Tag Archives: writing rules

The Red Pen: Top 3 Errors in Grammar

Following up on my previous post, below are the three most-recurring grammatical corrections I make in my editing assignments.

1. Tense consistency:

All manuscripts I’ve edited so far have been narrated in past tense. While it’s still okay (and necessary) for their dialogue to use present tense, sometimes there are incorrect lapses into it in the narrative. More often, though, I’m correcting the times when past tense is used instead of past perfect.

Past perfect is basically the past tense of past tense. If the main action of your narrative is already in past tense, events described as having occurred prior to that are denoted as even further in the past by using past perfect tense. e.g.:

  • I called him. (past)
  • I had called him. (past perfect)
  • I was upset. (past)
  • I had been upset. (past perfect)
  • Why didn’t he tell me this before? (past)
  • Why hadn’t he told me this before? (past perfect)

[Brief flashbacks can be easily handled this way. If ever writing a lengthy flashback, though, in which you think using past-perfect for paragraphs or pages on end might be awkward / distracting / lacking immediacy, you can alternatively offset the scene in italics and/or as its own section.]

2. Commas for coordinating conjunctions:

Unless denoting a pause for particular emphasis, a comma is only needed before and, but, or, for, so, nor, yet if the clause following one of those conjunctions could stand alone as its own sentence. e.g.:

  • I called him, but I hung up before he could answer.
  • I called him but hung up before he could answer.
  • I called him, and I asked about tonight.
  • I called him and asked about tonight.

3. Semicolons:

A semicolon is basically the same thing as adding a comma + conjunction (and, but, or, etc…). It separates what are otherwise two complete sentences that could stand independently from each other. e.g.:

  • I called him; I hung before he could answer.

The easiest test for when it’s appropriate to use a semicolon or comma+conjunction is to ask yourself if you could use a period in place of either. And the point of not just always using a period in that case is to vary your simple sentences with complex ones.

This goes right back to what I was saying last time about varying sentence structure. Unless repeating a certain structure for emphasis, it’s good to change it up. Of course, sentence fragments can also be used for an effect, but you’ll use those only to a limited extent. As long as I’m totally dorking out here, I’ll take this opportunity to share the basic sentence formulas for evaluating structural soundness.

The cheat-sheet of basic sentence structure & punctuation:

I = Independent clause (it can stand alone as its own sentence)
D = Dependent clause  (it can’t stand on its own, unless for stylistic emphasis)
c = coordinating conjunction

Starting with the simple sentence below, the subsequent compound sentences can be formed a few different ways:

I .           The monkey screeched.
I , c I .    The monkey screeched, and it fell out of the tree.
I ; I .      The monkey screeched; it fell out of the tree.
I D .      The monkey screeched when it fell out of the tree.
D , I .    When it fell out of the tree, the monkey screeched.

So there you have the basic building blocks for any sentence you could come up with, like the compound-complex ones below that combine the above in different ways for all sorts of crazy fun ;):

ID,cI.
The monkey screeched when it fell out of the tree, and it grabbed for a vine.
D,I,cI.
When it fell out of the tree, the monkey screeched, and it grabbed for a vine.
D,I;I.
When it fell out of the tree, the monkey screeched; it grabbed for a vine.

I,cID.
The monkey fell out of the tree, and it screeched as it grabbed for a vine.

I;D,I.
The monkey fell out of the tree; as it grabbed for a vine, it screeched.
I;ID.
The monkey fell out of the tree; it screeched as it grabbed for a vine.

And blah-blah-blah, blah-blah. I think you get the idea. How we phrase our sentences usually comes from a more innate, magically creative place, but the basic formulas above remind us of the options and, at the very least, are a great way to check commas and semicolons. Even if you want to play with this punctuation, too, for stylistic reasons, you still have to know the writing rules in order to break them.

I’d better leave it at that before the red pen editing section of my brain lights your brains on fire, too…


The Manuscript Manicure – Part II: Micro-Editing

All-righty, finally back with my next installment on editing a manuscript (refer to Part I if you missed it). Once again, this is all thanks to the ladies at Room to Write for sharing insights that might be new to you or least validating of what you already know. Nothing compares to that face-to-face conversation, but I love the interaction that occurs between writers online via blogs. As they said at the workshop, there is so much to be learned beyond our own work, after all—it’s as important to listen to and learn from the projects and experiences of others.

