Friday, March 19, 2010

Marks of the Amateur

by Alicia Rasley

Alicia Rasley is a long-time friend of the Pens and we are thrilled to have her sharing her expertise from both the point of view of an editor for Red Sage and an author! To read more about Alicia and her views, she can be found at and also blogging at

Alicia in California for L.G.C.'s Birthday!

As an editor, I get a lot of submissions, and like most editors, I can usually tell by the end of the first page if I think this proposal is worth reading. Yeah, it's unfair, I know. But it's reality. I hasten to add that it's not the subject matter or your character's name or anything content-oriented that stops me from reading.

But there are times I read the first page and see markers that this is probably not an experienced writer. An amateur, not a professional. A beginner, not an intermediate. Every editor I've ever asked has a mental list of what I call what I call "The Marks of the Amateur," that signal that this submission needs more work before it's ready to be seen.

Cruel? Maybe. But it's reality. Remember, your task in sending the first submission is to give the editor no reason to reject you. And I'll tell you something maybe no one will tell you—for many editors, these are a quick excuse to reject. (Well, the actual reject-triggers might be different for other editors.)

None of these means the writer is necessarily an amateur, of course. But why risk the assumption? Read over your submission for these mistakes, and especially the first couple pages. Now I'm not going to deal with big picture stuff, like a confusing opening or a lack of point of view or an unappealing character, just the grammatical and formatting flaws. These are the problems the editor notes in the first page and thinks, "I bet these are on every single page."

So here are the Top Ten Marks of the Amateur that you don't want in your submission. Make your manuscript look perfect, so that the editor has no excuse to instant-reject.

1. Dialogue without quote marks, or without both quote marks: "I think I love you, he said. If that doesn't immediately jump out at you, well, you need to train yourself to recognize what a quote is, and when it starts and when it ends.

2. Dialogue without the right punctuation. The editor looks at He growled "I don't have time for this" and considers how long it will take to fix every single dialogue sentence in the book…

Here's a site about punctuating dialogue.

3. Unclear attribution of dialogue, so that you have one character saying something in the same paragraph as another character acting, so it seems like Character B said what Character A said. The convention is that you start a new paragraph for every speaker, and that you focus A's paragraph on A. So when I see:
Jeremy tipped up his beer bottle but nothing came out. "I'll get the next round."
Barb went to the bar and ordered another round of beer, then returned to the table.
"Here you go. You get the next round, and I'll pay for the cab home." Jeremy nodded.
Who said what???

Why are the first three about dialogue? Well, there's a lot of dialogue in most books, so dialogue problems show up early. And they're very visible to editors, who will have to fix them. Every single one. But this is also a sign that the writer, who presumably has been reading for a couple decades, doesn't absorb much in her reading, if she's never noticed that there's a comma after quote tag, or that usually there's a change of paragraph when there's a change of speakers. Editors don't really want to have to teach slow learners the very basics of English syntax.

4. Bling punctuation and inappropriate capitalization. My co-blogger Theresa Stevens talks about "bling punctuation," which describes the overuse of fancy looking punctuation like exclamation points and semicolons. (I overuse dashes myself.) Exclamation points really call attention to themselves and when seen by sensitive readers (that is, editors), cause an uplift in tone at the end of the sentence that really grates about, oh, sentence three. Semicolons have two very specific uses, and if you don't know what they are, you shouldn't be using semicolons. :) What are other examples of bling? A lot of italics, which makes a sentence hard to read. Ellipses… which makes your sentences sound faded and indecisive. And of course, Inappropriate Capitalization. These days, we capitalize proper nouns, and the first letter in a sentence. That's about it. We don't capitalize seasons and we don't capitalize job positions and we don't capitalize most nouns. I figure I'm dealing with an amateur if I see a passage like this: In the Fall, Judy was promoted to Vice President and knew that she had finally pleased her Mother.

Truth is, we are going to a stripped down typography these days, and you should be sensitive to the examples shown in published novels.

5. Apostrophe problems. Apostrophes are used in possessive nouns and in contractions, and their proper use is a signal to the editor that you know what you're doing with words and sentences. You want to show that you understand what words mean-- that this noun is a possessive, or that this word has letters left out to make a contraction. Here's a good site to help with apostrophe use.

