Grammar and the Inferiority Complex

It is universally claimed that one of the major reasons submissions get rejected is because of grammar errors. That an agent will take one look at the spotty pages and toss it out. 

So those of you who have done the research and understand the submission process to the best you can, of course you comb through your pages, even futilely AFTER you send it (I see you, you anxiety-ridden worker bees). And upon re-reading you discover that you misplaced a comma, or even worse, misused a homophone! So you agonize when that rejection letter comes in, was it because you spelled the witch’s altar with an “e”? How could you have been so dumb?

I’m here to reassure you. We are human, we make mistakes. Publishers have entire departments whose soul job (see what I did there?) is to make sure their content is grammar-error free. And even then it’s not a hundred percent, we’ve all caught a random error in a published book. 

Sure, there are professionals (or people in general) who will judge your pre-published work based on its grammatical precision. But before you label yourself stupid or inferior for making those mistakes, try to see the bigger picture.

“Perfect” grammar is an inherently classist concept (PrintRun Podcast has a wonderful episode about this: Grammar and Power). Someone who belittles others about grammar, had the privilege of an elite education. They are attempting to wield power–their intention is to make you feel inferior, nothing else.

And by default, agents sit in a position of power. Power creates hubris. It’s a reality we’ve all been faced with. Some deal with it better than others.

So turn the picture around. Consider what you want in a literary agent. If an agent actually rejects your submission because of specific grammar errors (potentially rules that you were not educated in) do you want to work with them? Coming from such different perspectives, will they understand or relate to the content and be able to champion it with the passion and sensitivity it deserves?

This is not to say you should toss all your grammar concerns aside. Odds are your submission isn’t getting very far because your writing is underdeveloped. Writing is first and foremost an apprenticeship. You should be continuously honing your skills, including your proof-reading abilities, so your prose reaches toward your ultimate goal, whether it be more elevated, more streamlined, easier to read, more beautiful etc.

This may seem like conflicting advice, don’t worry and do worry about grammar. To be clear, understanding why grammar is important and how to wield it, can and will strengthen your writing. This education is an attainable power, but there is no shame in your ignorance of it. Your path is different, but your work is not inferior. Anyone who tells you different, whatever position of power they hold, is the one with the complex.

2 Comments

  • Keli T Vice

    June 14, 2019 at 12:00 pm Reply

    “SOUL JOB” – love it 🙂

  • Jan M Flynn

    June 14, 2019 at 11:38 am Reply

    As a recovering English teacher, I appreciate your perspective on this. Looking past the occasional typo or comma splice to see the gripping story concept is, I’m sure, a skill that agents hone with practice. And while I proofread diligently before I send anything out, I have certainly experienced that plunging sensation in the stomach when I discover a glaring error after the fact. So I’m comforted to hear that there is mercy out there 🙂

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