Burn, Which, Burn!

By Richard Curtis

Of the million ways that digital technology has impacted on publishing, one that has not been noted to my knowledge is the significance of manuscript submissions online. Only a few years ago, the only procedure for submission of manuscripts by authors and agents was US mail or, in urgent cases, courier or messenger. Emailing manuscripts as attachments unless expressly requested by editors was a breach of protocol to say nothing of good manners.

Two or three years ago that changed. Though unsolicited material was still prohibited, email submissions by recognized authors and agents were accepted, and today this practice is commonplace. But until the introduction of the Sony E-Book Reader and the Amazon Kindle, editors receiving emailed manuscripts printed them out and read them in the traditional way – on paper. Agents and authors rejoiced because the cost and bother of printing and mailing manuscripts was shifted to publishers. And though publishers bore these burdens stoically, the scramble for photocopier time, the expense of purchasing and maintaining high-speed machines, and the wasteful generation of paper were just further proof that publishing was still stuck in a twentieth century brick and mortar/mechanical business model.

Last summer, an editor told me at lunch that her company had experimentally distributed Sony E-Book Readers to its editorial staff and encouraged it to download manuscript submissions into the device and read them that way. She said she was deliriously happy; it solved a million problems from schlepping heavy manuscripts in back-straining briefcases and backpacks, to shameful waste of environmental resources. Some other benefits were the ability to read books on crowded buses and subways without having to shuffle pages.

Since then, publisher after publisher has followed suit. As a great many editors commute between Brooklyn and Manhattan, the subway line between the boroughs has been nicknamed the Sony Express. (Some editors prefer to read submissions on Amazon Kindles.)

An unexpected byproduct of this innovation is that Word for Windows documents, the format of choice for most authors, display typographical and grammatical errors in the forming of glaring underlines, which I call Reddies and Greenies. Misspelled words elicit a squiggly red underline informing the viewer of a typo. Incorrect grammatical usage elicits a squiggly green underline. Authors can call up correct spelling and grammar at the stroke of a key, and at another stroke substitute the correct usage for incorrect or override the computer’s didactic but almost always correct remonstrations, such as an oddly spelled proper name or a deliberate misuse of grammar for special effect. The word processing functions generating these corrections are known as Spell Check and Grammar Check, but I refer to them as those schoolmarm twins from Eastern Europe, Spelczek and Gramaczek.

Unfortunately, all too many authors ignore the finger-shaking of those schoolmarms and submit their manuscripts replete with reddies and greenies. And if you are guilty of that sin I am here to tell you to mend your ways. For one thing, the rainbow display of underlined words and sentences is a serious distraction. Editors are conditioned to spot and correct errors in manuscripts and will unconsciously – or, even worse, consciously – stop reading to ponder some solecism beckoning for attention on their screen. If they loaded your manuscript into their e-readers hoping for a page-flipping experience (as your pitch promised), they will instead find their eyes lurching from one red or green flag to another.

What’s worse, the display of all those flags may give some editors the impression that you simply can’t write.

To demonstrate my point, the link below will take you to this selfsame article, except that I have deliberately ignored spelling and grammar prompts and sprinkled it with a handful of errors. Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy ride. It will also be an educational one. You will become a better speller and a better grammarian. You may even catch Spell Check or Grammar Check in an error! (I have a running quarrel with the latest version of Spell Check, which insists on changing “dialogue” into “dialog”. Bill Gates, where did you go to school?)

It is incumbent on every writer to review his or her manuscript for spelling and grammatical errors. Getting published is hard enough without saddling yourself with the excess baggage of being judged incompetent in the tools of your craft. And shedding that baggage could not be easier. On your Word for Windows taskbar, click on Tools to enable the Spelling and Grammar function, then following the prompts and either correct your errors or ignore and override them. When you come to the end of the manuscript there will not be a reddie or greenie in sight. Hit Save and you’re all set. Gazing at a clean black and white page, you will experience pride and professionalism and you will be able to submit your manuscript with confidence that whatever else may be wrong with it, sloppy spelling and grammar are not among its faults.

As those twin schoolmarms Spelczek and Gramaczek would say – Neatness Counts!

To see a version of this text with errors, download the following Word file, BWB_errors.doc, and take a look at how Word approaches various grammar and spelling mistakes.

***

Richard Curtis is president of Richard Curtis Associates, Inc., a leading New York literary agency and founder of E-Reads, a leading e-book publisher dedicated to bringing out-of-print books back into electronic and printed forms as well as publishing new titles. He is an author, as well as an author advocate and writes a blog on the future of publishing, Richard Curtis on Publishing in the 21st Century.

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5 Comments

  1. Gloria

    Thank you for a wonderful and informative article.

    The following statement in the penultimate paragraph of the article sounded incorrect to me but I am not a professional writer so I’m wondering if someone could either explain it to me, or validate my judgement.

    “On your Word for Windows taskbar, click on Tools to enable the Spelling and Grammar function, then following the prompts and either correct your errors or ignore and override them.”

    To me, it would read better if it said ‘follow the prompts…’ or else leave out the ‘and’ after ‘prompts.’

    PS I am Australian so some of my spelling may seem incorrect to an American reader.

  2. M

    Actually I find it very funny that the author of this article does not admit submissions by email.

    Remind me, what was this article about?

    This is what his site sez

    “Do you have a manuscript or book project you feel is appropriate for our agency? Are you a previously published author looking for new representation? Please follow the guidelines below to contact the agency.

    Updated February 2008: We regret that at this time we are not considering materials from new authors. The agency no longer reads fiction or non-fiction submissions by authors who have not been previously published by a major publisher.

    Also, please note that we do not represent stage plays or screenplays, short fiction/non-fiction, or poetry. Nor do we accept queries or submissions by fax or email unless personally requested.

    . “

    More interresting is that even if you have been published by a major publisher the agency does not have a contact email.

    Nough said

  3. Joe

    Isn’t it wonderful authors can submit electronically! We have come a long way since the day of the manual Royal typewriters and movable type. However, if you are not previously published, the large houses will neither read your material nor consider publication regardless of quality. Epublishing through Lulu.com is the only way to go for unknown writers.

    If the subway has become the Sony Express more power to it!

  4. One tiny thought that occurs to me. Word and Works and all the other programs with spellcheckers and grammar checkers do not take into consideration foreign spellings, archaic words, etc. As for the grammar checker itself–I made a+ in the subject and I frequently disagree with what Word tries to tell me is the Right Way. Fragments, for instance, are often a means of setting a tone or a pace within a tale.

    One can get past the spellchecker problem by creating a dictionary as one goes along by simply adding archaic and foreign spellings, but what I insert into MY spellchecker is not going to show up in an editor’s spellchecker.

  5. Sylva Portoian

    I am looking for a person who is interested to add my poems…
    I have already 12 poetry books…
    Thanks
    Sylva

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