The devil and the details

I was once told that it’s impossible to simultaneously edit a piece of writing for grammar/spelling and content, and I tend to agree. It’s a left brain, right brain issue.

But we all try to do that on occasion, and the risk is that our critical, nit-picking mind will override our thoughtful side.

When I was writing newspaper columns, I used to get notes or e-mails from people who would say things like, “I read your column today, and you misspelled the word ‘calvary.'”

(Unfortunately, I almost always did that. For some reason, I tended to spell it like the site of the crucifixion instead of a bunch of soldiers on horseback).

When I got notes like that,  I always thought: OK, but what did you think about what I wrote? Isn’t that the important thing?

It would be like having a blind date with someone and rejecting them simply because the clothes they were wearing didn’t match. The devil can, indeed, be in the details.

Don’t get me wrong — spelling and grammar are important. They are to writing as the proper key is to music, and it can be jarring when they’re off.

Still, I don’t think they are as important as what a story or article is saying.

Recently, I sent a “Snowflakes in a Blizzard” proposal to a writer in South Carolina. It was late in the day, dinner was on the table, and I was just trying to do one more thing before shutting it down.

The writer responded with a list of typos he found in my e-mail. Nothing was said about what I was offering him, or whether he was interested. It was more important that he strut his stuff.

Awhile ago, I would have fired off an irritated response.  Instead, I just replied: “You must have caught me on a bad day.”

The next day, he responded by expressing interest in the project.

Here’s my point. When this project starts in May, I have it arranged that the first five or six books covered will knock your socks off — everything will be on pitch, the grammar and spelling flawless, the story compelling. We need that to establish credibility.

After that, though, I will occasionally include some work that is anything but flawless. The key is, it will have to be someone who has something very important or very different to say. And the flaws can’t be so glaring as to make the book difficult to read.

Not every one is a member of the grammar police.

I don’t like the idea of being a just another gatekeeper, but somebody has to do it. And there will be times when a writer will submit something as a potential “Snowflake,” and I will have to say: “I’m sorry, but I think this needs a little more work. Here are a few suggestions.”  In other words, the value of this work won’t, in my opinion, outweigh its flaws.

And if it’s already been put out by a self-publishing outfit that doesn’t worry about grammar and spelling, I probably will never use it.

There was a time when the only way to get a book published was to go through a traditional publisher, most of whom had rigid rules about what was and was not good writing.

Now, the pendulum has swing completely the other way.  Almost anybody can get something “out there,” often in too much of a rush.

What I try to do is read for comprehension first, the details later.

The devil can wait.

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Recently retired after 35 years with the News & Advance newspaper in Lynchburg, VA, now re-inventing myself as a novelist/nonfiction writer and writing coach in Lake George, NY.

One thought on “The devil and the details”

  1. Ooh, Darrell. Here’s what happens to me, maybe just a million years of being an English teacher: as I edit for content I automatically see the grammar and punctuation problems (of which, I confess, there usually aren’t many) and fix as I go along. It’s not something that requires the conscious application of either side of my brain. On the other hand, if I set out to proofread for punctuation or even typos–the mechanical details–I do a terrible job, always miss a bunch. I once failed the proofreading test for National Geographic. I’m a terrible proofreader and a very, very good editor for content and, in that context, also for the mechanics. Go figure


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