When we talk about the mechanics of a manuscript, we are ultimately talking about details: grammar, spelling, punctuation, and the like. Style is also a component of mechanics, as is manuscript format.
But remember that when I introduced the Elements of Nonfiction Editing Checklist I said it was in order of importance. There’s a reason Mechanics is the last category on the list. It’s the least important.
Which isn’t to say that it’s unimportant. But your manuscript must have substance. It must have personality and valuable information and a unique voice. If those things are missing, it won’t matter if the grammar is perfect and the commas are in the right place. So as you edit, focus on those major issues first, and don’t worry so much about the minor details.
Forget What You Learned In College
University instructors teach a lot of—how can I put this gently—information that is not applicable outside the school environment. While their guidance may have been very helpful in the higher education setting, when you are writing for the general market, you need to set it aside and learn a different set of guidelines.
A professor may have told you to “say what you’re going to say, then say it, then say what you said.” As I have shown before, threefold repetition is not the best way to reach modern readers. State your case, back it up with the facts, and go on to your next point.
Students are taught to use the APA style guide, which calls for two spaces after a period. Then they’re perplexed when they get into the real world and discover that all the other style books call for one space after a period.
Student papers can be filled with jargon and obscure abbreviations. Teachers sometimes perpetuate zombie rules, telling students not to begin sentences with conjunctions or end them with prepositions. Universities allow, even encourage, unwieldy sentences and lengthy paragraphs, while forbidding one of the most effective rhetorical tools, the single-sentence paragraph.
But writing for the general market needs to be more conversational than that.
So you may need to un-learn some of the writing mechanics you were taught in college. If your writing tends toward being academic or businesslike instead of conversational, read The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. This book demonstrates how to make your writing more natural and accessible.
When in Doubt, Outsource the Mechanics
While mechanics are less important than other elements of nonfiction, they are still important. If you are submitting your manuscript for traditional publication, editors expect it to have minimal mechanical errors—preferably none. If you are self-publishing, your book must be as free of errors as humanly possible. Amazon reviewers often give negative reviews if they find excessive grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors.
Furthermore, under Amazon’s new reporting system, readers can report books that contain an excessive number of typos, incorrect formatting, and other mechanical errors. If enough readers complain about content quality, a warning will be placed on the book’s Amazon sales page. That’s going to hurt.
If mechanics are not your strength, consider taking this advice, which Randy Ingermanson offered on his Advanced Fiction Writing blog:
In some cases (such as punctuation or spelling) your best strategy may be to outsource to somebody who’s good at it. I’ve met very good writers who just couldn’t spell or just couldn’t master the comma. Nobody’s perfect. Don’t try to be. Far better to spend your valuable time learning to be the best you can be on your strong points.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I am one of those people who’s good at mechanics. You can outsource the mechanics to me. Plenty of people have.
Next time, we’ll look at another step you can take to prepare your manuscript for submission or publication.
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