The Writer’s Toolbox or Grammer It Ain’t

Of course I know how to spell the word “grammar.” I know the word “ain’t” isn’t a word in the world of proper English. I also know the difference between “its” and “it’s,” and when you use “who” rather than “what.”

All writers should. Possessing proper English skills is a writer’s foundation, similar to knowing how to properly wield a hammer would be to a master carpenter, or understanding the nature of fractions would be to a mathematician. Those are pieces of basic knowledge that must be mastered before you can go on to anything else in the field.

Serious writers use this basic tool in all their communications. Yet, surprisingly, what some of us editors are seeing are writers who feel that they can save their tools for their formal submissions and go “casual” elsewhere—in their blog posts and comments, in online forums, and even in e-mail inquires. This is mistaken thinking.

I would no more “go casual” in any written communication than I would add Red Mountain wine the high school boys I knew used to drink at parties—a gallon for $1.49 if I remember correctly— to my Boeuf Bourguignon. You know why? The impression is not good. Fortunately, the idea of sending out a written communication that does not reflect well upon the writer is anathema to most. But not everyone.

Two queries from two different writers showed up just a few days ago.  But they had a lot in common: both arrived on the same day; both were from women; both used lowercase letters all the way through.

Did you hear me screaming?

Misspelling words or using textspeak or all lowercase or uppercase letters when querying an editor is like walking into an interview for a Wall Street firm with a purple Mohawk, a t-shirt that advocates impolite actions, and neon-orange pants that would burn the eyelids off an alligator. No one is going to say you can’t do that, but then no one is going to hire you either. If you are okay with that, then wear what you want. If your goal is to get a serious job at a serious firm, you need to follow their style.

That’s no less true for writers seeking to join a publication that takes itself seriously.  I don’t know if the proliferation of “content” sites is responsible for writers thinking they can “go casual” in their queries. But at BiblioBuffet writers who choose that route are dead in the water. If you want to write for us, it’s good to keep these rules in mind:

  • Be sure you have read and absorbed the guidelines we have on our “Write for Us” page. Then follow them. We are not out to torture applicants; what we ask for is exactly what we want—and we have reasons for it.
  • Begin with a formal style of address. My name is on the e-mail form so opening your query with “Dear Ms. Roberts” is an excellent start.
  • Always, always, always use correct spelling and punctuation. I can overlook a typo, but when I see “i” at the beginning of  a sentence I will kick your little “i” out on its serif.
  • Do not—ever!—use any version of textspeak. I hate that more than words have the power to convey.
  • It is not in your best interest to question me over the course of several e-mails about our payment rates (especially when the information is clearly posted on our website) and only after I have answered to your satisfaction to say, “when do we get started?” That is not a proper query. Adding a smiley face does not reverse the bad karma you accumulated in my eyes.
  • Closely related to the above is telling me you have a good article for me on “Bulgarian business.” Do I look like I’d be interested in Bulgarian business?
  • Ask yourself if you are you sure you understand what we do. And what we don’t do. Show me you read our site with a comment or two on a particular article that excited or angered you. Make me want you by making yourself so good I will immediately forward your e-mail onto Managing Editor Nicki Leone and say, “We need this writer!”

But regardless of who you query, be sure your toolbox is in the best shape possible. If grammar, punctuation, or spelling is not your forte, learn it. Take an English class. Buy a seventh-grade English textbook. Read Strunk & White until your eyes fall out. Own at least two dictionaries and use them regularly. Subscribe to some of the sites below and follow them.

A Way With Words: National Public Radio’s language show

A Word A Day: Be sure to subscribe to the newsletter and learn a new word every week day along with its history and usage.

Fun With Words: Games, games, and more games all centered on words.

Luciferous Logolepsy: You may not use these obscure words (though you never know) but you will certainly enjoy learning about them.

Oxford English Dictionary: Word of the Day: The king of dictionaries offers a daily e-mail with a word and its definition. 

The Vocabula Review: This publication strives to “combat the degradation of our language” as well as celebrates “its opulence and its elegance.”

The Word Detective: Language with a dose of humor is found on this site, which is the online version of the newspaper column.  

In addition to the above, and absolutely essential to any writer: read. Read books and  serious newspapers and magazines. Keep your online reading to less than fifty percent—one-third is even better—of your overall reading because studies have repeatedly shown that reading online affects our brains and our concentration levels much differently than reading books.

And if all that’s too much trouble, then you really don’t want to be a writer.

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3 Comments

Filed under BiblioBuffet

3 responses to “The Writer’s Toolbox or Grammer It Ain’t

  1. Great list of word sites!

  2. I love your final sentiment here: “And if all that’s too much trouble, then you really don’t want to be a writer.” Well said.

    And great list of sites, too!

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