When I was younger, people told me that I should be a writer because I was a good speller. Today, I laugh at that. I know so many amazing storytellers who can't spell to save their lives. And you know what? We've got spellcheck. You don't need to be a great speller to write a great story.
The same could be said about grammar. Don't know an Oxford comma from a comma splice? That shouldn't keep you from writing the next Great American Novel.
For more thoughts on grammar, read the sage advice of my amazing editor, Jane MacKay.
Grammar Tips by Jane MacKay
People seem to use the word “grammar” very loosely, as a sort of all-encompassing term covering anything to do with language and how it’s used, but grammar refers specifically to “the system of inflections, syntax, and word formation of a language [and] the system of rules implicit in a language, viewed as a mechanism for generating all sentences possible in that language” (American Heritage Dictionary, 5th ed.). In basic terms, the rules and guidelines of grammar govern how words and punctuation are used in relation to each other to convey a desired meaning. Of course, that’s still a very broad category.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned in my years of copy editing is that few of the rules of grammar are hard-and-fast rules. There are some that must be followed or you risk looking uneducated or, worse, causing misunderstanding -- e.g., “you’re” means “you are” and “your” means “belonging to you” – but many others are open to interpretation, such as comma placement, hyphen usage, splitting an infinitive (e.g., “to go boldly” vs. “to boldly go”), or that persistent Thistlebottomism, ending a sentence with a preposition (up with which I will put).
How to improve your understanding and knowledge of grammar?
Honestly, some people’s brains just don’t work that way and no matter how hard they try, the rules of grammar just aren’t going to stick in their head. And that’s fine. Use your creative talent to create and do your best during the revision and editing phases to make your writing as clean as possible. Then ask a grammar-adept friend, fellow writer, family member to correct errors they find, and then, if possible, hire a copy editor to polish and put the professional touch on your manuscript.
A few tips for becoming more grammar adept:
1. Pay close attention to the corrections made by your editor, and ask for explanation if you don’t understand why a certain change was made. If the editor makes a particular type of correction over and over again, make a note of that error (with before and after examples) and keep it where you can easily refer to it so you don’t keep making the same mistake.
2. Read high-quality and well-edited writing. Pay close attention when reading. Osmosis is an underrated method for improving the quality of your writing. It obviously works negatively – we all absorb poor habits of speech and writing from what we encounter every day – but it can also be a powerful positive influence.
3. Study grammatical rules and guidelines in bite-sized pieces. Don’t overwhelm yourself. The Purdue OWL (online writing lab) website has a well-organized section of explanations and examples. Search around and find a resource that works for you. (Hint: a reference librarian can point you in the right direction.)
4. Know your weaknesses. Triple check those things when you’re revising and editing your work. Use reference books, reputable online reference materials, ask a reference librarian for help.
5. Study a foreign language. I gained most of my formal knowledge of grammar from studying German for nine years.
Thanks, Jane! You can contact Jane directly, visit her website, or find her on Facebook to learn more about the world of an editor.
More grammar tips soon.
In the meantime, if you have a comment or question for Jane, share it below.
Two weeks back, we spent time listening to editor Jane MacKay share her insights on why writers need a good editor. (Full disclosure: Jane is my editor and she is amazing!) Jane has worked as an editor since 2007. She takes on independent clients as well as offers her services to a small press she co-founded, Medusa's Muse.
Today, Jane and I discuss spelling. Fasten your seat belts, this will not be pretty.
Okay, Jane, let's talk spelling. You come from the other side of the world from me. I’m a California girl, and I believe you were born in New Zealand. Could you list some of the most common words you see misspelled in manuscripts or documents that land in your inbox?
You are correct. I grew up in New Zealand and have lived in the U.S. since my early 20s, so I’ve now spent about half my life in each country. New Zealand follows British spelling (e.g., colour, dialogue), so I’ve had to become ambidextrous in that regard, although I edit mostly texts by U.S. authors. I don’t know that I’ve noticed any particularly common spelling mistakes, beyond the ones that are constantly being pointed out in memes: your vs. you’re, its vs. it’s, etc. Those are more accurately called grammatical rather than spelling errors. I think the red wiggly line of spellcheck helps writers correct most of their spelling errors before the MS comes to me.
