In which I confess to the guilt I feel about correcting grammar and other errors in manuscripts I’ve been asked to look at. How much input is too much? Or am I doing the author a favor? Grammar is important, folks.
So I’m in the midst of judging a contest for unpublished authors. I love judging, editing and helping writers learn their craft, but I’ve hit a dilemma: what to do with terrible entries. I can spend hours on a single entry. For the most part, their ideas are fine and they have a grasp on their story. However, the execution is, for the most part, weak. Major grammar errors, word choice errors, punctuation errors, structure errors, inconsistencies, characters out of character, contradictions, etc. Because of who I am (former English teacher, self-proclaimed grammar aficionado—but not spelling; never spelling), I can’t help but line edit as I judge.
Having entered many contests in the past, I do have experience with being ripped apart. I never took it badly. Yes, sometimes I dismissed what the judges said because it was ridiculous (“Cartegena? What’s that?”—yes, this was a comment on one of my entries a long time ago and it made everything the judge said suspect; in that same contest, I received a very low score from this judge and a near perfect score from the other; it happens more often than you think.), but mostly when the judges wrote something, I mulled it over and absorbed it. More than once a judge has caught something that made me say, “Oh my God, she’s right. How could I have done that?” In one particular instance a judge pointed out that one of my characters needed a bath. She was so right, so in went a quick bath scene. In most every circumstance, I’ve learned from entering contests and always appreciated the effort given to my entry.
Which leads me to my dilemma. I don’t want to be discouraging, but in these entries from rank beginners, the writing itself is getting in the way of the story. The entries are difficult to get through because of the grammar and punctuation errors.
They are nowhere close to submission to an editor or agent, or even being ready for a contest. These are basic writing concepts that they don’t understand. It makes me think that they don’t have anyone with ability to read their manuscripts. Many people enter contests for the feedback because they have no one else. Maybe no one has told them you don’t punctuate actions tags the same as speech tags. Maybe no one has told them that speech tags should be limited mostly to “said” and “asked”, that you can’t gasp or laugh or urge or smile a sentence. Maybe no one has pointed out the humorous mistakes that dangling participles make, or that run-ons are annoying, or that too many fragments reduce their impact.
Worse. Maybe they do have readers they trust and think they know what they are doing, but they don’t.
Worst. Maybe when they see all the markings I’ve left, they’ll be devastated.
I always find something that they do well and leave notes to the effect that I admire that they’re writing, that they have great ideas, but they need to work on the fundamentals first. But that still leaves the actual manuscript with all the “red marks.” Is that part of growing a thick skin?
I mean well, but I can’t help myself from correcting. What do you think?
(And, really, we’re talking about major errors here, not the occasional missing or misplaced comma.)
Books I’m reading now:
Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear