The Spelling Test Metaphor

Miss Snark is wading through the slush tonight. Several query letters had some "spell czech" errors. I noted them on the query letters, thinking I was being helpful for the next round these writers would send.

Then it dawned on me. They will get the query letter back, and think "ok, I'll fix this one thing that was wrong and then send it back to her"... like when you fixed mistakes on the spelling test in 4th grade and handed it back in for a better grade.

The problem of course is that a spelling test is a linear measurement. Spelling is either write or wrong (ha!). Diction is either right or wrong (usually). But whether I like a project enough to either read more or take it on is not linear, it's three dimensional, or more likely, four.

There's no 'fixing' things and working your way up to "ok I'll take this" generally.

If you get a query letter back with corrections, I did it with the best of intentions, trying to help but I think it creates unrealistic expectations.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Spelling is not something I'm naturally adept at. It shares the top of my 'I-suck-at-this-pyramid' with grammar and punctuation. So, I try to run spell check more than once before I send anything out, but I'll still miss something.

Therefore, no matter how embarrassed I'd be to learn about spelling mishaps, I'd still want to learn about them. It would help me if you could add a note to indicate whether I should ever darken your doorway again or not. Then, there wouldn't be any ambiguity.


Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

My two worst experiences submitting involved spelling errors. I'd have appreciated a note from the one agent saying, "Watch your spelling. It counts. Spelling problems or not, this is not for me, but I wanted you to know."

What I got was awful, and it was discouraging. I had to find out second-hand what the problem was. The way I found out was humiliating. I didn't like it. Yes, I spotted the problem, but not until my nose was rubbed in it. I just didn't see it. And it was one of the few words I can actually spell all on my own. Sad, huh?

A kind note would have made me feel great.

Anonymous said...

No, Miss Snark, I would not requery you because you caught some errors. I would fix them and move on to a new agent, pretending you didn't exist and I hadn't humiliated myself.

"La, la, la--never happened, never happened."

Paula said...

Personally, I'd probably not query you again. I'd be embarrassed and too upset with myself over the spelling error.

BUT, the writer creature in me says that there would definitely be a few who would wring their hands over the hidden meaning of your handwritten notes on the query.

And yeah, they would probably decipher it to mean "resend."

Sorry, we can't help it, Miss Snark. Reading or rather over-reading into responses from agents and publishers is a sickness!

Nonny Blackthorne said...

Personally, I appreciate it when an editor or agent takes the time to correct a mistake like that. (I think everyone makes a stupid error at some point or another.)

I wouldn't requery, but I would probably send a note back thanking you for taking the time to point out my error.

And, provided I didn't find another agent while shopping that book around, requery you again later with a different project. :)

Chesya said...

I think most writers(unfortunately not all) will see it as helpful and thank you for your efforts.

Anonymous said...

Spelling mistakes--the halitosis of the submission world.

Thus do we see the value of the spellcheck button, for sometimes our best friends won't tell us.

(Or theirs is even worse.)

Anonymous said...

If you're going through the query letter with a red pen, inserting every missing comma, then you probably are expending more energy than warranted. I'd echo that, if anything, a quick note to pay attention to spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc. would be more than kind.

Anything else and, depending on mood, I could react either as "Darn, I really do suck as a writer, I'm miserable and talentless, I can't even spell right; heck with this - back to the violin lessons and alcohol" or "nit-picking, poodle-loving, hell-spawn got nothing better to do than study my query letter to point out a couple of typos. Spend a little time reading the story gosh-darn it!"

I probably wouldn't take it as re-write the letter with the commas and we've got a sale... But I might.


Lisa Hunter said...

I think it's a great service to point out spelling problems. Some editors I know automatically toss anything with type-os. A questionable prejudice, but it's the reality.

Anonymous said...

Sending back a marked-up query would be snarky, methinks. Now, you ARE Miss Snark. ;-) But I'll go so far as to say it would border on cruelty to rub someone's nose in all the little mistakes they made like it's a 9th Grade English paper, showing where each point was lost.

(Plus I thought you didn't send feedback after earlier experiences with vitriol?! I'm so confused....)

How about focusing on the big picture -- "Not for me, and a word of advice -- watch your spelling/grammar/what-not more closely in future queries/etc." Maybe with a VERY clear "N.B.: That is not an offer to requery the same novel/etc." ???

Anonymous said...

Bottom line? I don't believe you would reject an author based on a query with spelling errors, not if it was accompanied by an exceptional writing sample. Most of the writers who would make that kind of error in a one page letter, won't make the cut later, either. It almost seems like giving them false hope. Just fix your query and the next agent will love you. Know what I mean?

Anonymous said...

I'd appreciate a correction. While we as writers all try to be aware of our kryptonites (for me it's apostrophes) sometimes you just miss it. The hardest thing in the world is to proofread your own work and it doesn't matter how many times you pick up a mistake, it's easy to miss another.

Usually when I have a error pointed out to me by an external person it opens up my eyes and I'm able to better spot other errors.

