A curious thing seems to be happening in writing workshops. Criticism regarding spelling, grammar, and punctuation is considered hypercritical and offered only with considerable apologies for nitpicking. “Your editor will catch and correct those problems” seems to be the widespread assumption, which disregards completely the fact that, as unpublished, amateur writers, we don’t yet have editors. Further, we have less chance of ever having one if our query letters and submissions reflect a bungling of or indifference to the fundamental rules of writing.
Personally, I think relying on others to tidy up our work is a slippery slope. More often than not, a seemingly minor punctuation edit such as the addition or elimination of a comma or an ellipsis will change the tone of a passage entirely. Further, many of these “petty” edits are stylistic. Will my editor know, for instance, that I intended to capitalize “It” when referring to Fate? The portrait of the resplendent but doomed Dorian Gray might have been smeared rather than seared “with the lines of suffering” had Oscar himself not corrected his typist’s error.
Writing well is more than the generation of an engaging plot and well-developed characters and the correction of inadvertent POV shifts; it is the ability to inspire, evoke, engage, and transform through words and syntax and rhythm. It requires the meticulous selection of the precise word – and there almost always is that one perfect word – that conveys the author’s meaning, as well as intuitive choices about spacing and pauses and dialogue. It requires a respect for and love of punctuation and principles of usage.
So let’s master the semicolon and colon and solve the lay/lie/laid/lain mystery once and for all. And, for heaven’s sake, please tell me if I mean “sow” rather than “sew.” After all, “a good editor likes nothing better than a piece of copy he hardly has to touch” (William Zinsser, On Writing Well).