Not Just Another Grouchy Grammarian

Musings about language, books, grammar, and writing in general

Archive for the category “improving one’s writing”

Mixed Reviews, e-Publishing, and Other Amusements

I was recently assigned a short story to review and post about. I did what was required, but did so with a really heavy heart. You see, the book was an e-book, and had many of the faults that keep people from whole-heartedly adopting the technology.

The story idea was mildly interesting. However, the characters were flat and wooden — nothing there for a kid to really relate to. The editing was horrendous – spelling errors and bad grammar to the point where I wanted to write the author and tell him to get a good copy editor and pull this from Amazon until it was fixed. Worst of all, the story was entirely too heavy-handed and preachy; the nicest thing I could say about the way it was handled was that the author’s points could not be missed.

Why do I discuss this here, especially since I did the required review elsewhere, then? I note it to point out what I, and many others, see as some of the problems with e-publishing, especially of the vanity variety. As anyone who reads this blog is probably aware, self-publishing e-books is incredibly easy compared to getting published the “old-fashioned” way. Unfortunately, this means that pretty much anyone can publish stuff — good or bad. Amazon abounds with poorly edited e-books; my favorite mistyped title is The Three Tenants of Prosperity. Gratuitous spelling errors, plots with holes you could have Andre the Giant walk through were he still alive, grammar errors that would be looked at askance in a second-grader’s work…and don’t forget to toss in characters that could be cut from recycled printer paper; sometimes it feels like people are just into parading their ignorance.

Please note that I am not talking here about using various street or regional dialects; those can add real flavor to a story. However, characters whose speech does not reflect who they are just make me want to throw the book at the nearest wall. Part of making fiction good is having the characters put an accurate picture of who they are in the readers’ minds.

However, I digress a bit. It’s not that all e-publishers are bad. Lawrence Block has been e-publishing his books for a while now, and the e-books are just as meticulously edited as his hard copy books are.There are reputable e-publishing houses. What I object to about e-publishing is largely that anyone can put anything out these days. I’m not saying they don’t have a right to – just that all the garbage out there makes it much harder to find the good books by new authors who are exclusively e-publishing for whatever reason. Yes, I know that even paper publishing has small vanity houses where these issues are regular visitors. This is why my reading remains a mix of both e-books and paper books.

I have been working a bit more, as I get healthier. It’s interesting to see all the different styles clients want. There are at least two guides for each of the writing teams I’m on. One is from the client, the second is from the project manager. Often, there are additional guides, cheat sheets, etc.  the most amusing part of this kind of work is making sure your work is not plagiarized – not even accidentally. This is usually done by using a program such as Copyscape, which searches the Web for words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that match your work. Unfortunately, there are things Copyscape flags that cannot be changed, such as your product’s name. Get enough “hits” and you can be let go by your project. Add in to this that most clients provide you with keywords and/or links they want you to use, and turning out 100% original copy becomes, shall we say, interesting. It’s not too terrible for me. Often I find the biggest challenge is writing to an approximate tenth-grade level.

Part of the problem is that the world has changed since I was taught to write. When I was growing up and in school, complex sentences were the sign of an educated person. Not that you used extra words, mind; such sentences had several clauses, but were – optimally – not strings of adjectives and adverbs. Passive voice was often part of formal writing; it served to distance you from your writing – to make the writing sound neutral. The current style is short sentences (I have been told that 25 words is optimal), with few clauses and fairly limited vocabulary. It’s not a style I learned easily, and I use a few programs to check for things like that (my favorite is Hemingway Editor). Anyway, I am finding writing in the new style something of a challenge, but it’s an interesting challenge. Language evolves, and we should evolve with it, even if it moves us out of our comfort zones.

That said, I still am happier when books I read are written with proper grammar and spelling – except when changed for reasons of dialect.

Your grammarian has recently edited two manuscripts. One was a horrible piece, wooden characters, “said bookisms,” all sorts of mistakes. The other was a wonderful story with good strong characters, an excellent plot, and an intriguing opening.

Unfortunately, thee two manuscripts had one thing in common. Neither of the authors seems to know how to format a manuscript.

Now, formatting a manuscript is not rocket science. I know that some of you are going to say that I shouldn’t be too hard on these writers, because I can’t expect new writers to know such things the way professional writers do. I don’t expect them to “know” it. I do expect that if they are serious about writing, they will pick up a book and learn it.

When I started writing for publication, I had no idea how to subit a manuscript, so I went to the library and photocopied the section from Writer’s Market on the standards for a manuscript. And I wore that photocopy out referring to it until I did learn.

It seems to me that one of the biggest problems today, especially when it comes to writing, is that people have forgotten that standards were developed to ease communications between people. They are not just a dead bunch of rules to learn by rote, no matter how silly some of the rules seem to those who are not writers.

Now I’m not saying rules don’t change. As I think I’ve noted, sometimes there are good reasons for changing rules, like the differences that technology made so that two spaces are no longer necessary after a period. Sometimes, the rules are merely stylistic, and will vary from publisher to publisher, like a preference for (or against) the Oxford comma.

Anyway, at some point when I am not in deadline Hell, I will probably do a column on how to format a manuscript.  Until then, keep writing and if you need to learn how to format a manuscript, please either obtain a copy of the current Writers Market, or borrow one from the library, or check the various resources available online.


Your Grammarian is Particularly Grouchy Today…

I have spent much of this week editing a manuscript. Sadly, not one of mine, but when you get paid to edit, you edit.

However, it was rough going, largely because the author, who shall remain nameless, had no clue about how to format it.

