Authors submit manuscripts to publishers believing the publisher will simply have an editor fix any grammatical problems with the book. While publishers do have editors, if the book is filled with grammatical errors, the publisher is unlikely to consider it. Authors should get their books edited first before submitting to a publisher.
Recently, I heard an author defend her self-published book, after a reviewer complained about its grammatical errors, by saying, “I didn’t write the book to pass the standards of an English professor.” That has to be one of the most ignorant, uninformed things I’ve ever heard an author say. Believe it or not, ninety-nine percent of readers have the same standards as English professors, and while they may not know every rule of grammar perfectly, when readers find a mistake, they take great delight in laughing over it, pointing it out to friends, and even telling the author.
Sadly, many self-published authors have learned the hard way that they should have gotten their books edited. Even harder is when an author pays to have a book edited, only to find out the editor did a sloppy job and had no business pretending to be an editor.
How can you be certain the editor you hire knows what he or she is doing? If you’re an author who doesn’t know perfect grammar yourself, this question can be daunting. Before you hire an editor, ask that he or she edit a couple of pages of your manuscript as a sample so you can see what the editor thinks needs to be done. Make sure you look over the editor’s corrections carefully. If you’re up to it, purposely put a few mistakes in your sample edit to see whether the editor catches them. Below are three common problems I often hear readers, publishers, and book reviewers complain about seeing in books. Plant a few of these in your writing sample, and if your proposed editor catches them, you’ll know you found someone truly qualified to edit your book.
The number one problem I see in manuscripts today is the use of “they” to refer to everyone and everything possible. I think authors, not wanting to be sexist, are trying to avoid using solely “he.” They think “he and she” sounds awkward so they use “they” instead. For example:
When you complain to the store manager, they may not want to listen to you.
Store manager is singular but the pronoun that refers to it, “they,” is plural. Your pronoun must agree with your noun (They must both be singular or both be plural). You can correct the sentence in any of the following ways:
When you complain to the store manager, he may not want to listen to you.
When you complain to the store manager, she may not want to listen to you.
When you complain to the store manager, he or she may not want to listen to you.
You can use either “he” or “she” or both, so long as you are consistent. You might want to use “he and she” the first time to acknowledge you are not sexist, but then use “he” after that simply because it sounds be less awkward. The problem with using “he and she” is that it becomes awkward when you have a longer sentence. For example:
When you complain to the store manager, they may not want to listen to you because they do not believe you know what you are talking about while they have twenty years of experience running their store.
If you try not to be sexist here, you’ll end up with a ridiculous sentence that says:
When you complain to the store manager, he or she may not want to listen to you because he or she does not believe you know what you are talking about while he or she has twenty years of experience running his or her store.
Almost always, the best solution will be to make both the noun and pronoun plural. At times, this solution may also sound awkward, but it usually reads better than a lot of “he and she” phrases:
When you complain to store managers, they may not want to listen to you because they do not believe you know what you are talking about while they have many years of experience running their stores.
Notice I also changed “twenty years” to “many years” since different managers will have different numbers of years of experience.
If your editor gets this one wrong, I would not hire him or her in a million years. Chances are he or she will know which word (there, their, or they’re) to use in which context, but go ahead and throw in a few wrong uses of these words just to test how much attention he or she pays to detail. If you aren’t sure yourself about how to use these words, here are the answers:
1. “There” usually refers to a noun (a person, place, or thing). For example:
There are ten trees over there.
The first “there” refers to the trees, tangible, physical things. The second “there” in “over there” refers to a place.
2. “Their” refers to something that belongs to more than one person.
I gave them back their money.
Money belongs to “them.”
Jared and Susie invited me to their house.
The house belongs to Jared and Susie.
3. “They’re” is a contraction, which means it combines two words “they” and “are” into one word. For example:
The park where they’re going is on the lakeshore.
It could be written as:
The park where they are going is on the lakeshore.
It would not make sense here to say either:
The park where their going is on the lakeshore.
The park where there going is on the lakeshore.
WHETHER and IF
The difference between “whether” and “if” is overlooked by all but the very best editors. If you want to make sure you have an editor who really understands grammar, try writing a few sentences using “if” where you should have “whether.”
“If” should only be used for cause and effect sentences. For example:
If you continue to jump up and down, you will become tired.
Jumping is the cause that leads to the effect or result of being tired.
We commonly misuse “if” in everyday speech, and we all know what is meant by it, but it should not be misused when writing. For example, we might say:
Mother wants to know if you want ice cream.
There is no cause and effect here. If you reversed the sentence, it wouldn’t make sense to say:
If you want ice cream, Mother wants to know.
You can figure out the sense of it, but it is not cause and effect. It might make sense, however, to say:
If you want ice cream, Mother will get angry.
That makes sense, assuming Mother doesn’t like you to have ice cream.
The correct sentence would be:
Mother wants to know whether you want ice cream.
If you like, you might also write:
Mother wants to know whether or not you want ice cream.
However, “or not” is not really necessary—it is implied in the context.
A good way to determine whether you should use “if” or “whether” is to see whether you can flip the sentence around if “if” is in the middle. For example:
I’ll never speak to you again if you hit me.
If you hit me, I’ll never speak to you again.
Both sentences make sense because they imply cause and effect, while it does not make sense to say:
I’ll never speak to you again whether you hit me.
You can easily find other tricky little sentences that a good editor should know how to fix. The bottom line is that you need to have your work edited, and you need to make sure you hire an editor who will do a good job. The last thing you want is to pay someone to do editing when he or she does not do quality work. Do not be afraid to interview a potential editor, ask him to do a sample edit for you, and ask him for references from past clients or for the titles of a few books he has edited so you can look at those books to see whether (not “if”) he did a quality job. If he didn’t do a quality job, look elsewhere. Your book deserves the best edit possible.
Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.