Actually, it isn’t neatness per se that counts; it’s attention to detail. As a teacher and an editor, I am disturbed when correct form is not followed. I’m even more disturbed when I see grammar, spelling, or usage errors in submissions. I’m horrified when these mistakes creep into my own work. (How about that for transference? Those mistakes aren’t my fault, apparently, if they somehow manage to worm their way into my story all by themselves.)
Grammar, spelling, and usage errors will affect a grade in my class. They’ll also make a rejection more likely if I see them in a submission to my magazine. And I don’t think my attitude is unique.
This was emphasized for me at the “First Pages Critique” during the recent James River Writers Conference in Richmond. It’s an interesting session: the first pages of several manuscripts are read aloud and critiqued by a panel of three literary agents in front of an audience. It’s a little like American Idol, without the screaming fans. A couple of the agents noted grammar and punctuation errors (misplaced commas) in a number of the manuscripts. It wasn’t clear that they would have rejected any of these manuscripts simply because of wild comma, but the fact that these mistakes were noticed was significant. Anything that bugs an agent or an editor is not going to help your manuscript make it through the screening process. There’s too much competition, and we have to do our best to make sure that our work will survive.
But here’s the problem: many writers don’t know grammar, and they certainly don’t know the rules for comma. Although I’m pretty well educated, I didn’t either until I began TEACHING. I saw the same mistakes over and over again and realized I needed to be able to articulate the rules in order to teach them. I learned. You can, too.
>Sometimes it's even worse than just ignorance of the rules. Last week, I took the time to show someone that a story of his was inconsistent in the use of certain punctuation marks. I showed what the rule was governing each case, and how he sometimes followed it, and sometimes didn't. Response (I'm paraphrasing): "Rule according to whom? I'm not letting anyone tell me where to place my quotation marks [or other such marks]." And this was a friend, mind you.
Some people think it attractively roguish to flaunt their flouting of pretty well-established rules of grammar and punctuation. Do it if you know the rule, and if it serves some purpose other than distracting people who know the rules. (My friend's response when I mentioned that people who know the rules would be distracted by this: "I don't care about those kinds of readers." Oh, well.)
>What handbook do you recommend to your students?
>It's absolutely true that many people don't care, and presumably they won't care when I reject their stories (for fail them in my class). I had this discussion not long ago when I ranted about a mistake in the use of the verb "to lie" in a novel I'd read; a friend denounced my "prescriptive" view of grammar. But I don't think I'm ready for that kind of revolution; I like precision in language, and that's what the rules are about.
@Bunny — because my school previously required Freshmen comp students to buy Diana Hacker's A Writer's Reference (they dropped the requirement this year) that's the one I recommend. It's excellent on grammar and usage (although incomplete, of course; I rely on Chicago Manual of Style) and also includes a good summary of various disciplinary citation methods.
>Can I take your class? (Sorry: May I take your class?)
>I've been an editor for many years (as well as a fiction writer), so I find it egregious when creative types seem to think they don't need to understand grammar and punctuation basics. Equally irritating, however, are editors who are sticklers for rules but have a tin ear for prose.
In fiction (especially literary fiction) there IS room for creative interpretation. This is particularly true with the usage of commas and semicolons, which can be interchanged in certain circumstances; sentence fragments need not be outlawed; comma "splices" are sometimes intentional; em-dashes and parentheses "sound" different (and technically have different applications), but can be employed somewhat interchangeably as well. And so on.
>Anne, I agree with most of that. There are valid reasons to break most of the "rules." I don't think I'd let a writer play fast and loose with semicolons, though. I sometimes employ a creative comma or two myself.