Apostrophe mistakes are a real "mark of the amateur"(TM) for me, and I doubt I'm the only editor who cringes at "Taylors mom really believes in marriage: She has had five husband's herself."

6. Misused words, including homophones ("sound-alikes") and misspellings that get past spell-check (that is, they are words, just not the right words). More than a couple uses of wrong words tells the editor that you aren't reading your own sentences for meaning, or you'd notice that you mention "the blogger form Indiana." And if you don't read your own work for meaning, achieving real meaning is likely to be a haphazard process. Read ALOUD. You will hear the sentences as sentences, not as collections of words. And then you'll figure out if there are any wrong words, because the sentence won't mean what you want it to mean.

For more on homophones, see Commonly Misused Words.

7. Sentence which are just strings of phrases and clauses, stuck together without regard to why they are in the same paragraph. "And" is not a bad word, but if you are connecting a lot of clauses with "and," read over and see if you are just stringing things together without any sign of why they belong together. Again, you don't want to send the signal that you don't understand the meaning (or lack thereof) of your sentences.

8. Check for dangling modifiers. These tend to be invisible to the writer but jump right out at an editor. I'd start by checking every participial phrase, as those are the ones most likely to dangle. Then look at prepositional phrases. Almost any adjectival phrase can wind up dangling. Again, reading aloud is your best revision technique at this point. LISTEN to your narration. HEAR what you're saying.

9. Participial phrases starting many sentences. I know the introductory participial phrase is suggested as a way to vary the opening of sentences, and the occasional one, if used correctly (to signify simultaneous action with the main action of the sentence) and undangled (see #8 above), is probably fine. But more than a few in your opening scene— this will make your prose sound clunky and mannered. My co-blogger and I had a long series of posts about this: There They Go, Again With the Damned Participle Rants

10. Paragraph after paragraph that are very long or very short. This indicates that you might not have thought about what goes together, and are breaking paragraphs only when you remember or reach the bottom of the page, or, alternately, after every period. A lot of one-sentence or two-sentence paragraphs tells me that you can't "hear" the rhythm of your prose or you'd realize that your family saga sounds like a children's book. Several 25-line paragraphs tell me that you are probably just rambling, and the story will be hard to read and full of digressions, because you aren't focusing on the connections that create paragraphs.

So you're telling me that you are not an amateur? I believe you. So you can't possibly want to submit a manuscript that has problems editors associate with amateurs!

Here's a tip or two. While nearly every publisher has a "house style book," these are mostly based on the proofreading rules in The Chicago Manual of Style. That's an expensive book, but if you're in a critique group, maybe you can buy a group copy. A cheaper alternative is to go to your bookshelves and pull out several books published by the big New York-based publishers. Those books will have been edited using the established rules, and each one is a master class in how to format your prose.

I don't want you to think that I'm consumed with minutiae, though of course as an editor I sort of am. And no single misplaced comma or inappropriate capitalization is going to make me reject your manuscript. But a pattern of these suggests that the writer hasn't revised well or absorbed the publishing conventions. Just don't trigger that automatic "uh-oh" with sloppy editing.

ps. From the addition to fiction Alicia publishes several booklets on various aspects of writing (she is brilliant!) and she has a book on Point of View currently available on Amazon.


L.G.C. Smith said...

Oh, now I'm even more nervous about my proofreading skills than ever!

Juliet Blackwell said...

Wow, great post, Alicia! It always amazes me how the (seemingly) little things can add up to one great big "NO". As writers, we too often get caught up in the tale itself, and forget about the tale's form.
Thanks for stopping by and visiting with the Pens!

Gigi Pandian said...

I love the term "bling punctuation." I admit I used to use ellipses ALL THE TIME. I had to force myself to quit. Great list!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great post, it really helps.
Also, your post needs a fix and that isn't meant to be a wise guy remark.

" A beginner, not an intermediate. Every editor I've ever asked has a mental list of what I call what I call "The Marks of the Amateur," that signal that this submission needs more work before it's ready to be seen.