Tag Archives: grammar

Grammar Matters

This morning, I began reading the October 2017 issue of The Writer. October already! One of the articles concerned the verb to be and how it weakens prose. Have you ever gone through a piece of writing specifically to root out all the to be forms and substitute action verbs instead? The author of the article (“Not to be”), Gail Radley, suggests using the find function in your word processing software to find and replace all forms of to be.  I like to print out what I’ve written and circle all the to be forms in red first, then work sentence by sentence to find the best replacement verbs. Radley shows in the article how often the to be form is near the verb that needs to replace it and she provides examples. An excellent article.

This article sparked thoughts about grammar in general. If you don’t think grammar is important to your prose, consider this. I occasionally agree to review novels when asked at GoodReads or elsewhere although I’m not a professional book reviewer. I’m usually happy to help out fellow writers and enjoy reading their work.  But there have been two times when I’ve agreed to review a novel but decided once I began reading that I could not write the review.  Why? Because the novel had been so poorly edited and contained so many grammar issues that the prose was nearly impossible to read. For both of these writers, I sent private e-mails with my assessment and that I would not review their books publicly.

Grammar exists not only to organize words but also to insure that the words make sense when put together. For professional writers, no reason exists in this world to justify not insuring that the grammar in their writing isn’t the best. Do you want readers to understand what you’re writing? Do you want readers to read your writing easily and with enjoyment? Do a close edit for grammar issues, whether you’re working on a novel or shorter piece.  If you feel rusty or unsure of your grammar usage, invest in a good usage manual like The Chicago Manual of Style and a grammar guide like Barron’s A Pocket Guide to Correct Grammar. Enough grammar reference books exist in libraries and bookstores that there is no excuse for a professional writer to not write grammatically correct prose.

We have editors – copy editors –  to help us in the later stages of completing a piece, of course. If you don’t feel confident in your grammar, a good copy editor is worth the cost, i.e. a professional copy editor who knows English grammar and usage. If you want your writing to be the best it can be, the clearest and easiest to read, then you have to put in the work and effort to accomplish that goal.

I will continue to review books, and accept the occasional request to review at GoodReads or post my review at Amazon or B&N.  If you self-publish, please be sure to hire a good copy editor before publishing your book.  It makes the reading and review process that much more enjoyable to me and all book reviewers.

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Writing Tools

Writing tools that come immediately to mind for most people are things like computers, paper, pens, notebooks, typewriters, word processors, word processing software, etc.  Those are not the tools I’m thinking about, however.  I’m thinking about tools far more integral to the writing than instruments for committing words to physical paper or file.  They are tools every professional writer needs to know and use correctly:

Language:  Whatever language you write in, be sure that you know the standard version and usage.  For English, we have some excellent style manuals in America including The Associated Press Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, and of course, where would we be without Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.  Every revision needs to involve a review of language and its usage, i.e. how you have used it to tell your story.

Words:  Yeah, a no-brainer.  Words or vocabulary make up language, and they are the basic building blocks of sentences.  Words occupy different places in a sentence and have different jobs.  Knowing how to write a sentence correctly involves some other tools:

  • Grammar — It amazes me as I’m revising just how many grammar mistakes I’ll find on my own.  Trusted readers point out others.  I have grammar reference books to help me with complex sentence constructions, as well as simple things.  Many are available.  A reference can tell you the jobs words do in a sentence, what a clause is, and so on.  I own Barron’s A Pocket Guide to Correct Grammar and Edit Yourself: A manual for everyone who works with words by Bruce Ross-Larson.  For online references, search on “English Grammar.”  A final draft needs to be grammatically correct on every single page.  Mistakes tend to annoy readers and reflect badly on you.
  • Active Verbs — Verbs do the heavy lifting in your writing.  Passive sentence construction creates boredom and signals a lazy writer.  During the revision process, for each subsequent revision, watch out for verb constructions that use any form of “to be.”  I usually devote an entire revision to this, highlighting every to be verb .  Each one creates an opportunity for more vivid images in a reader’s mind by thinking about what I really see in my mind and how I want to describe it.
  • Spelling — Correct spelling mistakes in each draft during the revision process.  Make certain that you’ve corrected words that spellcheck won’t catch, i.e. homonyms like there, their, they’re.  Become close friends, even intimate friends, with an excellent dictionary whether a book or online.  Rampant spelling mistakes annoy readers!
  • Vacuum Adverbs — Adverbs occupy a place in the language but use them sparingly.  The same draft I devote to excising the passive voice also receives a good vacuuming.  If you’re unsure about what adverbs are and what they do, refer to your grammar reference tool.

Word Choice:  Using the right word to create an image or express an idea, to build one sentence after another that also builds suspense demands a solid vocabulary, open mind, and excellent dictionary.  When revising, I pay attention to every word.  I challenge my use of words longer than two syllables.  Often, the best words are the simple ones.  However, if a character is well-educated and especially erudite, then it makes sense to give him a vocabulary of longer words.  The goal of word choice is to tell the story as clearly and easily as possible for the adult reader in language that will evoke the location and time, describe the characters and action with accuracy, and haunt the reader forever.

Format:  I use the same format from first to last draft to keep things simple and easy.  Standard manuscript format for prose, screenplay format for scripts.  Format includes setting margins (top, bottom, left and right), tabs, line and paragraph spacing, headers and footers, font and font size.  Indent five spaces for each new paragraph, two spaces after periods (although it’s acceptable more and more to use only one).   For examples of the different manuscript formats, search “manuscript format examples” and choose the one you want to see.

These are the tools every writer uses and strives to use well.  How a writer uses them gives her her own unique voice and style….