly pervasive belief amongst aspiring writers, it’s not an agent, editor, or contest judge’s job to speculate, either. No matter how often any of us are treated to the sight of unclear, poorly written, or logically convoluted prose, the trick to catching a sharp editorial eye in a positive way lies in choosing your words with care.

Oh, and not stubbornly retaining topical jokes after their expiration date just because you happen to like them. ( I had intended to use that last paragraph a couple of weeks ago, you see.)

Yet another reason to read your submissions and contest entries IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, of course. Since the human eye, editorial or otherwise, tends to read about 70% faster on a backlit screen, even the most dedicated self-editor will be substantially more likely to catch subtle gaffes on a printed page. You wouldn’t want to leave Millicent the agency screener wondering just how many family members your text wanted her to envision stuffed into a single costume, would you?

Actually, the barbarians currently howling at the gate might actually prove helpful in this endeavor. Bless their unrepentant hearts, their lack of precision in wielding the language provides would-be self-editors with abundant opportunities to sharpen their editorial eyes. The photo at the top of this post, for instance: scroll up and give it your best nit-pick.

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “By Jove, that restaurant appears to be ordering lunch customers to bring their own egg roll and rice!” award yourself a gold star for the day. Come w(ith) egg roll in any other context would in fact mean that the speaker would expect the hearer either to show up with an egg roll — not the kind of thing most of us tote around habitually — or to accompany an egg roll on some unspecified journey. Neither, you must admit, seems like a particularly inviting prospect for restaurant patronage.

Snag a second gold star from petty cash if you also bellowed, “Nor is that the only labor the poor potential customer is evidently expected to perform. Why should the diner steam her own rice?” As steam is a verb, it must logically be a command to the reader; steamed, on the other hand, is an adjective that might conceivably be applied to rice.

Whom the gods would not see published, first they burden with an inability to spot the differences between parts of speech. While I’d like to think that they have also provided a special spot in Hades for sign-printers too callous to point out such problems, perhaps we should all be grateful for the proofreading practice advertising provides us all on a daily basis.

Excuse me — some charming visitors bearing pitchforks and torches appear to be banging on the gate, just in time for lunch. Perhaps they were courteous enough to bring their own egg rolls. Keep up the good work!