But I also understand the flip side of the coin in people over-reading agent comments and taking them the wrong way. I would hope that you would have more good experiences from doing this to even out any bad that come your way.

WagerWitch said...

Me. Personally. I.

I think that I would prefer if an agent I queried advised me that there were spelling errors and this has eliminated me from the query process.

BUT - as a caveat - I would like to know if they are interested in my work and would like me to resubmit once my spelling errors were corrected.

Or - on the flipside if I should never darken their mail/email with my presence again because what I am offering is damaged goods in their perception.

Would I be embarrassed?


Would I pull up my bootstraps and take advice?


Would I be willing to query that agent again?

Yes - but only if they gave me the "feeling" or knowledge that they were even remotely interested in my work - by saying or writing, please submit again once corrected.

Would I feel abused if they circled everything in red?

Nope - I would listen because the agent is "in the know".

Would I take advantage of an agent who tried to help me by sending it back after corrected?

Maybe - but I would hope that the agent would let me know if they were interested in having it again, once corrected - otherwise, I would think that the agent was not interested and I would not send it, instead... taking the advice of someone who knows much better than "I".

Lady M

Mindy Tarquini said...

Miss Snark,

ANY feedback I get on a query is appreciated. ANY. You send back my query with corrections, I fix the error and move on to the next agent. I'll query you again someday, with another project, not the same one.

That's me. I can't speak for what anybody else would do.

Anonymous said...

It's nice to think people could take such corrections as they're meant and move on, but when you see the nitwits on the various writing chatboards out there, I'd bet a lot of the poor spellers would either see your effort as a veiled invitation to resubmit, or get all twisted up and post whiny messages on rejectioncollection.

WagerWitch said...

Yeah, but alas dear Kate, not everyone is as informed or as lucky as we are in having Miss Snark. :P

Anonymous said...

First I'd be mortified. Then I'd be grateful. Then I'd think, hey, Miss Snark talked about doing this. That agent must have been Miss Snark! I have discovered the identity of Miss Snark!

Remodeling Repartee said...

Um, I'm pretty sure this happened to me last week. It was devastating, mortifying, bowel-liquifying, and very kind of said agent to point out the mistakes; which were in the first ten pages, my actual query letter did escape unscathed.

I tried to take the first part of the handwritten message to heart, as Miss Snark suggests, "Not for me." My thousands of dollars and decades of therapy suggest that I take that at face value; it's a taste thing. And I know every writer who reads this blog knows what the rest of me is thinking; uh, suicide.

After the kindness of the handwritten note and the gentle correction, I would NEVER resend this project, corrected, to this agent. Of course, I like to think I'm not a total nitwit.

Stacia said...

Kate's right. I can see the whining on rejectioncollection now...

"Not only did they not like my work, they sent my query back with corrections like a 3rd grade essay! Hey lady, just a standard rejection is fine. You don't need to insult me by pointing out how stupid I am, too."

Followed by another entry at rejectioncollection:

"They rejected me, but also helped me with my query letter, which made me feel really good. I'm glad they took the time to help a newbie."

If it makes you feel good, you should keep doing it. (The evil part of me is so tempted to suggest that if they requery, you should send a rejection riddled with typos and grammatical errors, but I won't). If they take it wrong, that's their problem, and if the do go to rc.com, you have a list of their names. :-)

McKoala said...

Torn, torn...I would be so humiliated that I would never darken your doorstep again. But I would be grateful that I could send a corrected version to other agents. But then again, I would never dare change a word again lest I spell it wrongly, so I would be using the same query letter until the end of time...

none said...

In my experience reading slush for a small magazine, now sadly defunct, some writers needed little to no encouragement to resubmit unwanted stories, despite clearly-stated policies in the matter.

There will always be nitwits providing disincentives to help the few who aren't. Whether or not it's a useful expenditure of your enery to carry on regardless, only you can decide :).

(Personally, I'd be so embarrassed I'd be doing much the same as cm!)

Anonymous said...

I hat it wehn poeple carnt be bovvud to chque there spelings. Qite onnestlee I blaem ths sloppee buhaveoor on knott reeding much. Bad sine. And txtng 2.

If I got a query back with corrections I'd kick myself and pin it up on my wall.

Anonymous said...

If agents were a bit more clear in their responses, writers wouldn't have to guess as to whether to resubmit or move on. 'Not for me but watch your spelling,' would tell the writer SOMETHING. I think agents have brought this requerying nonsense on themselves by not taking a moment to write or type a line that would give a writer a clue.

Miss Snark said...

A bit more clear?
If you saw some of the vitriol that shows up here after even a form rejection letter, you'd wonder why I don't adopt "forget the SASE, we'll call if we want you" method.

And I should have been more clear in the post: I didn't reject these query letters based solely on spelling. I knew I wasn't going to take the work, and then tried to be of help by pointing out mistakes for future letters.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I'd only say ... "This query contains spelling errors. I can only assume your manuscript is also riddled with mistakes, which automatically makes it a prime candidate for rejection. Sorry, but this is unacceptable."