It was not double-spaced. Some paragraphs were indented, others not. Some of it was right & left justified, some of it ragged right (which is, btw, the correct way). The writing was wooden and full of said bookisms. The three parts of the novel bore nothing to show how they were related. The characters did not engage the reader. Chapters did not begin on a new page. Oh, and instead of putting the page numbers in a header, the writer inserted page breaks and manually typed in the number at the top of each page.

So, what I want to talk about a bit is manuscript submission.

In the event you are planning to submit a manuscript to a publisher, there are a number of conventions that you should follow.

  1. Double-spacing. the manuscript should be double-spaced.
  2. Identification and Numbering. The first page should contain the author’s name, address, phone number, and e-mail address in a header, right-aligned. Pages two through the end of the manuscript should contain the author’s last name – title – page number in a header, also right aligned. If you don’t know how to set this up, go to headers in your word processing program, and set up for right aligned headers, with first page different, and type in the page two to end header, then go back to the first page and add your first page header.
  3. Spelling and grammar. The manuscript should be spell & grammar checked, even if you ignore some of the grammar changes the program suggests.
  4. Thoughts. When your characters have thoughts, they should be set off from the regular text. Some people choose to italicize the thoughts; others set them off in either <> or [] brackets.
  5. Said Bookisms. There are so many ways to treat dialogue that putting “he (or she) said/he (or she) noted/he (or she) replied/etc.” should generally be avoided. Have your character complete an action, walk away, pick something up…anything but using said bookisms over and over.
  6. Justification. Manuscripts should be submitted left-aligned (also known as right-ragged). The only exception for this is when a poem relies on the shape of the lines on the page.
  7. Chapters. Each chapter should begin on a new page. Chapter headings should be centered and in bold.
  8. Foreign Words. These should be italicized the first time they are used. Also, if your novel is set in 17th Century France, you should not use the Italian word for an object. Find the appropriate French word, or just use English.
  9. Page Breaks. Only use page breaks when necessary: between sections and at the end of chapters. So: Title Page, page break, Table of Contents, page break, Section Title (if used), page break, Chapter One, page break, etc., page break, Epilogue, page break, index (if any), page break.

That’s about all I can think of offhand, but I am sure there are other points  to remember, and — if I think of them — I will do another post.

See everyone next time.



What are some of your favorite writing, reading, and language books?

Most of us who play with words, whether for a living or for fun, love books about words, about writing, and about language. From the grammar books we grew up with, to the histories of language tha pique our interests, we are, indeed, “people of the book,” although the “book” in question may vary.

When it comes to writing, my go-to book is The Chicago Manual of Style, followed closely by Lawrence Block’s books on writing, by the Writers’ Digest series of writing books, and by almost any book that explores how English developed.  I also love books about journal-keeping (whether online or on paper).

Since I have read most of the books *I* have found on the subject, I am asking my readers to let me know what some of their favorites are, so that I can hit the library (my favorite resource of all) and expand my knowledge base. I know that a lot of the books we lean on for our grammar depend on what was being taught as we were growing up, and I also know that grammar has changed since I was a young’un.  Therefore, I am primarily interested in seeing what books are being taken as grammar gospel by those whose schooling was after mine (I graduated high school in 1970).

What books are your touchstones when it comes to grammar, language, writing and reading? What books would you recommend to someone trying to learn more about English and how it developed? What is your favorite reference resource?

A Few Thoughts on Writing

My ex and I were in Family Dollar buying some storage bins (I’m reorganizing my living space;  if you are interested you can read about it in my other blog, The Dangling Conversation), and after I swiped my credit card, the clerk said, “And now I just need your autograph.”  I replied that I was more used to signing books than plastic screens.  He asked if that meant I was a writer, and when I replied in the affirmative, he asked how he could improve his writing.  The ex and I asked what was wrong, and he mentioned run-on sentence and a few other things.  He mentioned that he had been told that he needed to read more to be a better writer.

We both agreed that reading was good, but pointed out that the thing to do was to keep writing, and to find someone who could show him how to correct his errors.  We also pointed out a few books he could look at to improve grammar and construction.

I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut, who said that if he were teaching writing, he would give each student a notebook and a pencil, and tell him or her to go and write until the end of the semester.

I agree that the way to improve one’s writing is, primarily to write.  In that regard, it’s like any other muscle or skill:  the more you exercise it, the more adept you will become at doing it.  And, yes, I agree that the more you read, the more your writing will reflect that.

However, I remain adamantly convinced that any person wanting to be a writer would do well to master the basics of the language he or she wishes to write in.

I know that stories can be compelling, even when they are not written in formal English.  When I was a school aide, the kids would recommend books that I never would have read on my own, and I read them (I I had a deal with them — I’d read what they recommended if they’d read what I recommended).  Invqariably, i found the stories compelling, even while wishing I had a red pencil in hand to correct the grammar (or lack thereof).  I’m not talking about the use of dialect or slang here, by the way.  I can live with those — they often make a character more vivid.  I am talking about plain old-fashioned misspellings and poor grammar.  The stories would have been even more compelling and would have appealed to a much wider audience (in my not-so-humble opinion) had the grammar been better.

This was pointed up to me nowhere more than reading Sistah Souljah’s excellent book, The Coldest Winter Ever.  The grammar was spot on, yet didn’t detract from the story at all; in fact, it made it much more readable.

So, yes, both reading and writing are essential for improving one’s own writing, but so is taking the time (and making the effort) to improve one’s grasp of the basics of grammar.

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