One of the quickest ways to turn me off a story is to leave it full of grammatical errors. A number of the entries in last year’s Short Fiction Award had this problem, as do many of the self-published books I review on my Christian Book Reviews site. Unfortunately it is encouraged by those unscrupulous people who, in an effort to make a quick buck, teach people that they don’t need to actually understand the mechanics of writing in order to put out an ebook through Kindle. Just throw together anything, price it cheaply, and put it out there to rake in the money. That’s the theory.
Sadly, a book full of errors not only turns readers off buying any future titles by that writer, it also contributes to the general opinion that self-published books are not worth the money.
Sloppy grammar will not win you readers; and it will not win you competitions. To say, “But I’m not good at grammar” is not an excuse. If you aim to be a writer, being good at grammar is part of your job just as, if you were aiming to be a carpenter, being good with a hammer would be part of your job. You would not begin to build a house – or even a bookshelf – if you had no idea what the tools were and how to use them. As a writer, words are your tools. They come in different shapes, sizes and functions, and you need to understand their proper usage. If you don’t have the skills now, acquire them. There are some quite good online grammar checkers, but they should never be a substitute for your own ability with the English language.
Once you have finished your story, let it sit for a bit, then come back to it and read it, not as the writer, but as if it had been written by someone else and you were judging it. Look for detail. Are the tenses correct, or do you flip between past and present? Do your verbs match their subjects, singular verbs with singular subjects, plural verbs with plural subjects? Are you using the correct case? Have you even missed words? (This is very easy to do when you are ploughing ahead with a story, and sometimes will not be noticed when you read because you expect the word to be there.) Are you keeping those pesky apostrophes in their right places, or have you let them intrude into spots where they should never be seen?
Look for other, non-grammar problems, too. Do you have enough variety in your sentence structure? One entry in the Short Fiction Award started every sentence except the last with the word “She.” Whilst starting several sentences in a row the same way can be a good literary device to use for added impact, once it gets to more than four or five sentences it becomes simply boring and annoying. Likewise, sentences or paragraphs that are all the same length are boring and quickly turn off the reader.
Are your characters all properly introduced? One entry had a character pop up at the very end of the story who had not been mentioned previously, and who did not seem to fit in anywhere. I found myself reading the story three times to try to find who this character was, and what was his relationship to the main character, but there was nothing. I was left feeling very confused and vaguely uncomfortable.
When you are editing, don’t just read the file on your computer: print it out. For some reason we notice mistakes much more easily on paper than on the screen. Often it can be helpful to read the story aloud. If you have a friend who has a reasonable understanding of grammar, ask him/her to read your story and point out any errors.
The bottom line is this: if you just write a quick story and send it in to a competition unedited, it is highly likely that it will not be successful. Give yourself a fighting chance. Take the time to edit, edit again, and re-edit. Only once you are sure there are no bugs in it, send your story on its merry way.