Monday, July 14, 2014

Common Writing Mistakes

A Happy Summer Read

June at Shimmering Lake Golf Club on the shore of Canandaigua Lake and the five-week beer-cart-girl certification program is in full swing. It’s a very popular program and a great way for any college girl to start her summer, but this year it could also turn out to be very dangerous.
Question from the E-mail:  I was interested in your post to Rosie last week. You said you see a lot of ms. with mistakes. What kind of mistakes??

Answer: Nobody's perfect. Worse, even publishers who claim to follow the Chicago Manual of Style, may deviate from what it suggests. For instance when ms. are converted for e-book distribution words with all caps may disappear without a trace. We ask folks to type okay, instead of O.K., even though CMS says O.K. is the correct form. Every publisher will have exceptions to the rules and a reason of their own for the exception.

Below is a list of the more common mistakes we see in submitted manuscripts. In fact, I made a good many of them myself before I looked through the publisher's end of the telescope. For instance I didn't type anything between scenes, just left the white space, unless the blank line came at the bottom of a page. Doing anything two different ways can cause the typesetter, editor, or publisher many problems...

      Tips on How to Avoid Common Writing Problems
            from the Publishers at

1.    Check homonyms and be sure they are used correctly. Problems often happen with words that sound alike, but are spelled differently, because spell check will not pick up on them. Watch out for words like hear and here, then and than, to (toward), too (more or also), and two (the number), there, their, and they’re, compliment and complement, and check them carefully in a Mirriam Webster Dictionary.

2.    Double check your transitions to be sure the reader is oriented. A transition is when you move the reader from one place to another, or one scene to another, or one time to another–usually the opening sentence in a block of copy or scene. A good transition, like the lead in a newspaper or magazine article, should answer the questions, Who? Where? and When? My pet peeve is when there is a scene break followed by a pronoun:
 * * *

   She hurried toward him, eager to tell her news.  

Who is SHE?  Who is HE? Sure, we want to know what the news is, so the hook is good, but not knowing who is going to tell it, or to whom it will be told is just confusing.

3.    Re dialogue and dialogue punctuation: Make sure characters don’t waste time on small talk. Punctuate dialogue correctly. Never let two characters talk in the same paragraph. Commas and other punctuation go inside the quotes. Regardless of what we all learned in English 101, in the days of moveable type, if they were not tucked inside, the punctuation fell out on the floor. And everything a person says at one time (even if they change the subject) goes in the same paragraph.

4.    Indicate the speech tags as part of the whole sentences in dialogue.  When a quote is followed by a “speechtag” as in, ‘David explained.’– the tag is still part of the SAME sentence and so the end of the dialogue speech is connected with a comma (NOT a period), and then a close quote. The comma is there to show that the “said” is part of the same sentence. Dialogue quotes should not end in period when there is a speechtag. Tags like “Responded David”, or “Explained Mary” should never be capitalized as they are not a new sentence. This happens in almost every ms. MOSTLY because none of us are taught how to punctuate dialogue in English 101. There we learn to write exposition, not fiction.

5.    Keep speechtags simple. Use “said” most of the time. Never use animal sounds such as ‘he barked’ unless your character is a dog or a drill sergeant. Here's a neat little technique–if you show a character in action within the same paragraph as the speech, the reader will assume the character who moved was also the one who spoke. This little trick can get rid of a lot of repetitive language (the saids), and it forces you to insert an image. If you want to show another character's reaction to the speech, change paragraphs. Treat the movement as if it were a dialogue reply.

6.     Write in scenes or structured parts and be sure each part makes a point. In fiction, the turning point is the place where something important changes forever. In non-fiction, it’s where you draw a conclusion. In either case, in both scenes or article parts, you should make a point.

     Narrate scenes or parts  with no point. They always tell us in the beginning to write in scenes and  "show don't tell" and narration is "telling." But you can't show everything. So narrate the mundane, or the action in scenes that don’t have a point. Most writing texts don't get into how to do narration – in fact they warn against it. But narration has an important place in any written work.

