Over the years, I’ve submitted many short stories to international literary journals. Most of the work I’ve had published overseas, though, has been in the UK and Ireland. As I contemplate approaching overseas agents for representation of my psychological suspense novel, I’ve been wondering about expectations for manuscripts submitted in the United States. Would British English and single quotation marks around speech put an agent off? Should I rewrite my entire manuscript in American English or will that change the character of the writing and result in clumsy errors?
In order to gain some perspective, I turned to the Twitter hive mind, and was not disappointed with the response. The online writing community is always so supportive and helpful. Here’s the poll I posted, and the surprising results:
I was not expecting an almost 50:50 split, so in an effort to tease out an answer, I turned to the comments. I’ll attempt to distill them here.
Submitting short fiction/essays: The opinions were divided on this. Some short fiction writers admitted that they have never considered making changes for the market. Others, however, write multiple versions of each piece, tailored to literary journals in different countries. Overall, opinions fell on the side of changing punctuation to align with the publication’s standard, especially when it came to quotation marks. However, the need for this seems to depend on editor preference, and often these changes are only made after the piece has been accepted. Most people agreed that you should follow any outlined style guidelines for your submission. Belinda Hermawan (@bd_writer) advised, ‘with short fiction, I always Americanise (inc. colloquialisms) so nothing distracts’.
Pitching agents: The overwhelming response here was that using American English wasn’t as important for literary agents, which surprised me. In fact, Belinda Grant (@belindamgrant) has asked this very question on several ‘Ask Agent’ Twitter feeds and the answers have all aligned with literary agent Kaitlyn Johnson’s comments below. In response to Belinda’s tweet, she replied, ‘Not necessarily! If you’re not from the US, I usually assume it’ll be in your country’s style. If it needs to change, that’ll often come up with the publisher, not the agent.’ For more of the agent’s perspective, follow Kaitlyn on Twitter @RedPenKaitlyn or follow the #AskAgent hashtag.
The take-home message: For me, the logical choice is the one which allows my writing to speak for itself. As Nicole Melanson (@WordMothers) wrote, ‘if you being Aussie isn’t relevant to the work, then you may want an editor to feel your work, not nationality, first.’ That’s why, when submitting short fiction and essays to US publications, I plan to use double quotation marks for speech and US-friendly spelling.
When approaching literary agents, I will make sure my cover letter uses American English and punctuation for the simple reason that I want nothing to jar or distract from the message. As for the novel manuscript, based on the above opinions, I won’t be changing the entire document to American English before submitting.
The obvious conclusion that can be drawn from the differing opinions in the poll is that the quality of your writing is more important than your choice of English when it comes to finding an agent or having a piece accepted for publication. In support of this, the final word goes to the talented and generous Natasha Lester (@Natasha_Lester) who wrote, ‘I don’t think having single quotes vs double quotes is likely to deter anyone from accepting you if the story is strong.’