Showing posts with label grammar. Show all posts
Showing posts with label grammar. Show all posts

Friday, November 1, 2013

Writing Skills Are Universal

In the past, when I have mentioned to people that my "go to" grammar and writing guide is the Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers text, A Writer's Reference and not the Strunk and White text, I am frequently faced with the same criticism. "You know Scott, that information is good but that is for academic writing and I do fiction writing (or insert any other form of "creative writing"). I have to say, I am very frustrated when I hear this. 

As someone who spends a lot of time with writing and grammar, I simply have not seen any book out there that says elements of grammar differ in one form of writing to another. Basic elements such as paragraphing, parts of speech, punctuation and so forth simply do not differ from one form of writing to another. Yes, we do know that we can use fragments correctly in cases of dialogue. We know in poetry, we can play around capitalization and punctuation. But when it comes to grammar, the rules are pretty much standard.

I bring this up because I see far too many submissions that seem to miss the mark. Now I do understand some of these people might not understand the rules of grammar and, for these people, we have a different issue to contend with. But, for those other writers, submitting projects with errors like this simply send the wrong message to editors and agents. 

Yes, we are very much aware of situations with a typographical error now and then. With the grammar, however, there is no excuse. There is a wealth of material out there to assist writers with the grammar. If anything, there is always the grammar checker if they know how to use it. 

We have to remember that sending grammatically incorrect documents is not going to get you to that happy place of being published.

And one final note. If you are someone deciding to pass on the traditional approach to publishing where there are editors and copy editors that might catch those mistakes, you need to be extra cautious. Hire someone if you have to!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Why A Demonstration of Strong Grammar and Punctuation is So Important In Submissions

I get it! Not everyone out there understands dangling participles or split infinitives. I get that the argument between passive and active voice can send people into tailspins. But, with that said, submitting a project to editors and agents that demonstrates poor grammar, or misuses of punctuation is a sure sign that you'll be seeing a rejection letter sooner than you want.

When I talk to writers about submissions, I always find myself returning to Hallmark's commercial and slogan, "When you care enough to send the very best." In the business world (and yes, I am including publishing in this group), we expect to see material that is well crafted and is pretty close to being free of those basic errors. Why? Because we often make a judgement or decision based on that initial perception. We will often ignore all of the good that person or company might have to offer if we see errors that should have been fixed before pushing print.

As an agent, when I see errors in query letters, or a synopsis, my next thought becomes, "So, if this smaller document has problems, what will I likely see in the 400 page manuscript this writer wants me to read?"

What are these errors that I find most often? Don't worry, I am not going to get hung up on effective use of fragments, or even run-on's or comma splices if the sentence makes sense. I'm talking about the basics here:
  • Paragraphing
  • Spelling of basic words
  • Business letter or business email formatting
  • Subject-Verb agreement
  • Pronoun confusion
These are issues that I feel are pretty darn basic, and, can more than likely be fixed with actively using your spell and grammar checkers sitting idly on your computers.

I personally struggle when I hear editors and agents say they will over-look these grammar and spelling errors. I cringe when I hear a rejection will not come from typos. Now, maybe they are saying the same thing that I am. They won't reject for this but the odds are they will find issues in the manuscript. Still, sending the message that we will ignore the grammar and the spelling because, "in the end, it is all about whether or not I like the story" doesn't work well with me.

Grammar and spelling are the "rules of the highway" in written and oral communications. I do get that we will sometimes "accidentally" type something wrong in the computer. We may say "tot he" instead of "to the." We might miss the apostrophe "accidentally" and write "its" instead of "it's." I will give people that, the same way that we as readers are willing to ignore the one or two typos we find in a published book. Some accidents do happen!

But, when we have a clear lack of understanding, then I for one, cannot ignore it.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Please, Please, Please Edit

I find it interesting, when I teach writing in an academic setting, the only editing that takes place is usually basic grammar and "wordsmithing." When I work in the creative writing setting and publishing, writers spend all of their time editing content. Now, while this element is certainly important since writers are telling a story, not taking the time to edit for the basics of grammar, punctuation and spelling is a huge red-flag for editors and agents. This is especially the case when we look at the query letters, emails you send to us and the synopsis of your story.

Please understand, we are not completely inhuman with our obsession over grammar. In the end, we too are simply looking at the story, but, when the grammar mistakes are obvious, and certainly mistakes that a basic understand of writing would have fixed, then we simply cannot over-look these mistakes.

Fixing this is very easy, especially with the tools available to you within most writing processing programs. For example in MSWord 2010 using the grammar and spell checker can find an amazing amount of the problems. You might not get all, but at least you will get close. It goes like this:

You opening screen will look like this. We will move our mouse up to the tool bar section where you have the buttons for FONT, PARAGRAPH and so forth. When you get you mouse up there right click on it and you will get a screen that looks like this...
You will want to move down to the pull down tab to Customize the Tool Bar. This will get you to some amazing things you can do with your computer.

