The Bad Comma

I am real good at literature. I read it well. I write it well. I thoroughly enjoy it. I intuit it well. I went to school for English literature. I was editor-in-chief of my college literary magazine. I was an assistant editor for a big publishing company. I was a freelance editor. I’m a writer, down to the marrow of my bones.

It took me thirty years to realize that I suck at grammar and spelling.

I was taken quite off guard. I was struggling through the editing process of my second novel when I had a conversation with my aunt, who was legitimately an awesome editor for something like twenty-five years and who is my business partner, personal editor, and has been there through it all for my whole life. She has always been my cheer-leader, someone to encourage me to be a writer (or a photographer or a painter). Somehow we were having a conversation about spelling and she mentioned off-hand that she remembers my spelling woes beginning when I was in early elementary school. Say what?!? Spelling woes? What I remember is being singled out as a creative prodigy, sent to a special school, winning Young Laureate, put into honors English, and acing all my English classes, forever and ever.

How could I be bad at spelling?

Perhaps “suck” is a too-harsh word. But somehow, I had assumed that all this English-y stuff came as a package and I was an English-y person. Deep down, I had the bizarre belief that to be great at English, you had to have an in-born ability to easily master the English language (or whatever language is yours), one that came completely from the wells of talent. I have said before that I took this idea with me to college, where I balked at a writing program or a writing degree. If I don’t have it in me already, I thought, I will never have it. So I studied philosophy because that was a gas.

Then I grew up. I realized there are many reasons that you want to study your art, not the least of these being so that you improve your technical skills. Like spelling and grammar. Yes, I also believe that to be a truly great writer you have to have some spark–or even blaze–of literary talent just curled up and waiting there. Yes, I realize that editors (and publishers) function to assist with all the nuts and bolts things, like spelling and grammar. However, I have also learned these things:

  • This is a competitive field. I mean really competitive. Anything I can do to make my writing more appealing to editors, agents, and readers is a step in the right direction. (Except maybe selling out.)
  • Practice makes perfect. Many of the talents of great writers were honed–and even acquired–over a lifetime doing their craft. There is a ton to learn about writing and the writing process. I don’t completely agree that anyone can learn to be a great writer, but certainly anyone can learn to write much better, including writers.
  • In order to do my job, I need to have the right tools. This is what would later make me scoff at my own idea that I shouldn’t have studied writing in college. Just as with any other job, I need to have a whole chest full of tools to do it well. And with better tools, I can do better.
  • I want to get better at what I do. Like better and better. Which is sort of the same as what I just said, except that I’m emphasizing here the I want. Do you want to be better at your job? Do you want to be a better writer? What on earth could your objections to improvement be?
  • There’s always someone better than me. So I want to catch up. I want to run the best race that’s in me.
  • Writing takes teamwork. So yes, I am going to have to rely on others to fill in the gaps where I am weak. But I also want to be the strong link in the chain, not the one about to break. Plus, understanding the various roles of other team members (like publicity, book design, promotions, agents, etc.) makes a great team. For example, if I understand the whys and wherefores of a particular editorial suggestion (like a weak verb or improper usage of a comma), I can make better decisions about my book.

And last, but certainly not least, I am thankful that I have the spark (or perhaps the blaze) of literary talent. My naturally poor spelling or grammar is not a reflection of my failings as a writer. Only my inability to recognize my shortcomings and my refusal to become better would be that.

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