It also teaches us to peel back our skin and not be overly protective of our work. I had to laugh when author Wendy Robertson spoke on all the emotional loading that goes into the critique when we offer it to others for feedback; she said something to the effect that when we give our work to someone else:

“You’re giving your critiquer the power to upset you.”

Ain’t it the truth. Perhaps this is why when I sent the full edit of my first assigned manuscript to its author this afternoon, I cushioned my email with empathy and compliments of everything that was done well, hoping she’ll receive my suggestions for improvement in stride and be willing to work with me constructively.

Anyway, when it comes editing for ourselves, remember that we must become self-conscious of who we are as a writer and what it is we want to achieve. To do that best, we need to identify our style and describe it in a few words. If you read 50 pages of your own novel, what comes across on the page? Is your style spare, lyrical, conversational, whimsical, direct, abstract (to offer a few), or combination of more than one?

We are now shifting from macro-editingto micro-editing and need to explore our style in relation to our content:

– I mentioned the “shape” of the novel last time, which relates to your story arc. This might continually ascend like a surging wave or start thin (yet interesting) and thicken in density to an explosive climax—Wendy likened this to the body of a whale, with the tail being the interesting opening and the blow-hole the climax. Or maybe your chapters are individual stories unto themselves that link together in some way to provide continuity and relevance, like a chain with a large loop toward the end where this progression culminates into the climax (Blackbird House is an example of this shape).

Shapes can vary, but there should always be conflict (tension), climax (crisis), surprise and revelation. And from a micro-editing standpoint, this needs to apply to each of your individual chapters as well.

– Speaking of chapters, as mentioned last time, ensure there’s continuity between them, yes, but also within them on a paragraph-to-paragraph, sentence-to-sentence level.

– With continuity maintaining our story’s consistency and logical progression, we must also make sure the words and sentences flow. This concerns the musicality of the language itself, and the best way to determine this is to read it aloud so you hear it.

– Your musicality and style will be greatly impacted by your sentence construction, so evaluate your writing on a sentence-by-sentence level. Is the syntax effective? Does it flow? Does it make sense? It’s important to ensure you’re applying correct grammatical conventions through punctuation and arrangement of clauses. Use commas, semicolons, and colons for sentence variety and make sure they’re used correctly.

Of course, creative writing allows for creative departure from conventions as well, but make sure that if you do deviate from the rules, there’s a specific purpose for it that strengthens what you’re trying to say. If it’s not producing the intended effect, revisit it and, all else fails, run with the convention rather than muddle your ideas in unclear writing.

– The language you use is the building block for everything, so you need to evaluate your writing on a word-by-word level as well. Make every word count, the strongest choice it could be (English in particular is too word-rich to not take advantage of it!). And obviously don’t allow excessive repetition, incorrect/inappropriate use, or incorrect spelling distract and otherwise undermine your writing.

– The “look” of the page is important as well, so ensure ample inclusion of “white space” now and then to allow your reader’s eyes to “breathe.” This is usually achieved through dialogue that isn’t overly bogged down in paragraphs of description. Section breaks provide white space as well to help accentuate shifts in time/setting.

And if you’re cutting down for word count or tightening, rather than prune on a word/phrase level, they seemed to opt for removing whole chunks, if not lifting an entire chapter to see if the story even misses it. I would suffer some major separation anxiety in that case, but I know some of you have said in your blogs that you’ve done it and lived to tell the tale. And it might not be a matter of ridding of it entirely. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying:

“Don’t throw your babies out with the bathwater.”

Well, they warned us of this as well, and it’s actually why they cautioned not to overly prune on a word/phrase level—making our sentences sparser could deprive the story of some of its joy! And even lifting an entire chapter may just be a structural change by which you drop it into a different place in your manuscript. (Now that I have done, and it works so much better!) At any rate, they said:

“If you kill your darlings, don’t put them in the bin—save them for something else!”

