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November 06, 2008



Not too long ago I received an email from an aspiring writer. He told me he'd written a novel but his grammar was weak (which he demonstrated for me in the email). Would I mind editing it?
I directed him to a few books.
You can't call yourself a musician if you can't sing (with some understanding of where the tune should be) or play an instrument.

sally apokedak

Wow, great stuff, Mark. True and witty, as I've come to expect from you.

Made me cringe, though. I mess my commas up all the time. Put them in around a parenthetical statement, revise the statement out, and forget to take the second comma out.


So if you think I can't write, that's cool. I just don't want people to think I can't think. My problem is I'm thinking so fast I leave words out, or I can't slow down to take errant commas out. (There, how's that for justifying my sins?)

And, after starting off slamming my inferior grasp of punctuation, the rest of the post made me squirm as well. You should be a preacher, glaring down from the pulpit upon the poor, sweating congregants.

Only you're too witty. You're such a great nonfiction writing. I can't wait to check out the fiction. Is any of it out yet?


PS I went back to read this over before posting, just to check the commas, and I found myself questioning every one and wondering which manual of style I am supposed to go by for blog comments. This is nonfiction. How do you punctuate nonfiction?

I almost decided not to post. And then I decided, "Pfft on him. I'm not submitting to him, and he's not the god of the blogosphere, and frankly, Scarlett, I don't give a damn what he thinks of my ill usage of punctuation marks."

The bottom line is that I do submit imperfect stuff all the time. I have to. It's the only kind of work I can produce.

Now for your next post can we please have some encouragement and affirmation, Reverend Bertrand?


Your advice is strong, Mark, and actual.

However, Sally makes a good point, too, especially in light of the rather constant errors in the proofing of the professionally published novels. The majority of them have at the very least one typo, added/repeated words, or words which shouldn't be there. Yet I doubt even one typo is overlooked in a proposal. Not that I cast blame for that because anything submitted should be without error. It's just the hypocrisy of producing a "professionally" published book with errors in it after the rigid elimination process . . . If I tossed every novel I've read when I spotted the first mistake, I'd have nothing to read.

J. Mark Bertrand

Come on, Sally! :) This is very encouraging: "In each case, these are things that have nothing to do with talent. Anyone can get them done, regardless of gifting, assuming there's a commitment to do the work." Affirmation helps people feel better, but information helps them do better -- and doing better is the key. Nobody forces us to submit a rough draft. That's a choice. We could take time to read through the manuscript, correcting the obvious errors, saving readers the trouble. It's not about perfection so much as it is avoiding negligence.

I've just read Irvine Welsh's CRIME and David Benioff's CITY OF THIEVES, finding typos in both, and last night I found a missing word in Richard Price's LUSH LIFE. So you're absolutely right, Nicole. I've accepted manuscripts with typos for publication, scored them highly in contests, and so on. But these were exceptional faults, not characteristic. The latter is what I have in mind -- and it's all too common.

Heather, your anecdote reminds me of the way a vocal performance can be manufactured in the studio. Those performers don't want to be singers, they want to be famous. The aspirational motive overrides good sense. To a lesser extent, the same thing happens with writing. As National Novel Writing Month attests!

Mary E. DeMuth

Hey Mark. Can I post this on my wannabepublished blog? Good stuff.

J. Mark Bertrand

Sure thing, Mary. Fire away.

Avily Jerome

Great advice, J. Mark!

Is it annoying if people call you that? I assume that you go by Mark because you don't like whatever J. stands for.... Not that I'm intentionally being annoying, but if you have the J. there, I have just enough OCD in me to feel the need to use it.

I digress.

Great advice!

Sally, you will never be free of all typos and mistakes, and you will never catch everything yourself, no matter how many times you go over it. That's why it's important to have a critique partner/group to help you go over things BEFORE you submit them.

Although they won't necessarily catch everything either, at least they'll catch the glaring stuff- like missing words, bad commas, misspellings, etc.

The point is not to make you feel like you have to be perfect in order to get someone's attention, but to encourage you to put in the hours, sweat the blood, and prove that you're willing to give it all you've got.

Kristi Holl

I love this! Great comparison with the diamond in the rough. Last week, in a paid critique I did for someone, I got called harsh for mentioning a few of things you said. It amazes me when people will spend money for a critique but get upset when told they need to punctuate correctly. Like Mary, this is too good not to link to!

J. Mark Bertrand

Thanks, Kristi. Sadly, "harsh" is just a synonym for rigorous these days. In one of my first writing workshops, we had to read our stories out loud in front of twenty people. The professor interrupted one guy a page and a half in, saying: "Thanks. I think we've heard enough. Class, what's wrong with this?" That was harsh. Getting a story back with the typos marked was all sweetness in comparison.

sally apokedak

OUCH!! That hurt. The "that's enough" comment, I mean.

Now, Mark, I really did love the post. Truly.

I was just saying I was squirming, that's all.

Were you really a preacher you would have said, "Thank you, Lord, for using your humble servant to convict this hardened sinner of her egregious sin."

J. Mark Bertrand

I know you did, Sally. My "come on, now" was tongue in cheek. The workshop story was true. The first time I read for the guy, I was pleased just to make it to the end of my story before the criticism began!


I like the penny explanation...sometimes I tire of literary fiction's love of chronicling every hazy flit of consciousness...Did you have enough pennies for Annie Dillard's The Maytrees? I confess I didn't. I know I am probably not supposed to admit that about Annie Dillard, since she is touted out and about with as much veneration as a Medieval reliquary. Is there literary absolution out there for me? I have read some other things by her that were lovely. Anyhow, just throwing MY two pennies out there.

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