Yes, I love my spellcheck! So maybe there are particular kinds of words that trip up the average writer.
One thing to watch out for is homonyms – words that sound the same but are spelled differently, e.g., to, too, two. One common error that I do see a lot is confusion between breath and breathe, loath and loathe, and other similar pairs of words where the final “e” affects the sound and the meaning. In most of these cases (I haven’t looked to see if this is a pattern without exceptions), the word with the final “e” is the verb. The “e” also creates the hard “th” sound at the end. Thus:
breath (“breth”) = noun: a breath
breathe (“breeth”) = verb: to breathe
One way to remember this is that you need the extra “e” for energy for action! Verbs are action words.
Yes, I know one you have tried to help me with is bear v. bare. My answer was to not use it!
If you have your own questions for Jane or would like to know more about her services, check out her website.
Jane will return soon with more tips on grammar and great online resources. If you have a question now, leave it the comments below.
This isn't new advice. You've heard it before, but did you listen?
The first story I wrote in college was about a sculptor who created a bust of her blind brother so he could feel his face like she did.
I'm not a sculptor. I don't have a blind brother. My professor guessed as much. He said the story lacked luster; it was missing authenticity.
He was right.
It's not that I can't write a story with a blind character, but the heart of the story needs to be mine.
My first YA, "This Girl Climbs Trees", was described by Publisher's Weekly as a "semi-autobiographical narrative with literary leanings". Well, maybe. When I think about my college prof's comments. Yes. The nuggets aren't really my life, but the essence, the themes are. Growing up, I questioned everything - life, death, boys, myself. (PW also said it wouldn't hold readers' attentions. My readers say they are wrong.)
My second novel, "Birds on a Wire", follows three teen boys and their struggles with their own identities. One comes out, one loses his temper, the other struggles with love and friendship. Not quite tales from my adolescence, but the underlying themes - yes. In high school, I worked hard balancing friendships and boys; I sought to understand the value of my family v. my friends.
I am writing what I live. Don't expect the plots are me; do expect the central messages are.
My third YA, "Clothed in Flames" (currently in the loving hands of editor Jane MacKay), drops us into the crowded mind of a girl who hears voices and thinks a fictional character can help her find the dad she's never met. (Not my story - not even close. Well, okay, all writers hear voices, yes?) However, the message about love, family, believing in yourself - that's me. That's what I live.
So, yes, Professor Boyle, you were correct. Yes, Neil Gaiman, you, too, are spot on! We must write what we live. Where we live is in our hearts.
What's important to you? Make a list. Write one of those stories. The plot is the vehicle that carries your message. Write what you live.
Share your thoughts here.
As a kid, I loved hanging out with my dad at his workbench. I marveled at his array of hammers, screwdrivers and odd curvy things hanging on his wall. It seemed he had a tool for just about everything. He told me how important it was to have the right tools in your toolkit.
He was right then, and he's still right. Toolkits aren't just for carpenters and weekend tinkerers. When you think about it, every profession has a tool kit. So what are the essentials in a writer's tool kit?
Well, it must contain the necessary tools of your trade, items to get started, smooth the rough edges, and polish it off for show. Whether you are a novice author just getting started on your first story or you are a seasoned writer looking to hone your craft, you need to clean out your tool box. Here are my 5 tool kit essentials:
1. A writing space - a desk, park bench, beach chair and sand, a corner in the library. Where doesn't matter as much once you get going; but it is essential to find a spot where you aren't distracted and where you feel inspired.
2. Something to write on and with - laptop, notebook and pens, old fashioned typewriter. Again, what's important here is that the items you use to write with feel natural to you. For me, it's my laptop. However, I always carry something with me for inspirational moments (see #4).
3. Writing conventions resources - Strunk & White's ELEMENTS of STYLE (I have 4 copies tucked everywhere); at least one stylebook (LA Times, Chicago, AP); a thick thesaurus and dictionary. Yes, your wordprocessing resources do this trick, too; but you really need hard copies around. What if the electricity goes out and you need a good synonym for 'evil'?