Another novel, a short story, a poem, who knows?!

All right, folks, if I haven’t successfully made your eyeballs roll out with all this reading by now, keep them sucked into those sockets—I’ll be back with a little bit on what they had to say about manuscript formatting, publishers, and self-promotion.

PART I Macro-editing

PART III – Submitting a Manuscript

PART IV – On Publishers & Publicizing


The Manuscript Manicure – Part I: Macro-Editing

Hiya! I’m back to redeem that I.O.U. I gave you last week. See, my word’s good as gold ;)…

As I mentioned, I attended a writing workshop with Room to Write over the weekend that was geared toward prepping a novel manuscript for submission. The full-day conference was divided into two primary parts—Editing and Publication—the first of which I’ll address in part now and break the rest down into separate posts. But, first, I’ll start with some general notes I jotted along the way to get us in the proper mindset:

One thing they stressed is that, above all:

“Editing is a creative process.”

Yes, it involves the nitty-gritty technical stuff, but we’re not merely playing the role of English teacher grading for grammar with red pen in hand—revising our work requires every bit of imagination and innovative thought as writing our initial draft does. For as they said, when the first draft is finished:

“You’re only just beginning.”

Ah yes, it does feel that way doesn’t it…my question is, when the hell does it end???

Anyway, in order to become our own editor, we have to become a “self-conscious” one. No, not as in insecurity-ridden—I think I’ve already mastered that one just fine :). What they mean is to be conscious of the kind of writer we are and the audience we’re writing for. The better aware we are of this, the better  we’ll be able to edit our work with this focus in mind.

Macro-editing is concerned with the overall  novel as a cohesive work. It’s our opportunity to step back from our first draft and contemplate whether it has achieved what we wanted it to and is structured effectively. They encouraged us to print a hardcopy of the manuscript to initiate this stage, as reading your words on the page is truly a different experience from reading them on screen. (I wouldn’t have expected this, but wow. There’s so much more that I catch with that ms in hand.) You will also want to list your themes, summarize your entire book in three sentences, and keep these with you as you journey back through your text to ensure you aren’t straying from any critical elements.

Key aspects your self-conscious-editing self should look for (not only in the novel as a whole, but in every chapter and scene as well) are:

– A compelling beginning, a hook that makes the reader want to continue. The first chapter in particular should be compelling in an action sense, but also in a literary way—it needs to be beautifully written. Subsequent chapters likewise need their own hooks and should be varied in how they start (i.e., beginning with dialogue, beginning in the middle of action, etc.)

– Action, drama, or “trouble,” as they called it.

– Appropriate pacing.

Three-dimensional characters that are brought to life and desire something;

— Characters are “thinly veiled versions of the writer” (sound familiar?), but we must immediately establish distinction between them and from ourselves if they are to appear as separate people; if they’re all clones of us, then they’re clones of each other.
— If you can “see” the character in your mind (consider gathering clippings from magazines and such for reference), then they will come across on the page.
– Provide physical descriptions of your three main characters, enough to help visualize their traits, but not full-bodied detail. Leave something to your readers’ imagination.
— Characters should be consistent from start to finish (i.e., if you reveal or yourself learn something new about them later in the novel, are these traits present at the beginning as well? If not, try to introduce them at least subtly).
— We should see growth in the main character.

– Clear sense of when and where each scene partakes.

– Long sections of description/exposition that could be cut.

Changing up the writing between exposition, narrative, and dialogue.

– A sense of atmosphere and appeal to the senses that lends texture.

– Something in each chapter that surprises the reader.

Continuity between scenes and chapters; ensure nothing is missing.

– Evaluate the “shape” of your novel/chapter in terms of story arc. Shapes can vary, but there should in general be a rising sense of action/conflict until the climax, then a dip toward resolution (so check for any sagging in the middle).

– Evaluate the ending and ensure a sense of resolution. They advised us to look at six novels we personally enjoy and look at their endings as a guide for managing this successfully. They also admitted that, in the interest of keeping your ending brief (the resolution should just be a “flick” after the climax) as well as ensuring your reader understands what has happened, the resolution may indeed warrant more telling than showing.

