Ramona Richards

Ramona Richards started making stuff up at three, writing it down at seven, and selling it at eighteen. She’s been annoying editors ever since, which is probably why she became one. Twenty-five years later, she’s edited more than 350 publications, including novels, CD-ROMs, magazines, non-fiction, children’s books, Bibles, and study guides. Ramona has worked with such publishers as Thomas Nelson, Barbour, Howard, Harlequin, Ideals, and many others. The author of eight books, she’s now the fiction editor for Abingdon Press. An avid live music fan, Ramona loves living in the ongoing street party that is Nashville.

Track Changes

“Comma, Comma, Comma, Comma, Comma Chameleon . . .”

Sorry, having a bit of an ’80s flashback there. And fully revealing myself as a grammar dork (as if you didn’t already know), that’s what I thought dear Boy George was singing until I got my first glance at the song title. 

But you can’t blame me for the flashback. I just spent an inordinate amount of time putting commas into a manuscript. And I’m not exactly thrilled about it.

Yes, I should leave this to the copyeditors, and probably will in the future. I did force myself to stop a few chapters into the book. But the truth is that I’m an editor by inclination as well as by trade, and as H. G. Wells said, “No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.”

Preach it, Brother Herbert.

As a writer, I know how hard it is to turn off the internal editor, that whispery voice that clears its throat every time you type a mistake. But to finish your book, you have to. You must! Otherwise, you’ll waste a lot of time going over and over and over the same passage, fretting over each word, each comma, each apostrophe.

Likewise, when I evaluate a book for content and structure, I have to put the grammar nerd in the closet. If I don’t, I can’t see the character arcs for the commas. Normally, putting aside the virtual red pen is easier than you might think for someone who’s been correcting others’ grammar since 1972. (I was just a baby then; I promise.)

But grammar pet peeves live deep inside almost all of us who make a living with language, and those pet peeves will frustrate your editor and bring that virtual red pen roaring from its cave. And they leave an indelible impression. I still remember the last writer who continually used “over” instead of “more than,” and I will always view her submissions askance, as if waiting for her to mess up.

Don’t believe me? When I did a Google search for “grammatical pet peeves,” I got 173,000 hits. Yep, 173,000 red pens waiting to nip it in the bud.

So how do you avoid inadvertently tripping over your editor’s pet peeve?

1) Read grammar columns on a regular basis. Several good ones are available, and they aren’t as boring as it may sound. This is part of learning your craft. Some of them do annual pet peeve lists that can also be helpful and reflect the changing nature of our language. (I’ve listed a couple of fun things at the end of the article.)

2) After you finish your first draft, go back and review for grammatical gaffes. If you aren’t comfortable with doing it yourself, find a friend or critique partner who is.

3) Run a spelling and grammar check. While spell-checking programs are notoriously unreliable for some things, running the check (as opposed to relying on the squiggly lines or AutoCorrect) will make the program highlight passages for you to think about.

4) Set the manuscript aside for a few weeks, then read it with fresher eyes. You’ll see things in your work you’ve never seen.

Remember: Grammatical mistakes will not keep you from getting published, but they can get you rejected. While this may sound contradictory, it’s true. If you have a fabulous story, most editors can read over a few grammatical mistakes. But if they’re too numerous, if you hit an editor’s pet peeve, or if your story isn’t strong enough to overcome them, your manuscript is toast. I’ve known more than a few manuscripts that hit the return stack because the errors were so distracting the editor couldn’t get past them to the story.

On the other hand, if your manuscript is spot perfect and your story is strong, then you may go on to the next level. Editors love working with midlist authors who are professional enough to have a polished manuscript that’s easy to read without the distraction of the red pen popping up every few minutes.

To bring this full circle, I wrote a note to the production editor to put a high alert on the comma problem with the manuscript, and I stopped reading. After all, I like this author . . . and I don’t want to hear Boy George in my head the next time we have a chat.

Grammar Pet Peeves