4. Emergency supplies - As I mentioned in #2, you never know when inspiration strikes. Always keep a few small notebooks and pens stashed everywhere you spend time (the car, work, your purse or backpack, your bedside). I have notes written all over, and even if I don't go back to use them, just having written them down helps me work out my ideas. For you smartphone and ipad users, you might prefer the Novel Idea.
5. A paperback writing coach - Literally. There are numerous great books out there by established writers. These books can serve as your writing coach.. Buy one or more by different authors. Read them over and over. Write in their margins. Highlight, underline, circle! They want you to learn from their mistakes and benefit from their epiphanies. My favorite - ON WRITING by Stephen King. Find yours.
That's it. Gather your tools, and start writing! Good luck!
*This post first appeared April 2014 (I thought it deserved another viewing while I finish my summer break - see you next week!)
Since we last met, I have written 23,000 words, completed my third YA, and am revising and crying while preparing to meet with an editor this week. That's all in the last seven days. Now, I don't attribute it all to this delightful app, but I might extend to it half the credit. Yes, you heard me, Scrivener and I are tight, 50/50, that's us.
Let me tell you why.
Did you know that a scrivener is someone who writes for illiterate folk? That makes me laugh. I'm afraid it's mostly true. Scrivener has embedded its little multinational soul inside my head, snuggled in deep, massaging and word-smithing my tired literary brain. Although this darling scribe was birthed by Literature & Latte Ltd. less than ten years ago, it remains far wiser than me.
At most times.
But rather than give away all my power to a software program, I have developed a symbiotic relationship. I pour my heart and soul onto its stark white editor's body; it offers outlines and corkboards, character sketches and document storage ideas.
I continue to peruse the universe for its human form as I must admit I find Scrivener quite sexy, but that is between me and my therapist. For you, a share of VIEWS from my WIP (which I mentioned above reached its final chapter).
In Scrivener, you have, essentially, three choices in which to work. Document. Outline. Corkboard.
Last week, I discussed the dreamy Composition Mode you might use when in DOCUMENT. That's your main writing mode on a plain white scrolling background. Again, I recommend you enter Composition Mode when in Document view.
(NOTE: when you click on your entire manuscript in DOCUMENT mode, you can enter SCRIVENINGS mode and scroll through all chapters at once.)
If you want to view your plot structure 'at a glance,' take the time to enter a synopsis for each chapter. This makes OUTLINE mode a great place to check the seams of your subplots. You can also complete other items in the Inspector, which include synopses, word counts, and custom meta data.
CORKBOARD is another 'at a glance' view of your work in progress. However, here, you can post other notes, character ideas, keywords, pictures, etc. You can see my CORKBOARD view while I've clicked on the Characters list from the Binder. I added photos swiped from the Internet, so I could visualize my characters in real life. (Thank you, lovely actors and actresses for feeding my imagination.)
I won't go into more detail here, as I believe the Scrivener tutorials tell it best. As I assured one writer, yes, definitely spend time on the tutorial. It's worth it.
Please share your aha's here with Scrivener or other tools that aide us in producing our best work possible.
Read, Rinse. Repeat. My new Scrivener motto. After completing the first 8 tutorial steps last week, I decided to take another look.
Learning a new language takes time, and technology is definitely a foreign language. Each program, app, piece of hardware has its own lingo. It’s clear to me that I might never be Scrivener perfect, but I will improve with use. Perfection takes practice. My online friends agree:
Author Robert Bryndza said: “One thing I love about Scrivener is the way you can turn your project into any kind of file using just a few clicks, Word doc, PDF, EPUB and Mobi.”
Writer Chrissy Munder wanted to scrap the app at first, then: “The best thing I came across (note: I am not in any way an affiliate) was http://learnscrivenerfast.com/. I can't say enough good things about this program or the way it helped me get right into using the program.”
Here are 3 take-away’s from this week’s studies:
1. Where’d you go, Word Count? - while reading about “Footer View” (something I’d glossed over quickly at first, thinking it was useless extra stuff), I discovered I’d lost the Word Counter. But Mr. Scrivener knew that might happen. A few paragraphs in, I came across a NOTE suggesting that if one’s Word Counter disappeared, consider checking if you switched the Editor into Screenwriting Mode. And, uh, yeah, that was I.
2. I really dig that Composition Mode – click on the “compose” button up top, and it’s just you and your document in space (where no one can hear you scream, writhing in writersblockitis).