Throughout your macro-editing assessment, then, you will want to sit back and assess whether this is the story you wanted to write in the first place. I suppose it doesn’t hurt if ends up morphing into something even cooler than you thought it could be, but if it seems to fall short in some way, pinpoint where it diverges and contemplate how to get it back on track. Another very important point to consider outside of yourself is if it is the story your reader will want to read—how will they experience it?

I’d better cut this off here until my next installment. Many thanks to author Avril Joy for guiding us through this session of the workshop! More to come…

PART II Micro-editing

PART III – Submitting a Manuscript

PART IV – On Publishers & Publicizing


Revisal of the Shittest

“I believe imagination is like a Darwinian system.”

sock monkey image from cthulhufhtagn.deviantart.com

In the above quotation from the novel Sophie’s World (which I finally got through a week ago), Alberto Knox—the story’s philosopher—discusses with Sophie the nature of creativity and how it follows the natural selection of Darwinism:

“Thought-mutants occur in the consciousness one after the other, at least if we refrain from censoring ourselves too much.  But only some of these thoughts can be used.  Here, reason comes into its own.  It, too, has a vital function.  When the day’s catch is laid on the table we must not forget to be selective.”

Oh, that Alberto and his way with analogies…sorry, can’t help being sarcastic toward this book. Disregarding the tremendous education on philosophy it provides (which in itself is good reason to read the novel, and I’m glad that I did), it’s the fictional aspect of the plot that pricked into my skin like so many fleas in my fur. An interesting attempt to provide an entertaining means of digesting large concepts and history, the fictitious story line that distinguishes this as a “novel” versus “textbook” fell a little flat for me. The dialogue was unbelievably forced (most of Sophie’s comments/questions simply served as breaks or segues in the long lectures), and though it takes an interesting twist mid-way through, the characters and thin plot just didn’t endear themselves. Quite frankly, I found Sophie to be a precocious little twit. But I digress…

In any case, what he’s getting at here is that imagination generates the ideas, but reason weeds out the “mutants” and selects the best ones to carry on.  The plot twist in the book also ushered in some self-reflexive commentary on writing and the manipulative power the writer has over those ideas, settings, and characters in his/her charge. As far as the creative process in general, Alberto continues to say (with another analogy in practically the same breath as the first…):

“Maybe the imagination creates what is new, but the imagination does not make the actual selection.  The imagination does not ‘compose.’ A composition—and every work of art is one—is created in a wondrous interplay between imagination and reason, or between mind and reflection.  For there will always be an element of chance in the creative process.  You have to turn the sheep loose before you can start to herd them.”

This “wondrous interplay” is what laboriously polishes our inspired first drafts into final manuscripts. It’s what also keeps us in check so we don’t overly pillage our paragraphs of the words and thoughts that breathe soul into them; all too often, reason defeats imagination when there should instead be a balance of power.

Unlike the negligent Dr. Frankenstein, however, we do need to be mindful of what we bring into being. Our stories inspire us, they speak to us, they surprise us, yes, but they also rely on us to nurture and shape them, to help find a suitable place in the world for them. It’s still essential to follow the writing rules so we don’t feed our stories after midnight or get them wet, thereby leaving the sweet Mogwais of our imagination to metamorphose into Gremlins of loose redundancy and holes. That said, I don’t mean to be harsh on our uncensored minds, and perhaps my title isn’t fair in calling our first drafts “shit”…but far be it from me to pass up a good rhyme, and, anyways, sometimes they just really are ;).  (I think Sophie’s World, for example, might’ve benefited from another read-through…)

Serendipitously, at the same time as I’d read the chapter quoted here and mulled over this intellectual tightrope, Tahlia (author of Lethal Inheritance who blogs on the site of same name) posted “Do we write a story or uncover it?“—here, she asks how much we write using our rational intellect versus not thinking and just going with the flow.  It seems we universally tread this fine line, leaving us with this:  To think or not to think…that is the question when it comes to the evolution of our story.


Schoolhouse Crock

In the wake of my previous post on “taboo” words, I came to a horrifying realization: writers are going to put Lolly’s, Inc. from Schoolhouse Rock out of business!!!

