We know that writers have to get their work as close to perfect as possible to get it published: but the fact that publishers insist on paying editors to then edit those books before they are published implies to some that books don’t have to be quite as perfect as is commonly thought before they are submitted. And if that’s the case, what mistakes can writers get away with when they submit their work and what can’t they afford to get wrong?
- The basics of spelling, grammar and punctuation must be there. If the odd error has sneaked into your work then you’re not facing an automatic rejection; if you show a persistent-but-consistent error which is relatively easy to correct, like using a hyphen where you should use a dash, then again you’re not doing yourself too much harm. But if you misspell several words on every page, you don’t seem to understand the correct use of the comma, and you pepper your whole manuscript with extended ellipses then that is going to signal to an editor that your book will need a substantial amount of work to get right—and will probably lead to rejection.
- It’s always possible to strengthen something: if a character isn’t quite believable a good writer can work them more deeply into their scenes; new scenes can plug holes in gappy plots; structures can be consolidated or broken down; and a swingeing edit can work wonders on a flagging story-line, increasing the pace and tightening the story. The problem comes when all of these things need a lot of attention: the book will be very time-consuming to edit and with so much in need of revision it’s difficult to be sure that the book will end up publishable. Rejection is the probable result.
- The story has to be good. There is absolutely no point at all in constructing the perfect plot around a story which no one is interested in, or a story which people find repellent. Your story has to be really good, not just good enough.
- If you have a good story and have perfected the structure, plot and characterisation, you still cannot guarantee that you have written a publishable book. What you also really have to have is a good voice—a unique, engaging and enticing voice. And this is the one thing that you have to get completely right if you want to be published because it’s the one thing a good editor cannot help you with. It infuses every page of your manuscript and informs everything that you write. The stronger your voice, the more leeway you will be allowed with the rest of the book, and the more likely you are to get published regardless of what errors might lurk in your texts.