A young friend of mine recently went off to college. Before he left he expressed an interest in being a writer. Being one of the few writers that he knows, he approached me about his work, showing me a lot of stuff he’s made over the last several years. It was fairly competent stuff. Nothing mind blowing, but fantastic for his age. (Probably better than me when I was 18, but who remembers that far back?) I told him as much, and agreed to be a part of his small writer’s group. Then he said something that made me cringe.
“I want a writer’s group, not an editor’s group. It’s about things like character development, not punctuation.”
A few years ago I would have been all aboard for something like that, but not anymore. I’ve grown as a writer, and I see the flaws in that logic. The truth is that the little things matter. A collection of single letters make up words, and a collection of words makes a story. The language and structure we use to convey those words are every bit as important as the story we tell. An editor can fix something as long as they know what you intended to say in the first place. If your writing was a disjointed mess to begin with there isn’t a lot even the best editor can do.
I hesitate to call it a little thing, because it’s as much a part of the story as setting and character development. Language isn’t one of the brushes we use to make the picture, it’s the goddamn paint. It’s like a artist not caring about brush strokes. It’s a musician who doesn’t mind it if their strings are out of tune. It’s the entire reason the Kindle is flooded with really bad books that could have at least been readable otherwise. There is no separation of story from language. It’s nonsense. A writer that doesn’t care about the little things is a writer that doesn’t care at all. If you don’t care, why do it?
A guy like my friend needs to be extra careful, because he’s smart, and smart people have a tendency to outsmart themselves. I call it the B Student Syndrome, and I suffer from it myself. B Student Syndrome is when a person is smart enough to get B’s in school without trying, so they never learn to buckle down and apply themselves properly. If you let something like that bleed into your writing you end up with a book that’s almost good enough to be successful. Yes, there are examples of B, C, and even D grade books that become bestsellers, but they’re the outliers, and most of them at least have proper punctuation. Nothing would break my heart more than to read a review that said, “Man, the characters and plot were spot on, but it needed some better language.” B Student Syndrome let’s you think that you’re good enough without trying, but this isn’t an industry where half assing it works. There are a million people just like you out there that want to get their book read. If you don’t do everything you can to stand out, you won’t. (Above all knowing how to tell a story and knowing how to convey it)
So, yeah, it’s actually not that little. Really, when you break it down, there are no little things in making it as a writer. Writing, editing, networking for, marketing, selling, speaking about, and producing your book are all essential to what you do as a writer. Writing and editing are most important, but without the others it won’t get you far.
If you think it’s little, remind yourself that it’s not. Don’t let bad commas be the reason you don’t succeed.