June 14, 2023

The One Mistake that is Guaranteed to Tank Your Novel

By Paul Goat Allen

As a reviewer—and a graduate writing instructor—my biggest red flag, the one thing that warns me of a truly terrible reading experience ahead, is the inundation of grammatical errors.

It makes my blood boil just thinking about it.

Ever read a novel that includes hundreds of grammatical errors? Shocking, right? It’s unfathomable to me that a writer would release a novel with so many mistakes—but the truth of the matter is that I see this frequently. Novels with mistakes on every page, some with mistakes in almost every paragraph. I reviewed a novel years ago with a typo in the title on the front cover!

I’m not going to lie: I feel immediately disrespected. It’s like a chef offering up rotten food to their patrons. Or going to an exhibition at an art gallery and finding unfinished paintings and lumps of clay displayed on pedestals. That disrespect quickly turns to anger—and I start to think of all the other new releases out there that I could be reviewing, and potentially promoting, but I’m stuck wasting my time reading a novel that the author didn’t even care enough to edit and/or proofread properly.

Former literary agent Mark Malatesta shares my sentiments. In an article he wrote entitled “How Important Are Typos and Grammar to Literary Agents?,” he states that agents and publishers aren’t going to respect a writer if “you’re too lazy to fix simple mistakes [before submitting]….” He adds that: “If you have a few typos and mistakes in your manuscript, it shouldn’t be a deal breaker (as long as they’re not on the first 5 pages). That’s the equivalent of walking into a meeting with spinach in your teeth.”

Readers, and reviewers, are much the same way. Grammatical errors throughout a novel are bad enough—but errors in the first few pages are so much more heinous. It’s like the author shouting out to their readers, “I don’t care about this book—so why should you!”

The obvious takeaway here is that too many grammatical errors in a release not only speaks volumes about the author’s laziness but their complete lack of professionalism.

Putting your name on a novel or story that is filled with errors and either self-publishing it or submitting it to publishers is risky business—your reputation, and potential career, are literally on the line. I have a list of writers that I will never review and/or promote again because of this lack of professionalism in the past. I’m simply not going to waste more of my time on anything that they write ever again. I will guarantee you that many agents, editors, and publishers have comparable lists.

Sometimes these errors, however, are inadvertently entertaining. I reviewed a novel for BlueInk back in 2013 where the lack of a comma made a sentence laugh-out-loud funny: “We’re going to raise up your bed so you can eat Mister Fulton.”

Can you imagine if traditional publishers had this level of I-could-care-less unprofessionalism? What if Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune was reissued as Dung? Or George R. R. Martin published A Game of Thongs? Ever read A. A. Milne’s The House at Poop Corner, or Melville’s Moby Duck? How about Dostoevsky’s Creme and Punishment, or Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sheep?

Bottom line: grammatical errors matter! You want readers to be wowed by your writing, not laughing at the utter lack of attention you’ve given to your craft, or throwing your book out into the street because of frustration. (I’ve done this before.) As a writer, it’s your responsibility to make sure that your work—the product that you’re selling—is as flawless as possible. If not, you may find that you unknowingly lose much more than just a few book sales…

Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program.


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