If you had told me, before about 4 pm yesterday, that I’d mistake the word “bow” for “bough” I’d have laughed. I wouldn’t confuse two similar sounding words (known as homophones); that’s a rookie mistake. I know the difference between rein and reign (and even rain), navel and naval, throws and throes, reek and wreak. I know the difference between bow and bough, too: a bough is found in a tree; a bow is something you do when you’re presented to the queen. Or something you put on packages. Or a sound you make if you’re a dog.
So imagine my surprise when I got my galleys, the final typeset and edited copy of my manuscript, and around page 180 I came across a character looking into the bows of a tree. I can’t even blame spell check; bows was spelled properly, of course. And the editors who looked at my manuscript were searching for other things—I can’t blame them either, since they did such an amazing job of spotting far more serious inconsistencies and flimsy characterization. The weak limbs, as it were, in my plot were strengthened or surgically removed due to their editing.
And that homophone mixup wasn’t the only thing I wanted to change when I read what should have been close to a perfect manuscript, technically at least. I added a “by” after “stopped”, inserted a few prepositions here and there in sentences that didn’t flow smoothly. I even discovered there were two different Bettys in one scene (one is now Linda). How could I have been so careless in the first place, much less throughout dozens of readings, to have allowed two throwaway characters named Betty to appear in the same scene? (It was likely the subtle power of suggestion: a mention of a character’s friend “Betty” subconsciously prompted me to name a subsequent walk on character “Betty” during revisions.)
The lesson I learned? Nothing is ever perfect. When I first started writing, I figured my grasp of grammar and punctuation would give me an edge: my manuscript would be technically perfect, even if the story and plot were awful. Editors would be grateful I knew where to place my periods and be eager to work with me on the rest. Note that this is exactly the opposite of what many newbie writers imagine, that an editor will fix all the grammar when they love the story and plot.
Neither scenario is true. A publishable manuscript needs both good—though not perfect—mechanics (grammar, spelling, and punctuation, as well as proper formatting) and a great story with engaging characters. Editors aren’t English teachers; they don’t want to waste their time punctuating your manuscript or making your subjects and verbs agree. Nor are they plot doctors; they can only offer suggestions for improving a plot that’s already strong.
When I critique manuscripts or judge contests, I’m often particularly harsh when I find multiple mechanical issues. (One or two mistakes on a page isn’t a huge problem, unless it’s the first five pages—there’s really no excuse for not managing to clean up five measly pages.) But mistakes happen. Boughs turn into bows, Bettys multiply, and bits of punctuation go missing.
When my book is finally released, I have no doubt there’ll be some mistake, some typo, some misplaced comma or missing apostrophe. My nightmare is that persnickety readers will find it and call me out, challenging my grasp of English. What kind of grammar queen does she think she is?
The kind of grammar queen who’s not perfect. The kind of grammar queen who knows a 90,000 word manuscript is never perfect, no matter how many times it’s been read and edited and copyedited and proofread.
You may still take a bow. Or a bough, if you prefer.