Wednesday, November 18, 2015

writing tips for anyone who wants to write well, and if you think 'well' should be 'good' you need these tips

As you may know I'm a columnist on Maggie Elizabeth Writes. However Maggie has started a new phase in her life and it would appear she doesn't have the time to keep her blog going. So I have decided that I will continue with my column here, for anyone reading this who wants to be a writer/is a writer/has to write reports etc in the course of work.

I read as many books as I can, which is not as many as I would like to since my time is limited. I read indie books as well as traditionally published ones, as I like to support my fellow authors. Often I find that otherwise great stories are hindered by poor editing. Sometimes this is a simple case of missed typos, American as opposed to English spelling or vice versa (both are correct, depends on what you are taught whether you consider it a spelling error or not), or other things that I know the author would have corrected if she or he had picked them up. It's difficult to eradicate all of the simple grammar and spelling errors in your own work, simply because you read what you expect to read and not what you actually wrote.

However there are some rules of thumb that I have seen missed even in books that have been professionally edited - which makes me wonder whether I should be hiring myself out as an editor! Here is a post on grammatical rules of thumb, which you may find useful in your own work.

Let’s Talk About Grammar

Yes, I know grammar sounds boring, but incorrect grammar is more than just irritating to the grammar Nazis. A piece that is grammatically incorrect can be so difficult to read that regardless (you will note I did not use irregardless which is not, repeat NOT a word) of how interesting the topic may be, you will lose readers through confusion.

Even if you are sending your work off to an editor you should not ignore your grammar. Improving your grammar will improve your writing, and will also cost you less when your work is critiqued by an editor. If, like me, you self-edit, good grammar is crucial. Not much says ‘amateur’ quite as emphatically as using bad grammar.

There are several online grammar helpers, Grammar Girl is one I run across frequently. Yes, I check my grammar, I have a problem with the passive voice and I know it. So I am often Googling passive voice and various other grammatical queries. Even though I consider my grammar to be good, I still make mistakes and prefer to double check anything that looks a bit dodgy.

Grammar is one of the most frequently covered subjects, a quick Google check will give you a list of hundreds of posts on your particular problem. There really is no excuse for poor grammar. More, as a writer you should be striving to be a better writer today than you were yesterday and that means constantly learning. Never assume you are correct as you may not be.

I had a lecturer once who was very fond of grabbing every student by his or her (metaphorical) scruff each time they uttered the words ‘I assume’.
“Never say ‘I assume’. There is an ass between I and me and it’s you.”
The first time I heard this I had to think about it for a while because I was stuck on the letter ‘u’ which he had seemed to ignore. Then I realized the ‘you’ he referred to was not just the hapless student but also the letter ‘u’. A far cleverer play on words than I realized and it made all of us remember to never assume.
But I digress. The point is that even if you believe you are correct, if you are not an English major double check your grammar.

Here are some common grammatical mistakes, including my own pet peeves.

·         They’re, Their, There: If you’ve spent any time at all on social media – and you have because you are here – you will have seen grammar Nazis get especially hot under the collar about this one. That is because it is so simple that I find it difficult to believe people get this one wrong. Here is the way to remember it: They’re – a contraction of they are, hence the presence of the apostrophe; Their – their toy; There, not here. They’re unhappy because their toy is over there instead of here. Just remember that there has the small word here in it. It’s not here, it’s there.

·         While we are on contractions, Your and You’re. Again, it’s simple. If you say you’re eating an apple you are using the contraction for you are. Your is ownership – your apple. You’re eating your apple.

·         Contractions again, It’s and its. Just remember the apostrophe is signaling a contraction. It is – it’s. It’s going to be a long summer. Put your coat back in its proper place. You are not saying put your coat back in it is proper place are you? This is an easy mistake to make though, simply because we use the contraction for it is so often.

·         Me or I? This one trips up a lot of people because sometimes it seems correct to say Simon and I – Would you like to come out to dinner with Simon and I? It should be Simon and me. Take out the ‘Simon and’ to be sure. Would you like come out to dinner with me? I is the subject pronoun – Simon and I went out to dinner. Me is the object pronoun – Will you come to dinner with Simon and me?

·         Who, that or which: Who refers to a person – Who shaved the cat? That refers to an object – where is the shaver that was used on the cat? Deciding when to use which or that can get a bit confusing. That is used in an essential clause – where is the shaver that was used on the cat? Which is used in a non-essential clause – where is the shaver that was used on the cat, and which needs cleaning. The first clause identified the shaver used, the second clause added further information. However, which can be used in a sentence where that has already been used to avoid confusion. That which doesn’t kill us makes a great book.

·         Lose or loose: This one baffles me, I’m sure people don’t get the words confused when speaking, so how do they confuse them in writing? If you are not sure, lose means you lost something, perhaps your mind, and loose means something that probably should be firm is now loose. Pronunciation wise, I know it’s more confusing. ‘Lose’ comes from Old English, a word that was once spelled as losian. The spelling changed but the pronunciation – LUH-sian stayed the same and evolved into lose. In loose, the double ‘o’ is pronounced the same as in ‘too’ or ‘pool’. I always lose my car keys because the hook on the wall is loose and twists down so that they drop off.

·         Too, To, Two: I went to the dentist and had two teeth filled, did you go to the dentist too? Two is a number, to is used with verbs, too is used with adverbs and adjectives to stress something said. It is too expensive, I went to the dentist too.

·         Then and Than: Another common spelling problem, one which often causes unintentional humour. Then is used when talking in relation to time – we ate our dinner first, then went to the show. Than is used in comparison – the show was more exciting than the one we saw last week. The sentence I’d rather give $50 to charity then go to that restaurant again is incorrect. In this sentence you are saying that you will give $50 to charity, AND following that go to that restaurant again. It’s only one letter, but changes the entire meaning of the sentence.

·         Irregardless, alot, and any other words that add unnecessary prefixes or for reasons I cannot fathom, try to make two words into one. Irregardless is not a word, regardless is grammatically correct and a far more elegant word. Alot is not a word, it is two – a lot. If your spellcheck does not automatically correct this you need to give it a stern talking to. On the subject, ‘I could care less’ is grammatically incorrect. It means that you can, in fact, care less about the subject matter, which implies that you do care rather a lot about it. The correct term is ‘I couldn’t care less’ for reasons that should be self-explanatory.

·         Disinterested and Uninterested: These two words do not mean the same thing. You use disinterested to talk about someone who is impartial, like a judge. You used uninterested when you mean a person who could not care less.

That’s ten, and there are loads more, so many in fact that I think I will save some for a different post. Passive voice for example can be confusing and deserves to have a longer explanation than a bullet point. Also dangling modifiers and dangling or misplaced participles. I see the latter a lot and cringe every time. When you read ‘she handed out brownies to the children stored in Tupperware’ you are naturally confused as to why the children are stored in the Tupperware. This should be a worry for the author as it increases the risk that you will put down the book and not pick it up again.

When you see a beautiful swan gliding effortlessly along the water, or, as I saw the other day, flying low in preparation for landing, you see the beauty of it. You don’t see the legs paddling furiously below the waterline, or recognize the effort it takes to keep a large bird aloft. As a writer you should strive for the same effortless effect. Your prose should flow with the beauty of that swan, so that reading is easy. That takes work, just like it takes work for the swan to make swimming and flying look so effortless. Part of giving the reader something to delight in is working not only on the magic of your idea, but also the hard grind of perfecting the language and grammar. Make your writing easy to read as well as magical and you will have return readers.

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