Another episode in what an editor is not....
An editor is not your proofreader. YOU are your proofreader. Your manuscript, when submitted, should be pristine. A few typoes in 400 pages, that's expected. (No one is perfect.) But dozens of grammar, punctuation, and usage mistakes on the first few pages? That's one of those red flags that mean "quick reject".
So why can't the editor see past those junky little errors to the wonderful story and buy it as is?
1) Editors, at least some editors, see those "junky little errors" and diagnose all sorts of character flaws: sloppiness, slackitude, insolence, unwillingness to learn, arrogance. Now you might be the neatest, hardest-working, respectful, eagerest-learning, humblest person on the planet, but I'm just sayin'—some of us make value judgments based on the condition of the manuscript. It's sort of like being seated at a dinner party next to a person who spits with every bite, and smells bad besides. We like to think of ourselves as generous, accepting people, but we do have our limits (and an author's refusal to punctuate quotes correctly is beyond my limit).
2) Refusal. See that? I know that no one REFUSES to punctuate properly, except maybe some literary writers who are intent on bursting the bonds of language traditions. For most writers, it's not a deliberate act—it's just negligence or lack of knowledge. But… but if a writer neglects basic rules, or doesn't learn them, then I'm thinking she's refusing. She's making a choice there. Even if her school didn't teach grammar or she was sick that week, every book she's read (at least those which have been edited) has been in itself a master class on how to format and punctuate. I very much doubt you can find a book out there without a period at the end of the quotes in dialogue. (She said, "Thank you very much.") So why do I see so many submissions that have dialogue that burns my eyes, and not because it's so blazingly bright, but because it has the closing quote mark with no end punctuation? On every single dialogue paragraph? (Oh, it burns! It hurts!)
Editors are (or should be) very sensitive to this stuff. I mean, if I'm reading a news article and see a dangling participle (and Time Magazine, did you fire all your copy editors? Geez—Time has really fallen from the heights of editorial accuracy to judge by recent issues, that's all I'm going to say), it's like acid in my eyes. It hurts. I have to fix it. Maybe I only fix it in my own head, or maybe I actually get a pen out and write in the correction, but I fix it. (You think I'm kidding? I write letters to the editor about this stuff on a regular basis. I think Tom Brokaw started refusing letters with my return address because in a month I wrote him five times, complaining about his insistence on using absolute phrases rather than complete sentences in his broadcast.)
So yeah, I'm making probably unjustly personal conclusions about the morals of writers who don't seem to care that they're corroding my eyes. But… most editors are sensitive this way. Just think! Instead of being acid, your submission could be, with a little work, the balm that soothes my stinging eyes. Given the choice, which do you want to be? And yes, it's a choice. And refusing that choice… well. Let's just say, it could come across as rather insolent, arrogant, and so on.
3) The editor is trying to decide whether to buy this book, send it back with revision suggestions, or just reject it. The first two options means she's going to spend some serious time reading and working on this manuscript... and she doesn't want to spend every minute closing her eyes and counting to ten because she's encountering so many errors. Someone is going to have to fix every single one of those errors before the manuscript can be sent upstairs to the editorial committee or editor-in-chief or whoever makes the final decision on acquisitions. And the editor, if she has any pride, is not going to embarrass herself by sending a junky manuscript-- so she's looking at hours of work before she even gets the go-ahead... and if this book doesn't get the go-ahead, that's wasted effort—doing your finishing work for you.
4) Editors love the English language. We actually discuss things like when to use a colon and when a dash, and the distinction between further and farther, and the funniest dangling modifier we ever came across. (We are so much fun! Really! I mean, doesn't that sound like it should get a gold medal in the conversation Olympics?) But writers should love the language too. Artists love their paintbrushes and paints, and writers should love their grammar and words. But some submissions exhibit a certain disdain for the writer's tools, as if story is all that counts. It's not. Presentation of the narrative counts too—and that really is as much the writer's job as plotting the story. (And it's YOUR job, not the editor's, to make the presentation enhance the story.)
Just think of the parallel in music—I can sing "Chain of Fools," but I can just about guarantee you'd rather hear Aretha Franklin sing it. What's the difference? Presentation. Voice. Technique. (Talent, pitch… well, we could go on and on.) Those matter, and they matter more to the sophisticated listener/reader than to the newbie. Well, you're not submitting to someone who reads two books a year. You're submitting to editors who have high standards. Don't let your submission proclaim, "I don't care about standards." Editors do. Don't diss my language love— it should be part of your value system too.
5) A poorly proofed manuscript suggests that the editor can't trust the writer. Imagine walking into a dentist's office and seeing dirt everywhere. There's something slimy on the chair, and the instruments that are going to go into your mouth are spotted with blood. What would you do? Even if the dentist is proudly displaying a Harvard diploma and many awards, you're probably skeptical that this is the best person to handle your dental hygiene. Well, your prose is like the office, the chair, the instruments. Can we trust your ability to handle plot and character if you can't clean up your prose?
Yes, the editor can do the cleanup work, just as you can sterilize those dental instruments and wash the chair down with bleach. But even if I as an editor want to focus my attention on the small-picture details rather than the big-picture story elements, I have to remember—I can't edit everything you write. Let's say I knock myself out and transform that tattered prose into something marvelously readable. But you're the one who is going to be starting your own blog and beefing up your website to promote the book. You're the one who is going to post the "author comment" on the book's Amazon page. You're the one who is going to write the personal notes to your favorite reviewers. You don't want reading your unedited prose to be as disenchanting as seeing a Hollywood starlet without makeup. ("Ewww.")
It's not just your own reputation at risk if your subsequent writing doesn't match the impeccability of your published material. The publisher is also going to appear less than discerning if reviewers or readers are wondering, "Who would have published a writer like this?"
I know I'm preaching to the choir here. The very fact that you're reading an editor blog means you're interested in revising and polishing. But fortunately for you, a lot of your competition isn't so conscientious. So as you send off that perfectly punctuated and formatted manuscript, be proud that you're presenting your best work—and that you're not the one who will get that quick rejection.