Small stuff. We’re advised not to sweat the small stuff and there’s a lot of wisdom in that, except, of course, when there isn’t.
Here’s what I mean:
Back in the day, when computers were only marginally better than typewriters, a man rushed into the computer store where I was working. He was irate, waving a copy of Writer’s Market open to a page which suggested the correct margins for manuscripts. Back then word processing software mostly didn’t give you many or any options about margins, and in this case, none of them were exactly what Writer’s Market suggested.
I couldn’t convince him that what he needed to do was work on his writing and not worry about manuscript margins because no editor was measuring margins on over the transom submissions. He was convinced the exact margins would increase his chances of getting published immeasurably.
This is exactly the sort of small stuff a freelance writer should ignore. The pages need to look good, be ragged right, double spaced and with no surprises. That’s it! It doesn’t really matter where the page numbers fall, or if your contact information is on the right or the left. Unless, of course, if you’re doing academic writing. Not that I know for sure, but I understand even the unimportant minutia is considered important.
It’s the small stuff of writing you need to sweat
Although that subhead can be misleading. There probably isn’t a rule of grammar, spelling, or writing structure that can’t be broken and the writing be better for the break. If you go against the grain it’s likely to work if you’ve got a solid reason to shatter or bend convention.
No, the kind of small stuff we writers should sweat comes largely out of carelessness. We rush through a blog post and don’t even see that we’ve used your rather than you’re. An apostrophe is certainly a small thing, with much larger implications. Punctuation is important and not terribly difficult. Even the should I or shouldn’t I add a third comma in a series can be answered by “which way makes it easier to understand?”
When you’re writing the completeness or lack of it matters in thought as it does in sentences — except for dialog. See what I mean about exceptions? Completeness also has something to do with not writing too much or too little. Letting a draft rest awhile and your ear are probably the best guides.
Word choice — important small stuff
Word choice is hugely important, important enough to sweat over indeed. Not only the choice of exactly the right word often critical but so is how it’s used. Issues around regional word use and accents, slang and swear words all require good writers to make a ton of decisions.
Then there’s the whole business of rhythm. Good writing has its own cadence which is wholly determined by the author. It’s done with long and short words, phrases and sentences, and even paragraphs, but there are no rules. Every writer contributes their sense of pace and tempo. It’s learned I think, by both lots of reading and lots of listening to how others speak. Familiarity with music — all sorts of music also plays a part I suspect.
Which is why more than a few writers are credited with one version or another of: It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.
Sorting out small stuff and not so small stuff in writing and language leaves me with even more respect for non-native writers who learn to use our language well and translators who get it write — gasp, I mean right!
Write well and often,