Know when to stop editing

We’ve made our way through the whole Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist. Now there are two vastly different errors writers can fall into.

The first is thinking you’re done. If you are working on your first—or even second or third—novel, one or even two passes through your manuscript will not be enough. Let the book lay fallow for a couple of weeks or even a month, while you start writing something new. Then give it another read-through. Look at each category of the checklist and ask whether you’ve really done each element as well as you possibly can. Then make another pass.

The second error is making an infinite number of editing passes, so your manuscript is never finished. The pursuit of perfection is unending. At some point, to borrow an expression from Seth Godin, you just have to decide it’s good enough to ship. Usually that’s the point at which you’re just making things different instead of better. Continue reading

In writing, style isn’t about your clothes

Style is one of those words that has too many meanings to keep track of. I once narrowly avoided attending a conference workshop on “personal style” when I found out that it was actually about clothing and makeup and such. Style as part of your appearance and branding.

I had thought it would be about developing one’s personal writing style, which we often refer to as voice.

Yet another type of style—and this is what I actually want to cover today—is the kind of style we are talking about when we refer to The Chicago Manual of Style, The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, or the Associated Press Stylebook. Continue reading

Yes, spelling counts in novels also

You may write the most brilliant story with the most sympathetic characters, but if your manuscript is full of spelling errors and typos, you will struggle to find readers.

Spelling is correct.

English spelling is notoriously difficult. It is rarely phonetic, as Spanish is, and is not consistent, as French is. Honestly, the only way those kids who win the spelling bees do it is by memorizing. If you’re not entering a spelling bee, just use a good dictionary. The folks at The Chicago Manual of Style recommend Merriam-Webster’s. The abridged version is free, and will serve most of your needs. An unabridged version is available by subscription if you think it necessary.

A less authoritative but still fun source is OneLook, which searches over a thousand dictionaries. It’s useful for highly specialized terms and slang that hasn’t made it into traditional dictionaries yet. Continue reading

Beware the nonrules

Last time I noted that there are lots of misconceptions about what constitutes “grammar.” There are also lots of misconceptions about what constitutes “rules” of writing.

Adverbs modify verbs is a rule. Don’t use adverbs is a nonrule. You may use adverbs, as long as you do so judiciously.

split infinitives

Black Chalkboard illustration by jaylopez •

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Get your grammar in line

Most writers are, by nature, very good about their grammar. But there are lots of misconceptions.

Grammatical errors have been eliminated.

Grammar, contrary to popular belief, does not include punctuation or spelling, as we often see on lists of “common grammatical errors,” which usually contain things like misplaced commas (punctuation) the confusion of affect for effect (usage) or misuse of apostrophes, such as it’s for its (spelling*).

Grammar concerns only the parts of speech (such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives) and how they combine to form sentences. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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