…as much as you might think!
(Come on now, I’m not going to say they don’t matter at all, am I?)
Spelling and grammar matter to me, and so they should. They’re part of my writer’s toolkit, and if I couldn’t string a coherent sentence or two together without making any mistakes, nobody would pay me to write for them.
I’m also the child of a man who once wrote to Sainsbury’s Head Office to complain about stray apostrophes in their ‘Special Offers’ posters. My ability to spot mistakes is inherited and ingrained.
Because people actually do pay me to write for them, there’s a reluctance amongst some to show me anything they’ve written. When they do, they offer up their words with an apologetic wince. “It’s probably full of mistakes,” they might say, or “you won’t think this is any good,” or “I’m really sorry, I’m not much of a writer.”
(After nearly two years as a professional writer, I’m still getting used to being treated as though I’m the official arbiter of what’s right, wrong, good or bad about writing. I think people need to be much more confident about their own offerings, though I suppose that might put me out of work…so actually, scrap that and stay insecure!)
Someone I know fairly well had once tentatively started work on a novel, but she stopped writing it when her partner gave her some negative feedback about her use of grammar. “I shouldn’t write anything,” she told me, “because I’m just not confident about how I use words.”
If you’re writing for business, you should make sure your words are error-free, for the simple reason that mistakes will distract from your message, and you’ll run the risk of people thinking you’re not very professional.
But mistakes don’t automatically mean your message isn’t good or clear, or that it’s not worth reading. You should certainly never be put off from writing what could be an amazing story, just because you don’t know the difference between a colon and a semi-colon.
For one thing, you can learn about grammar if that really matters to you, and for another, I don’t think I’m alone in preferring lively and characterful writing that has something to say, to a polished patina with no personality – even if the first type is littered with mistakes.
So even if you’re “not much of a writer”, don’t be scared to give it a go anyway. A really cracking read will mostly be forgiven a few missing apostrophes (except, perhaps, by my Dad).