Monday, January 13, 2014

7 things every writer should be able to do in their sleep.

It's no wonder that self-publishing has such a bad reputation (though it's getting better) since a lot of writers don't know how to do the most basic of things, things I think should come easily, so easily that they are doing them in their sleep.

The following list should apply to every writer, whether they are a pantser or an outliner. When a writer writes something (including tweets, emails, blog posts, etc...), they shouldn't have to think about the following items.

Write a basic sentence correctly.

This isn't a huge deal (compared to some of the other items in the list), but it has its own implications and is a good stepping stone for the rest of the list. If a writer can't write a basic sentence, they can't write a complicated one.

And by basic I mean start with a capital letter, end with a proper punctuation mark, etc....

A book I read last year (but couldn't bring myself to review) missed the common period on a regular basis, but it was obvious it was being done on purpose. Because some punctuation rules are geographic in nature, I looked up the use and couldn't find reference to it. Lesson: don't make up your own rules, especially for the very basic of concepts.

Use commas correctly.

This is my biggest pet peeve for errors I find in the books I read. I can overlook a few, especially if the story keeps me on the edge of my seat, but if it's obvious the writer (or editor) doesn't know how to use a comma, I will put the book down. Or even worse, tell the world about it in a book review.

Now, there are a lot of rules about commas, a few even I disagree or have a hard time with, so what I'm talking about is basic use: combining two sentences with a conjunction and a comma, commas and dialog (see next item in the list), and so forth.

For me what it really boils down to is avoiding the comma splice run on sentence. This is the most common error that takes me out of a novel. The next most common mistake is using a comma where it's not needed, and I'm not talking about the few instances where it's optional.

I'm talking about times when you feel there should be a pause but have no punctuation rule to justify. A pause is not a good enough reason to use a comma. There are basic rules for using commas. Learn them.

Punctuate dialog correctly.

For me this ties in hand-in-hand with commas since many writers misuse the comma so badly when it comes to dialog. There is a time to use a comma and another time to use a period (or question mark). Don't confuse the two.

The following is not correct:

"I love you," Jane smiled.

The correct would be:

"I love you." Jane smiled. (Two separate sentences)

If the dialog tag is changed to something that describes the way the dialog was said, a comma would be correct, such as:

"I love you," Jane whispered.

And yet so many writers get it wrong. STOP IT!

There are other basic rules of punctuating dialog that I won't get into here. My comma soapbox was enough. But once again, learn the basic rules and follow them without thinking.

Avoid exclamation points.

I'm not sure how exclamation points became so popular in everyday writing, but now that it's crept into our novels ... UGH!

Although some would say never use them, my advice is to only avoid them when writing the first draft. If you choose to use a few, put them in during revisions; it will be a conscious choice based upon each individual circumstance, not something you do without thinking.

And when you do use them, you don't need more than one, especially in a published work. Tweets have such a short lifespan that the rules aren't as big of a deal, but if you do it correctly in tweets, you won't have a problem doing it correctly when writing a draft of a novel.

Use ellipses sparingly. 

Similar to exclamation points, people use these way too much. Personally I would limit it to dialog and not necessarily every time a character pauses mid sentence. It gets annoying after a while—for me a very short while.

The occasional trailed off sentence? Sure.

Every line of dialog? Absolutely not!

Another common use is pausing in narrative prose, usually when the reader is in the head of a particular character. I find this practice annoying as well. I don't need to know when someone's internal thoughts go into pause mode.

Use apostrophes correctly.

This one doesn't bug me like the others, but it bugs people in general, so I'm listing it here.

Know the difference.

This is a catch-all for common mistakes where the wrong word is used. The following list could go on and on, but instead, I'm only listing the most basic. If you can't use the following correctly, you can't even come close to expanding the list. Learn these if you don't know them. Then add to your personal list.

  • there, their, they're
  • its, it's
  • to, too, two
  • your, you're

A big advantage of a writer being able to do the above (and similar items) in their sleep is that it will be less work for the editor. And less work for the writer as well. Do it right the first time, and it will avoid unnecessary heartache. 

What common errors would you add to the above?

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