Pretty much all authors have the same goal: to write a perfect book that makes To Kill a Mockingbird look like it was written in crayon by a kindergartner. If you’re an author, you imagine publishing your groundbreaking work. Once it releases, people will line up at your doorstep to hand you huge bags of cash in exchange for your once-in-a-generation work of award-winning literature. Is that too much to ask?
I can guarantee you that you will not achieve your noble, Pulitzer-worthy goal unless your grammar is on point. If you leave modifiers dangling or misspell obvious words, your books aren’t likely to land on any bestseller lists.
A part of me dies a little whenever I find an error or typo in a book. After a certain number of syntactic strikes, I begin to question if the author accidentally sent the file of the book’s rough draft to the printer. Although internally I am incredibly judgmental, I don’t think I’m alone in this harsh manner of reading a new book.
The fact is, a book riddled with grammatical gaffes usually indicates an overall lower-quality final product. Because I know you want your books to be the best they can possibly be, I’d like to share five ways to help ensure that your book gets an A+ for grammar.
Let the robots take the first pass
I write a weekly column called “Grammar Guy” that appears in newspapers across the U.S. Most of my editors make changes here and there, and occasionally I’ll receive a report of an error in one of my articles. This is fine when it comes from an editor and prior to the newspaper’s printing; it’s embarrassing when a reader informs me of an error in my writing. I’m the Grammar Guy, for goodness’ sake!
After a few readers found alleged mistakes in my articles, I decided that it was time to turn to the robots. I ran my columns through a free version of Grammarly before I sent them out, but the algorithms at Grammarly weren’t catching some of the more nuanced grammar transgressions. I upgraded to the paid annual version and noticed a major improvement.
Using an error catcher such as Grammarly is like having the option of buying a filter for your home’s air conditioner that catches 80% of the germs in the air or one that catches 99.5% of them. You’re going to go with the filter that catches more germs. While there are other competing products out there, I prefer Grammarly; it integrates into Google Docs, Microsoft Word, and even text messages on my iPhone.
Find an editor and pay well
There are dozens of ways to approach finding the right editor for your project; the bottom line is that you need to do it. And, once you do, you need to pay your editor well.
For my book, Good Grammar Is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life, I contracted my retired AP English teacher in Oklahoma to make my manuscript bleed. I printed the pages of my manuscript and secured them with a fat binder clip and stuffed them into a large manila envelope before mailing my project to my teacher. I also included a Starbucks gift card and a pack of red pens in the package. For the record, she used both to their greatest potential.
Sure, it was awkward to discuss payment with someone whose first name you’re uncomfortable using 20 years after high school, but I wanted to pay her in a way that made editing my book worth her valuable time. This rate will differ based on the length of your project and the extent to which you want your editor to dig into your book (proofreading, copyediting, line editing, or developmental editing).
Use beta readers to catch the rest
While writers use beta readers in various capacities, I found that the most valuable way my beta reader team helped me was by sending me errors that fell through the cracks. I had a prepublication version of my book printed through IngramSpark and mailed or delivered the copies to a team of around 25 early readers.
Just as with my editor, I treated my local beta reading team to coffee treats and asked them to send me any mistakes that they noticed. I found that giving out my phone number and having my readers text me photos of the errors they found was the most efficient way for them to communicate with me. This group found a few dozen mistakes that I’m grateful never made it into publication.
Read the book aloud
You may find it uncomfortable to read your own “stuff” aloud, but the biggest things you’ll catch with this method are awkward sentences and phrases. After all, you’ve been staring at your document to the point where the letters no longer resemble recognizable words.
When you read your book out loud, you’ll find the kind of wonky word woes that you didn’t catch before. For instance, you’ll realize if you’re using a certain word over and over. You’ll highlight entire pages that may have survived several rounds of edits that now sound like word barf. If you’re feeling particularly brave, I dare you to ask a partner or friend to read your manuscript aloud to you.
Look at your book in a different format
Have you been staring at your project in a Word window? Print it out. Is your book printed out from your home printer in blue ink because you ran out of black ink? Convert the file to an e-book format and send it to your e-reader. For details on how to do this, consult Dr. Google.
By looking at your book in a different format, you’ll notice even more ways in which your text can be improved. While this may seem over the top, ask yourself this: Have you actually read your book? Have you sat down to experience your book from beginning to end?
At this point, have you achieved novel nirvana? Is your copy clean enough to eat off of? I’ll make a confession: after my book was out in the world, I noticed two or three typos that ate my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I couldn’t believe that I had gone through all of these book purification steps only to find flaws in my final version.
The good news is, you can always fix your mistakes and upload a new version. Because you are an indie author, you have control over your book files. Make your edits and then upload your “final final” files.
If you take typos seriously, you’re much more apt to have flawless grammar in your book projects. And that means you’ll need a sturdy golden rake to gather up the piles of royalty money that come rolling in.
Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor columnist and the author of Good Grammar Is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life, which was a semifinalist for the 2020 BookLife Prize Nonfiction Contest.
A version of this article appeared in the 04/26/2021 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Tips from the Grammar Guy