Imagine for a minute you’re a junior editor working your way through a pile of manuscripts - aka the slush pile. Your job is to read and make recommendations to your boss. What do you think happens when you read the first paragraph and find so many spellings, punctuation and grammar errors, that although you catch the writer’s drift, you realize you’re not trained as a code-breaker. The next manuscript is semi-colon perfect. Which one would you choose?
Punctuation, grammar and spelling are the mechanics, the nuts and bolts, of writing. They are aids we use when we want to communicate our ideas efficiently to others so our meaning is clear. Punctuation reflects the rhythms of speech, creates pauses, and is a basic feature of accurate writing.
Proper presentation applies to self-publishing and ebooks. Readers don’t want books where the mistakes make reading harder than it should be. If you check out an ebook, you’re often able to read the first few pages. Too many basic errors distract from the story.
This is also the reason why there is an industry dedicated to correcting and standardizing the written word. And yes, there are writers, James Joyce and Cormac McCarthy for example, to name but two, who challenge the rules as they seek fresh and distinct methods to express particular experiences. But they write with knowledge of the rules, choosing deliberately to discard or change them. Jackson Pollack studied art before he began exploring new ways of expressing himself – he didn’t just decide to give up his day job and fling paint around. So when you know the rules, you can experiment.
There are details – US or UK spelling. Choose one and be consistent. Use your word processor’s spelling and grammar check, and there are free online editing tools. Pro Writing Aid and AutoCrit are two, which have the added bonus feature of making you occasionally wish you’d never been born – let alone decide to write!
Find beta readers who are skilled in these areas, and ask them to be honest with you if your work isn’t up to par. They won’t correct your mistakes; that’s for you or an editor, if you can afford one - because they don’t come cheap. If you struggle with punctuation and grammar check a book out from your library, or buy a book (I’ve listed two below), and there are any number of online courses/tutorials you can find.
You don’t have to become a grammarian but correct use of punctuation, grammar and spelling tells readers your work is of a professional standard. It won’t get your book sold – you need a great story to achieve that – but at least you stand a chance of someone making it past the first paragraph.
This Week’s Rant
The alphabet is a written code for the sounds we make when speaking, and when there is more than one way to spell a particular sound, it’s no wonder people have difficulty with spelling.
Take the sound which is known as the long ‘a’ (as opposed to the short ‘a’ as in hat) and consider the following list:
eight where the ‘a’ sound is represented by the letters eigh
straight where the ‘a’ sound is represented by the letters aigh
tail where the ‘a’ sound is represented by the letters ai
play where the ‘a’ sound is represented by the letters ay
they where the ‘a’ sound is represented by the letters ey
ale where the ‘a’ sound is represented by a and e, separated by a consonant (pale, mate etc.,)
vein where the ‘a’ sound is represented by the letters ei
steak where the ‘a’ sound is represented by the letters ea
paper where the ‘a’ sound is represented by the letter a
(Just to up the stakes – or in case you thought the long ‘a’ was an exception - the er sound in paper can also be spelt using ir, ur, or, ear, ar, urr, our, re, or yr (as in zephyr).
Nine different ways to spell the sound we call the long ‘a’ and ten different ways to spell the ‘er’ sound! There are the rules, the exceptions, and the ones that don’t fall into either category. I think this is insane! For any child who is on the dyslexic spectrum, it makes learning to spell a form of torture. This is a plea for standardizing our spelling system!
Easing myself back into the final stages of editing ‘The Novel’ has been an interesting experience after the nano, and the break has definitely been beneficial. My writing seems calm and measured after the flying rush of ideas in November, and getting reacquainted with the characters is interesting.
This week I’ve continued reading aloud - something I hadn’t actually planned on doing. I am finding it worthwhile because I tend to read at a fast speed, so reading aloud – slowly - makes it harder to miss things. I’ve still a couple of chapters left for the second pro write edit, need to add a little more to a couple of minor characters and check out some place names, but it feels more like tidying up than editing. I’m aiming to finish by the end of December, so typing with my fingers crossed, I should manage that deadline.
My thoughts are turning to what I’ll work on next. I’ve two nano novels and don’t want to rack up a large number of rough drafts, so I’m thinking the decision is between last year’s nano, which I’ve been away from for a long time, and this year’s nano which is still buzzing in my head. I am planning another mainstream novel, but want to work on the nano novels while I plan that one.
I do feel nervous coming to the end of what has been a fairly epic journey with this novel, and doubts are beginning to haunt me. Will anybody like it? I don’t feel it’s been a waste of time, but it’s been harder and taken longer than I anticipated. I guess I'll just have to wait and see! So a big thank you to all aspiring writers and bloggers out there, whose examples and struggles let me know I’m not the only one!
fallen crisp brown leaves
dance, skitter, run to escape
the north wind’s fierce breath
Just Google ‘online English grammar’ and a host of websites come up – or you can simply type in your particular question - use of commas etc.
Or buy one of the following books:
New Hart’s Rules. The Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors; published by the Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-861041-0
Write Right! A Desk Drawer Digest of Punctuation, Grammar and Style, by Jan Venolia: published by David St John Thomas Publisher. ISBN 0-946537-57-7
Join me on Twitter at: teagankearney@modhaiku
To all story lovers out there, good reading, and to those of you who write, good writing.
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