A three-generation family business…I just don’t know if I can live with the guilt!

I therefore reemphasize what I said last time about still using the supposed no-no words like adverbs—just do so within reason—and I think dialogue or 1st-person narration deserves some leeway as well if it’s authentic to how a person would really speak.  So I guess I’ll still be unpacking my adjectives, too, but with discretion.

Working through this experience has introduced me to writer rules that *gasp!* I wasn’t necessarily teaching my high school students…when it came to dialogue tags, I confess I’d tell them that “said” is boring, so their characters should “exclaim” or “sneer” or even “smirk” something—I gave them a worksheet, in fact, that listed up to 50 different tags!  Gah!  And in looking at said worksheet, go figure the examples I used for dialogue punctuation:

I asked, “Did you see the monkey fall out of tree?”
Did you just say, “The monkey fell out of the tree”?
I screamed, “The monkey is going to fall out of the tree!”
He had the nerve to ask me, “Why didn’t you catch the monkey when it fell?”!

I will say this in my defense (not of subjecting my students to endless monkeys in their grammar examples ;), but of how I taught descriptive language):

– First of all, children and adults alike who are not naturally expressive in their writing do benefit a great deal from first learning what vast options their language provides them so they can later practice restraint when making more sophisticated stylistic decisions.

– Second, I certainly wasn’t teaching them that more words are better, merely that each of the words they are using should pack a punch.  It’s not about being redundant, it’s—for example—saying that someone “saunters” rather than “walks” or that the fish in the garbage smells “putrid” rather than “bad.”  These one-to-one swaps are sufficient in themselves to strengthen a sentence.

Thus, in their revision workshops, I’d ask them to comb through their writing and seek out any general nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs and replace them with more specific ones.  They were also to identify which senses their descriptions appealed to and strive to address all five at some point.

“Writers with style never just eat breakfast.  They munch on granola, wolf down hotcakes, savor Frosted Flakes, or gorge on jelly doughnuts.” – Art Peterson, The Writer’s Workout Book: 113 Stretches Toward Better Prose

I must say it’s very fun, let alone ironic, playing the pupil and trying to follow my own and others’ lessons, and I’m grateful for the new perspective I’ll eventually bring back to the classroom.  I’m not only strengthening as a writer, but also as a teacher.


The Telltale Taboos

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” – Mark Twain

The revision continues, so this is just a quickie.  That’s right, I’m gonna just love ya then leave ya, blog-slut that I am…

I’ve done a once-over combing through my manuscript and trimmed out a few thousand words so far.  As I still contemplate how I’m going to tweak that damn ending—sorry, I mean “very” ending—no, I mean “damn” ending—no, I mean just “ending,” period ;)—I’m approaching another wave.  But before I do another complete read-through, I’m strategically using my Word application’s “Find” tool to seek out and evaluate the use of a few common culprits that threaten to weaken our writing.

While there are many ways to slice-and-dice revision (including eliminating those adverbs and “to be” verbs), here’s a sample of overused, taboo words to check for in your manuscript as a quick-fix:

very

always

really

when

then

that

suddenly

just

began / started (With these, don’t use it if whatever is “beginning/starting” doesn’t stop before the action is carried out. Oh my gaawwd, I can’t believe how many ‘began’s I’ve found…naughty Monkey!)

For what that’s worth.  It’s not to say we shouldn’t use these words at all, just not overly so—it’s worth a scan to become cognizant of our usage and determine whether there isn’t a more direct, active means of engaging our reader through other word choices/sentence structure.

Also [I’m adding this retroactively in response to Sharmon’s good point in the comment below], I personally reduced those words in my 3rd-person narration, but left most of them in my dialogue, as those words are likely overused in our writing because they’re what we use often when we speak!  So, it’s arguable from that standpoint that they contribute toward authentic dialogue, no?

What words would you add to the list?

[As an aside, can’t help but share that the Mark Twain quotation reminds me of a time from my consulting days when the guy in the cubicle across from mine started swearing, walked away, then promptly returned with a colleague.  “Fix it,” he said to the guy, pointing at his computer.  Our friend/coworker giggled as he did so.  Afterwards, I learned that the guy had tampered with my cubicle-mate’s Word settings such that every time he typed the word “the” in his client report, it auto-corrected to, well, a term for male genitalia.  Ah, Finance wasn’t always so boring…]


Writer Rules. I mean, Writers Rule!

