I was asked today whether it was better, for a writer, to have great imagination when it comes to storytelling and very poor grammar/writing skills, or if it was better to have perfect writing skills and no imagination, and whether publishers looked past the writing skills to the story.
The short answer is, of course, that you need both.
What counts most is, of course, a terrific story to tell. You need to have characters that ring true and are three-dimensional, a good sense of pace and how to convey information, and a skill for writing scenes that begin and end exactly where they should, and are all in some way essential to the story as a whole. Basically, you need your reader to keep wanting to turn the pages. If you don’t have that, then you don’t have a leg to stand on.
That being said, you must, MUST be able to write well. You must be able to send in a manuscript that is polished, and the best that it can be. Does a manuscript need to be grammatically correct? Well, yes and no. What it needs to be is consistent. Many books, some of them classics, are full of grammatical mistakes, because they use idiomatic speech. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye are both great examples of that. They use profanity, break the rules of grammar and syntax again and again, but they do it clearly intentionally, because it is part of their style. It is always the intent which counts when breaking a rule.
If your manuscript is full of awkward sentences (unintentionally awkward, of course, something that isn’t part of a style) mistakes, poor grammar (again, unintentional) and verb tense mistakes, then publishers will always pass on a story they would otherwise like because the manuscript just isn’t polished. I’ve seen it happen time and again, and I’ve seen the regret in the eyes of my colleagues when they truly love a story but know that it would not be realistic to accept it just because of the sheer amount of work that needs to be done. Does it ever happen that publishers publish a story that is truly great even though it is full of mistakes? Maybe. I haven’t heard of it. Think about it: publishers get hundreds, even thousands (or in some cases tens of thousands) of submissions to work through; your story could be amazing, but if your writing makes them cringe, they won’t get far enough to find out.
It’s your job as a writer to provide something that is well-written as well as original. Of course, if you’re not strong with grammar or spelling, you can always hire a copy editor. They’re expensive, but if you don’t, and your manuscript is riddled with unintentional mistakes, you will not get published (or you will get published by an e-press that doesn’t care about those things and be a laughingstock because your final book will still be full of those mistakes. Trust me, I’ve seen it). Copy editors only go so far, though. They will correct your mistakes, be they spelling, grammar, or even syntax, but they cannot make your prose evocative, they cannot pick the right style for the story you have written.
Which brings me to the other component of writing well, which is style. After all, you can craft a perfectly functional sentence, but the words that you pick and the way that you string them together must be as effective in provoking a reaction in the reader as the way you write your scenes and plot your novel.
So, is the content the art and the form the technique? No. Both form and content have a technical aspect, a craft that must be learned and understood. Both of them also have a strongly instinctive component, a way that the writer imprints his or her own personality to the work. This is a concept that you must understand. Yes, talent is something you are born with. But talent is nothing when you don’t also master the craft. And the craft of writing is not just organizing the content of the story well, nor is it learning to form great sentences and write them correctly. It is both.
Good writing will get publishers and agents to read your stories; great stories will make them want to work with you. You can’t just have one and not have the other. To rise above, make your mark, you absolutely need both. But don’t worry, all hope is not lost if you are lacking in one area or another. All you have to do is team up with someone who has strengths where you have weaknesses. If you write great prose, but have no grasp on content, find someone who is teeming with ideas and hates to write. Both kinds are out there, and with the internet, distance is meaningless when it comes to collaborations.