I typically think of writing as having two major aspects. One is the more qualitative aspect of writing, which is how clearly and compellingly you convey your argument or plot or characters to the reader. All of us struggle with this aspect because it's so difficult to judge whether something is written “well.” We'll talk about improving our writing qualitatively another day.
What I want to talk about in this post is the other part of writing, the mechanical aspect. Whether you have used correct grammar and whether you are following your style guide is a much simpler question but so often ignored.
When you are judging whether your writing mechanics are good or not good, you have to compare your writing to some sort of standard, general English grammar and (if it applies) your style guide. Academic disciplines, news sources, and many publishers have a style guide.
Most of us probably have our style guide on our shelf or bookmarked in our browser, but how many of us have actually cracked or clicked it open?
We probably should.
The acquisitions editors who are deciding whether to accept your submission are undoubtedly familiar with the style guide. Heck, they may love the style guide. They may eat, sleep, and dream about the style guide.
So, you can imagine that when they read submissions that are full of mechanical errors, it probably decreases the likelihood of them accepting the manuscript.
The APA (American Psychological Association) did an actual study on what the most common errors were in papers that were submitted to a journal called Research in the Schools.
You may not be in Psychology, and you may not apply to that particular journal ever in your life, but you will be surprised at the top 5 errors they found.
Spell out numbers one through nine, and use numerals for 10, 11, 12, and up.
Say 62%, not 62 percent. (exception: the word “percentage”)
Write out fractions one-fifth, not 1/5.
When beginning a sentence with a number, write it out, but try not to begin any sentences with numbers.
If you're using a compound word as an adjective, hyphenate it.
ie: It's a double-edged sword.
3. Use of et al.
The first time you cite authors in the text, list all authors. In later citations, just the surname of the first author, followed by et al.
This will vary by style guide, but do you know how your style guide wants you to use et al.?
4. Headings' punctuation
You know how you were taught to write an outline? It was probably something like this:
1. Level One
a. Level Two
b. Level Two
i. Level Three
Your paper should have similar levels, marked by headings, and there is a particular formatting for each level.
Check the APA's heading formatting here.
5. Use of the word “since.”
You should never use the word “because.” Instead, use “since.”
This rule was a surprise to me the first time I learned it. Why would the APA care whether or not your paper uses the word “because?” Isn't that a stylistic choice? Well, apparently not!
Again, this is an APA rule. What's your guide's rule?
For the rest of the common errors that the APA researchers found, click here.
What does this mean for you?
Be intimately, lovingly familiar with your discipline's or potential publisher's style guide. You have brilliant things to say, and maybe you even say them brilliantly. Acquisitions editors do, however, have to make choices on which papers/books/etc to accept, so don't let simple, mechanical errors be your downfall.
When you're asking a friend/colleague/editor to read through your paper before you submit it, make sure they're at least familiar with the style guide. You can't catch every error, so make sure the person on whom you're depending can help.
What about you writers and editors out there?
Has your work ever been rejected because of mechanical errors? Or was your work accepted and you were allowed to fix mechanical errors afterward?
The publishing world is so murky and opaque. Let's help each other by talking about our experiences. Just leave a quick comment below to get the ball rolling!
Have a productive Monday, everyone!
(APA style reference)
Onwuegbuzie, A. J., Combs, J. P., Slate, J., R., & Frels, R. K. (2010). Editorial: Evidence-based guidelines for avoiding the most common APA errors in journal article submissions. Research in the Schools. ix-xxxvi.