By: Jilian Whitehead
You’ll sometimes hear writers say that they don’t care about punctuation and grammar, and that the story should speak for itself. However, I’d argue that in writing, as well as in many other fields, presentation matters as much—if not more—as content.
We’ve all been served that one meal that made us hesitate, right? Like all the food was piled onto the plate until it formed one big mush or you found a hair buried in the mashed potatoes. Maybe you tried the meal, and it was great. Maybe it was horrible. The point is, when you looked at it, you weren’t exactly eager to sample it, were you? Someone could have a great resume and be the perfect person for the job, but if they dress like a slob for their interview, their chances of getting said job drastically decrease. And so on.
It’s the simple truth about humanity that we’re affected by appearances—as much as we’d like to pretend we aren’t. We make the snap judgment that what’s on the outside is a depiction of what’s inside as well. So if you’re writing for any kind of publication and the first line of your poem has a misspelling in it, then most people won’t think you’re that serious about this. Editors are busy people, so many have a rule that if the story doesn’t grab them in the first page, the first paragraph, or even the first sentence, it’s a rejection. You could’ve written the greatest story of the year, but if you’ve sent your story on neon pink paper in some fancy cursive font—which doesn’t hide the fact that it looks like you slept through your grammar courses— then most people won’t want to even glance at the second page.
Of course, this can work in the opposite way as well. Maybe there’s someone who writes these beautiful descriptions and there’s not a single typo, but you keep reading . . . and the story is terrible. It’s full of clichés, plot holes, and unbelievable characters.
So what’s the point to take from all this? Well, I think that if you’re a writer who wants people to see your work, then you should place equal importance on both presentation and content. If you really want to get published, you can’t rely on just one but ignore the other. Some people will say you need to master craft before story, or vice versa, but there shouldn’t be a hard rule about which order you need to focus on—just as long as you learn both.