7.     Be aware of scene structure and hooks.  Every scene has the same structure.  Here it is:

   1. Transition, preferably with hook. (Who? When? Where?)
    2. Rising action and dialogue
    3. Turning point of the scene (the place where something important CHANGES FOREVER)
        (if there's no point, the scene goes, no matter how well written)
     4. End/resolution of the scene, preferably with another hook. Usually when we come to the end of a scene,

    * * *

     we indicate it with the double line break, at least two extra lines of "white space"  and the three stars. Always type in the three stars, a line, or something. Many typesetting programs remove blank lines and if you don't type something between your scenes, your typesetter MAY end up with one long block of copy and no breaks.

8.     Watch capitalization. Proper nouns get capitals, pronouns do not. But that can be confusing sometimes. For instance, Mom or Dad gets a cap when used as a proper noun, but no cap when used as a pronoun. As in, “My mom said Dad was late coming home.” My before mom, makes it a pronoun, but Dad is used as a proper noun. Goes against all those “be consistent” rules we know.

9.     Be especially careful of punctuation, especially with apostrophes and possessives. Apostrophes are used in contractions, that is a shortened version of two words, but never in abbreviations. Can’t instead of can not, it’s for it is (the possessive form of “it” never takes an apostrophe), and didn’t instead of did not. But CDs or the 1970s wouldn’t take an apostrophe.  Apostrophes (usually apostrophe followed by an s) are used, for possessive clauses. Mandy’s house. Tammy’s CDs. Do you see what I mean? Possessive forms of proper names take an apostrophe s even if they already end in s, such as Silas’s car. But plural nouns and pronouns get the apostrophe without the s in the plural form. I visited Mandy’s parents’ house. Plural form of proper names get an “es” rather than a plain s, and no apostrophe. Both the following are correct. “The Williams’ car,” for a plural possessive, and “The Williamses came to dinner,” for a plain old plural. I know, confusing isn’t it?

10.     You should never quote from any copyrighted material directly without permission in writing from the publisher. And most of them will want to be paid. It’s okay to quote from Shakespeare or older editions of the Bible, because that material is in the Public Domain. But if the copyright is still active, as it is on The New Living Bible, or instance, that’s not okay to quote from without permission. It’s okay to paraphrase song lyrics, to quote song titles, or book titles, to mention celebrities by name, but not to copy directly from any work. So you can name your character Sherlock Holmes or Scarlett O’Hara, if you want. Or you can have Kris Kristofferson singing“Bobby McGee,” or singing “about being broke and hitching rides in Baton Rouge.” But you canNOT have Kris sing, “Busted flat in Baton Rouge, headed for the train...”

11.     Be careful of  pronouns. The Grammar rule is "a pronoun always refers to the preceding noun." But the important thing is not to confuse the reader.So if two people are present, a man and a woman and the name Sue is followed by “he” — that’s clear. We all know, despite the country song, a man is unlikely to be named Sue. But if the scene has two women and the “She” after Mary refers to Sue, then the proper name should be used to avoid confusion.

12.     Always vary the language as much as you can. Guard against using the same word or phrase too close together. We all get "stuck" on a phrase from time to time, and this kind of problem crops up for every writer. Keep an eye, too, on how often required repetitive language such as pronouns and "said"s crop up. If you ever work in first person, look out for the "I"s. Try to keep the language as fresh as possible by paring those things down during your "self-editing" process. Just because the first draft is on paper, doesn't mean you are completely finished! We think words should be like soldiers doing drill. Each is necessary, each must march in line, in order for the formation to be complete. None should be out of step, or draw undue attention to itself, lest the formation (and the concentration of the reader) be broken. Try always to find just the right word. Avoid $40 words or thesaurus choices unless you look them up in the dictionary, too, and are certain they apply.

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