Watch your language usage

When editors speak of language usage, we’re not talking about potentially offensive terms. At least, not exclusively. We’re talking about taking care with the words you choose and avoiding those Vizzini moments.

Usage is in accordance with convention.

If you’re using a word just because you’ve heard or read others use it, and especially if you’re using it because you found it in a thesaurus, it’s vital to ensure that it means what you think it means before you submit your manuscript for publication.

Here are just a few Vizzini words that I encounter far too often:

Hemisphere — Half a sphere. Don’t use it to describe half of something that’s not globular.

Epicenter — The point on the earth’s crust above (epi = over) the origin point of an earthquake. It’s not just a fancy word for middle.

Ground Zero — The site of a nuclear blast or the place in New York City where the World Trade Center used to be. It’s not to be used to label the origin point or nexus of just anything. Unless you’re describing vast destruction and death, don’t use it.

Usage covers not only using words in the right way, but also avoiding words that have changed meanings in such a way that they are no longer clear. Federalist, for example, originally was used by those who advocated for a strong central government, but now is often used to describe a decentralized system by those who oppose a strong central government. Its meaning is so blurred the word is useless.

word usage

Word cloud by Wordle

Offensive language also falls under the usage banner. What is allowable varies widely with audience. In Christian fiction, we often cannot get away with even the mildest expletives. In the general market, though, even a smattering of f-bombs may not draw too much ire. But if you get up to Good Will Hunting level, you may draw negative reviews. So consider what your target audience will tolerate.

Any sort of bald-faced stereotyping or insult aimed at a whole people group is right out. Unless you put it in the mouth of an Archie Bunker–type character who is clearly being mocked for his backward attitude, just don’t go there. If you’re going to depict any kind of prejudice or discrimination in your story, it’s best to examine it from both sides and show at least an effort, on the part of at least one protagonist, toward reconciliation. To Kill a Mockingbird and The Help are examples of this.

There are several myths around word usage, for example, that decimate cannot be used to describe total destruction (on the argument that the original Latin word means to remove a tenth). These are nonrules.

So how do you know which words can be used in what way? At the risk of sounding like your mother, you look them up.

Any good dictionary will offer usage notes on the most troublesome terms, and there is a usage chapter in The Chicago Manual of Style. For even more usage detail, you can turn to either Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage or Garner’s Modern American Usage. I prefer Garner because he is the author of Chicago’s usage chapter. Also, GMAU was updated in 2009, but MWDEU hasn’t been updated since 1994. GMAU tends to be more prescriptive (telling you what you should do) while MWDEU is more descriptive (telling you what most people are doing). All of these should be available at the reference desk of your local library.

Words are the atoms from which we create the substance of our stories. We must have an understanding of what they mean and how they are properly used.

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A punctuation primer

Editing for manuscript mechanics involves examining your manuscript closely for minuscule details like these:

Punctuation is properly applied.

The most common punctuation errors I see have to do with commas, which is why I created the Comma Cheat Sheet.

Photo illustration © WavebreakmediaMicro •

Photo illustration © WavebreakmediaMicro •

Few people have trouble with periods. They go at the end of sentences. Period errors are usually ones of omission, such as when they’re missing from run-on sentences:

She worked hard all day, there was a lot to do. (Comma should be a period.)

Continue reading

When editing, save mechanics for last

It’s worth emphasizing that manuscript mechanics are placed last on the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist because, though they’re the things our critique partners often spend the most time on, they’re the least important element of fiction. If you get everything else right, a copyeditor can fix the mechanics. But if anything else is wrong, the acquisition editor isn’t going to buy your manuscript to assign it to a copyeditor. And although Amazon reviewers can be brutal when they find typos in a self-published book, they will be far more brutal if your characters lack motivation or there are giant holes in your plot. Continue reading

Writers are readers

Last time I talked about the importance of reading widely. Now, my list of books read for last year looks pretty puny compared to some. But it’s a diverse list, so I’m OK with that.

I once sat in a meeting with a potential client who was looking for a ghostwriter. He admitted to me, “I really don’t read much.”

Which explains why he was unable to write his book by himself. Continue reading

How to find your writing voice

Think about voice in terms of style—your voice is your unique style of writing. When we start out, we tend to write like we think writers ought to sound, instead of finding our own sound. This leads to stilted, stiff writing. Here are some tips for finding your distinctive style.

Write the way you speak—sort of. Your speaking voice is your natural voice. Don’t try to write writerly. Write as you speak, within reason. In writing, we do want to eliminate the wordiness, repetition, and flaws of our speech. Have you ever wished you could rewind what you just said and clean it up? In writing, you can, and you should. Continue reading

Avoiding cliches and purple prose

The next item on the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist packs in several problems we see in novice writers’ voices:

The author avoids flowery or “purple” prose, as well as cliches, recycled phrases, and unnecessarily repeated words.

purple prose

Photo by Bill Davenport •

Now, there are some words you need to repeat or you’ll sound nutty. I remember once a critique partner pointed out that I had used the word “door” three times within a half-page. But he had to admit, there wasn’t really a good substitute. To use thesaurus words like portal or aperture would just be silly. But don’t repeat the word if you can get away without it. For example: He opened the door. She walked through the door.

Instead you could put: He opened the door, and she walked through. Continue reading

Set New Goals for 2015

If you haven’t already, this is a great time to set some goals. Not resolutions. We all know how those end up. I’m talking about real, attainable goals for your writing career.

Your goal could be time-based, for example, to spend an hour writing every day. Or it could be productivity based, such as writing 5,000 words per week.

new year 2015 goals

Illustration by Stuart Miles •

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but ideally your goals will be SMART: Continue reading