Highlighting and correcting spelling errors is way above and beyond what is, or should be, expected of any agent at the query stage.


kim reid said...

"I think agents have brought this requerying nonsense on themselves by not taking a moment to write or type a line that would give a writer a clue."

An agent owes a writer nothing until representation has been offered and accepted. If you interview for a job and don't get it, you don't ask for another interview to see if you can answer the questions better. No is no. Don't resend unless requested, and then the agent will let you know the changes required.

Bernita said...

Inclined to agree with you, Ecrire.

Maria said...

I think it depends on how experienced a writer is in getting rejections. If they have been at it a while, if they have read this blog, they know not to resend. They would recognize it as a rare, helpful "gift" and move on. But writers are a desperate bunch. The thought would enter their mind--"perhaps if I fixed this..." The logical ones would sink the thought immediately. :>)

I love getting comments. I read them, let them sit a day or a week, and then go back and evaluate (takes any sting out). Sometimes I see the value, sometimes I just remained confused and wonder if the agent/editor wrote comments about someone else's stuff on my query (I swear this has happened since one comment was "Loved the ghost character" and there was no ghost in any of the chapters...) Was I angry? Of course not. The editor was trying to be helpful--trying to put something positive in the rejection. The rest of the comments were about my story and were helpful. Did I take it to mean I could resubmit? No. There was nothing on there that suggested I resubmit the same story, so I did not. Did I think about putting a ghost in it...??!?? :>)

MaryAn Batchellor said...

If I don't proofread carefully, I make an assortment of assaults on the English language. Sending out a query with mistakes is like accidentally farting in front of someone on the first date. Not only would I NOT expect him to call, I'd be relieved that the phone didn't ring.

Anonymous said...

Why would anyone who knows they suck at spelling, grammar, and punctuation think he or she is ready to submit manuscripts to agents and editors?

Master those skills first.

Anonymous said...

Miss Snark said...

"...And I should have been more clear in the post: I didn't reject these query letters based solely on spelling. I knew I wasn't going to take the work, and then tried to be of help by pointing out mistakes for future letters."

Really? I would instantly reject a query with more than one spelling or grammatical error. One, I would overlook, but when I found the second, the form rejection would be on its way with an aside explaining it was automatic due to multiple mistakes in the query. If someone is capable of writing a marketable book, surely he/she can fix the errors in a query without coaching from the prospective agent.


Anonymous said...

I once got a rejection from an agent who "corrected" my spelling--incorrectly. Ha! One brief moment of satisfaction that agents are actually human. I did not send a gloating response to the agent, but it was worth hours of entertainment with my writers' group.

I typically found my own errors about one minute after the postman collected the most recent batch of letters I had going out and knew of the faux pas before the letters even reached the local post office.

We writers really are our own worst enemies in this buisness.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I've read the first five replies and agree with them. I'd want to know about my spelling errors, but would probably not query you again (at least not with the same ms). I think it would be sensible, however, to say in your reply that you with want to hear back from that writer regarding the project, or that you pass altogether. It would save wear and tear on both you and the author.

Linda said...

The obvious solution to this problem is to have someone else go over your stuff before you send it. A second or third pair of eyes, assuming they're reasonably competent with spelling, punctuation, and grammar, can help find the stuff you missed due to having read it so many times yourself. Reading it starting at the end and going backward can sometimes help you find errors you missed in the original read-through.


Anonymous said...

Annie wrote, "Personally, I'd only say ... 'This query contains spelling errors. I can only assume your manuscript is also riddled with mistakes, which automatically makes it a prime candidate for rejection. Sorry, but this is unacceptable.'"

You said it, Annie. This is the most appropriate response.

Folklore Fanatic said...


Are people really so naive that they think fixing typos would earn them a 'yes?' What is this, preschool?

...Never mind. Don't answer that.

Folklore Fanatic said...

To expand on that thought, I would say add a stock phrase about using the spellchecker and move on.

If someone is so emotional over bad spelling that they take it as a personal insult when another person calls them on it, then they probably *need* to be discouraged.

Eva said...

I think most good writers realize shortly after they've sent a query that it contained mistakes. They flog themselves, wring their hands, and pull out their hair, worrying that those mistakes will be the very things that prevent their masterpieces from seeing the light of print. They fantasize about finding the mail plane, flagging it down, and preventing it from reaching its destination. Pointing out the mistakes probably won't help good writers.

Those who struggle with grammar and punctuation might appreciate some feedback, and a wake up call may be just what they need. Perhaps limit your comments to the truly poorly written ones and leave clean those containing minor typos.

Anonymous said...

To Eva--

As for me, I fixed my mistakes and moved on to the next batch of names on my list and chalked it up to experience and the process. (It was still a submission, right?) To me, no means no. I never tried to second guess or read anything into the simple phrase--"Sorry, not for us." (Or any of it's variants!) Which I think is good advice for anyone enduring the torture of the query.

Eva said...

It's excellent advice, Debra.