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 •

Continue reading

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

The mechanics of chapterization

Last time we talked about chapter breaks from a story standpoint. Now let’s look at the mechanics of how to do it.

I don’t recommend breaking your book out into chapters until you’re in at least your second draft and maybe even later. If you put chapter breaks in early, you may just wind up replacing and renumbering them if you move scenes around while editing. So wait until you’re sure the structure is solidly in place. Truth is, chapterizing can be the last thing you do before submitting the manuscript. Continue reading

Chapter length is important to structure

It may seem trivial, but how long to make the chapters in a novel is a detail worth paying attention to. But this item also bears some explanation.

Chapters are of approximately similar lengths.

Generally speaking, you want your chapters to be consistent in their length, as jerking back and forth between long chapters and short ones can be distracting. You don’t want to throw the reader out of the story with thoughts like this chapter is going on forever or wow, that was a short chapter. Continue reading

How to format different kinds of quotations

When you’re incorporating quotations in a nonfiction work, there are two ways to do it. Short quotations can be placed inline, in which case you use quotation marks. Longer quotations should be placed in a block format, in which case you don’t need the marks.

using quotation marks

© AKS –

For example, a short quotation might be something like, “Prose extracts (also known as block quotations) should have double line spacing,” as stated in The Chicago Manual of Style. Continue reading

Fiction Q&A: Using italics for character thoughts

Hey Kristen —

Sorry to pester you, but I didn’t know who else to ask. I was going over a critique someone gave me, and they mentioned that top editors teach to never use italics, even with internal thought. Some say never to use italics at all.

question answer


Here’s my concern. Almost everyone else I’ve run into says italics should be used for internal thoughts that would normally be spoken as words. Continue reading