3. Weak at the knees for the Inspector - another favorite, The Inspector. (Although every time I read the word “inspector” I envision Matthew Broderick in a trench coat.) The Inspector is the set of collapsible folders to the right of the main Editor (where you write). The “Synopsis” allows you to save grabbed or typed text so you know in a blink what’s in that document’s section. However, my utter fave is the STATUS drop menu in the “General” folder there. Add any title here to categorize the stages of your work - “To Do”, “Final Draft”. I’ve already created “Yikes – need help!”.
Stay tuned for more insights with Scrivener next week. We’ll have some fun with that sexy Corkboard View.
Please consider sharing your experiences, perceptions and questions here.
At best guess, I’m 6,000 words from completing my third novel. I’ve been at this point for the past three weeks. Beyond, at one time. I’ve added, deleted, revised, rewritten. I moved the fifth chapter to the beginning, deleted the entire third chapter, and combined two others.
I’ve mapped numerous bright orange post-its across a magnetic board near my workspace, rearranging events and inserting new characters and plot points. I’ve scribbled lines of illegible notes inside my marble composition book. My desk is a disaster of index cards and post-its. Reading over some of my notes, I wonder why I wrote them. What did I mean by she needs new shoes first?
So I caved. I admitted defeat. I joined the present day. See my post on Organizing.
I purchased the highly touted Scrivener app. (Hard to resist at 50% off.)
Good buy? After making my way through 30% of the 23-step tutorial, I’m wondering if the program can help my current project. After all, if I were to employ Scrivener now, I’d need to type up all these crazy notes. I’d need to discern which are about character, setting, theme, and so on. Not an impossible task, but still time-consuming.
Finish this book and save Scrivener for my next, you say? Perhaps.
In the meantime, here's what I like about the tutorial and some of what I've learned thus far.
1. The tutorial is lengthy, but it's reader friendly.
2. It employs the “I do, we do, you do” teaching method – gentle hand-holding and encouragement for you to try.
3. You can make mistakes (in the ‘you do’ time, your practice does not delete the original tutorial).
4. There are many bells and whistles, but you choose which to blow, ring, or ignore.
5. The writer uses gentle humor and intuits when your cup has runneth over. In fact he encourages you to get a cup of tea at that point and have a break.
We’ll see how much further I get into the tutorial before next week. There’s always a struggle to balance writing and learning. I’m hoping Scrivener eventually provides that balance for me. Isn't that what its icon suggests?
Have you tried Scrivener? I'd love to hear your impressions. What do you like? What works? What doesn't?
Everyone can write. Everyone can run.
It's true. However (yeah, you know where I'm going), just as not anyone can run a marathon, not everyone has a gift to write clear, lyrical prose that entertains and engages readers. That's why you need to treat writing just as you would any other sport.
You need to get up each day and practice. And just as with running, you will need to warm up, stretch and find inspiration. A running partner can help, too.
I have a friend who runs. She runs every day. She runs because it makes her happy, keeps her healthy and because it feels good. Whenever she can, she enters a mini marathon or fundraiser run. When I asked her why she does it, she said, "It's fun, and it makes me a better runner." When she runs these races, she runs to win. She doesn't train extra for them, but she makes sure she's prepared to go the distance.
Such is true for writing. You need to make writing a routine, and you need occasional "races" that are fun to be part of and make you a better writer. Go ahead, challenge yourself. Brave yourself for some feedback, even some criticism. Believe me, it will make you better at what you do.
If you are a teen writer, here are some places to submit your work. Be sure to read their submission guidelines.
New Moon Girls - online and paper; girls ages 8 - 14; accepts poems, articles, stories.
One Teen Story - online and paper; publishes stories for the teen audience.
Teen Ink - online and paper; teen audience and writers; publishes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, photos, art.
The Writing Conference Contest - once yearly; open to students in elementary, junior high, high school; accepts poems, narratives, essays.
Oh, and don't forget the ThisGirl summer writing contests!
After you've viewed the above sites, set a target. Plan to submit at least one piece of writing by the end of the year. In the mean time, practice.
Please post links to any of your work online, or just give a personal shout out for your achievements. Good luck. Write on!