Don’t get confused between a writer’s unique voice and the need, nonetheless, to tidy one’s text so that readers can find their way through it without stumbling around. Working on grammar and structural issues is not going to drown your voice, nor will it stifle your creative juices. In fact, that kind of close work uses entirely different mental muscles. I find that it feels more akin to working on puzzles or crosswords than anything else.
This year many students failed to get their expected grades in English GCSE. Libby Purves, in an article in the Times, raised an issue that, for her, underlies the whole fiasco. For years now, students have not been marked down by examiners when they fail to write clear, correct English. Instead, ‘creativity’ (and, presumably, good ideas) were the sole consideration when they were given their grades. One creative writing teacher I know was bemoaning the fact that so many of her undergraduate students become positively aggressive if she dares to correct their grammar. I asked her if she had thought of using games to make learning it more fun. “Games? God no! I have thought of using an AK47 though.”
Let’s face it, most white-collar professions don’t demand a knowledge of war poetry or Shakespeare. What they do require is the use of clear written English. If your grammatical presentation is good, people might think you’re intelligent, and you could rise through the ranks more quickly. I have a dyslexic client who is in a senior position in the hospitality industry. He doesn’t get aggressive or chippy about the issue of spelling and grammar: he sensibly recognises that his emails, as the company’s interface with the outside world, need to be checked before they go out. It’s just one bit of presentation, like wearing a clean suit or turning up at meetings on time.
And a warning to all those sending out manuscripts to agents or publishers. If your query letter is muddled or grammatically untidy, beware: the whole thing will probably get thrown in the bin.
Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Manuscriptdoctor.co.uk, a literary consultancy