I recently read a post on the Here Be Dragons blog entitled, “Are We Having Fun Yet?” in which the author, Agatha, shares a refreshing, honest rant over the agony that can be refining a manuscript into its final draft.  She references Stephen King’s book On Writing (which many keep recommending and my slack-ass has yet to read) and specifically addresses a few writing rules that are compounding her frustration, such as how to approach that infamous first chapter (i.e., beginning at the beginning of the action to hook the reader rather than leading in with too much description of setting) and the debatable requirement that there be tension on every single page.

This got me thinking about all the RULES we new writers are trying so diligently to follow to not only write that novel, but also craft it into something marketable so it has a shot at getting published.  We scour the blogosphere for the sage wisdom of literary agents and published authors, and we look to our most beloved books for guidance.  It goes without saying that the pressure this places on us is tremendous, especially when we look back to the precious first drafts we wrote from our hearts and realize they are violating rules left and right…

Suddenly the Adverb becomes our arch nemesis, and we’re playing Whack-a-Mole against any dialogue tags other than Said.

A few months back, The Guardian (inspired by Elmore Leonard’s The 10 Rules of Writing) published the article “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” in which they surveyed 29 renowned authors for their own list of dos and don’ts.  This was a fascinating read for me.  At first, it overwhelmed me, because of course as I scanned down the screen I was tripping over everything that I apparently do wrong…and yet, the more author lists that I read, the more I noticed how varied their perspectives were.  For being a list of “rules,” it if anything taught me there is no consistent formula set in stone.

While there are no doubt sound universal suggestions out there we should adhere to, I think we also need to find solace in the fact that there couldn’t possibly be a one-size-fits all approach to writing a good book.  We are all unique and have something different to bring to the table, and that’s something that should be celebrated in our writing as well.  I particularly like how Ollin Morales (Courage 2 Create blog) phrased it in his comment on Agatha’s post:

“I’d rather write a book that I love and everybody hates, than one that everybody loves and I hate.”

True dat.  And I also commend the truth Corra McFeydon just shared in her A Lit Major’s Notebook blog, a post appropriately titled, “The Truth.”  It is here that Corra, also in the process of writing a novel, admits that she does not desire to be a professional writer because, right now at least, it’s killing her spirit in what she loved about writing in the first place.  Seeking to break free from the rules and schedules that constrict her, she asserts:

“That’s why my novel will be written when the spirit hits me — as a product of my intensity, my laughter, and my free spirit — even though apparently that’s not how to be successful.”

I began this project for me, and if it remains just for myself after I’ve at least given it a shot at going elsewhere, so be it if I’m happy with the end product.  But even abiding by our own expectations entails discipline as we make time for our writing and edit it until it becomes the best version of itself.  I think most of the rules I’m opting to follow these days are self-imposed based on my own standards (which are quite high—I’m an English teacher after all, and grade myself constantly ;)).

That being said, one external rule I’m trying to stick to is the advised first-time-author word count of 100,000—not in my first draft that I’m wrapping up presently, but when I go back through to polish up.  Yet another blog post I recently read that I really appreciate for its straightforward guidance on how to cut, let’s say, 19,000 words for a final manuscript is, well, “How to Cut 19,000 Words” from the ‘Lethal Inheritance’ blog—Tahlia Newland tells us how she did just that when her agent asked her trim down her YA fantasy novel of same name.  I was at first absolutely psyched out that cutting words meant cutting entire paragraphs and chapters—and sometimes it does and perhaps will, but it’s reassuring to know that it can be achieved on a sentence/word level as well, an edit so subtle you’d hardly miss a thing.

I’m curious:  Which writing rules do YOU swear by?  And which rules do you think are totally bogus?

Argh.  Can you even imagine Jane Austen sweating it out like this?  I can’t imagine she was slapped in the face by rules at every turn, as we are at every page we flip and link we click.  But then again…


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