In this menu, go over to the PROOFING tab. This will get you a screen that looks like this. What you want to look for is the box in the third grouping that says something about check for GRAMMAR. Click on the button that says settings. This will get you a screen that looks like this.
What most of you will notices is that if only the GRAMMAR Button is clicked, then you are only looking for about 1/3 of the problems. By clicking GRAMMAR AND STYLE, you will get all of the boxes clicked (with the exception of first person). Once you have done this, you will find when your run your manuscripts through the grammar checker, a ton of the problems would have been found.
Now, I do have to stress again that you cannot rely 100% on the technology to save you. It still comes down to you knowing the proper grammar and checking it over for yourself.
I should also add that this includes properly formatted and structured business letters and business emails. Demonstrate you have the skills as a writer.
In the end, remember that "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." You just don't want to give the impression to the editor or agent that you don't know how to write.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Little Bit of Grammar For A Thursday

I always laugh when I see judges in writing contests going balistic over some grammar issues. Now don't get me wrong. Grammar is VERY important and I am someone who does indeed focus on grammar when I read submissions. Inaccurate grammar usages does show that either the writer rushed through the submission, or simply is lacking the basic skills necessary. But, what I want to talk about today is some of the more controversial topics.

Before I go any further, the information I am talking about here comes from Diana Hacker's A WRITER'S REFERENCE (link for those of you obsessessed with having me put it here - CLICK HERE!)

Let's start with that whole issue of PASSIVE vs. ACTIVE verbs.

According to Hacker, a writer should try to "choose an active verb and pair it with a subject that names a person, or thing doing the action. Active verbs express meaning more emphatically and vigorously than the weaker counterparts - forms of the verb be or verbs in the passive voice." O.K. this is the rule that some of the hard-core grammar freaks will live on. Are they wrong? No. It is indeed true that active verbs do pack more of a punch than those in passive...but...

You have to read further...

Hacker goes on to note that the "passive voice is appropriate if you wish to emphasize the receiver of the action or to mimimize the importance of the actor."

In other words, there is indeed a time and place for both the active and the passive voice. Writers simply can't stick to one rule and obsess over this wording if it simply doesn't work in that case. Again, according to Hacker: "Although you may be tempted to avoid the passive voice completely, keep in mind that some writing situations call for it."

I like what she says later on in the text as well. When it comes to our writing, especially in fiction, we have to continually think about the fluency of the text as well as the entertainment factor for our reader. If the writing is dragging, we have to do something about it. Again, let me return to Hacker: "Not every be verb needs replacing. The forms of be (be, am, is, are, was, were, being, been) work well when you want to link a subject to a noun that clearly names it" but "if using a verb makes the sentence needlessly dull and wordy, however, consider replacing it."

The point of this small grammar lesson is simple. THINK as a writer. Find the wording that works the best to convey the meaning of the story. If it requires passive voice then please, ignore those freaks who yell at you that passive should never be used. The odds are, these same people also believe that paragraphs have to be exactly 7 sentences in length and that a paragraph must begin with a topic sentence in every situation.


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Passive Vs. Active Voice - A Little Grammar For Tuesday

I wanted to spend some time this week to look at some specific issues when it comes to spicing up your writing. No, this is not about putting those hot scenes in between your hero and heroine; these are issues dealing with some specific writing strategies. I do have to stress, however, that just using these techniques will not make your story 100% ready for press. In other words, just using techniques properly does not replace quality writing, story development, character development and so forth.

So let’s start with the issue of passive vs. active voice.

I have heard a lot of writers complain about getting nailed in contests for writing in passive voice. For some reason, it has been drilled into our heads that passive writing is wrong (not simple weak) and active writing is the only way to go. This is far from the case.

Daily, we use passive voice all of the time. We speak in passive voice. We write in passive voice. Sometimes there is simply no other way to write it other than in passive voice. Still, understanding the differences and determining how we can make shifts in our voice to strengthen our writing is always important.

 Let’s start first with some definitions. I am going to go to my favorite grammar resource, A WRITER’S REFERENCE by Diana Hacker. Honestly, if you want the ultimate guide to everything grammar, this is the place to go to. Although the material deals heavily with an academic writing style, the strategies are still the same. By the way, I am using the 6th edition today simply because my current 7th edition copy is not with me.

 According to Hacker, “In the active voice, the subject of the sentence does the action; in passive voice, the subject receives the action” (151). So what does this really mean?

 In simple terms active and passive voice comes down to the structure of the sentence. For example, we can talk about Nora Roberts and her writing. In active voice, the sentence would look something like this:

            Nora Roberts wrote a novel.

If we shift the same idea to passive voice, the sentence now looks like this:

            The novel was written by Nora Roberts.

Now, I do have to stress that when we talk about “the subject” of the sentence, we are focusing more on the idea of who or what the sentence is about instead of the actual grammatical subject. In the case of the first example, Nora Roberts is both the grammatical subject that the main ideas/subject of the sentence. In the case of the second sentence, the grammatical subject is the novel and yet the main idea/subject of the sentence is Nora Roberts.

That’s the idea in a nutshell.

 But why do we tend to focus more on using active voice instead of passive voice? The idea stems from the intensity of the idea. With active voice, the idea is expressed more energetically than in passive voice simply because using the helping verbs (often the form of be) tends to weaken the point. Along the same lines, by moving the main idea further back into the sentence, it becomes an idea that, grammatically, could be eliminated from the sentence and it still will make sense.

The other reason we will want to look to using more of an active voice simply revolves around the idea of word choice. This is your chance, as a writer, to find those “killer” verbs that have a stronger connotation that the simple verbs you would have used with the helping verbs and likely a stack of adverbs. For example.

The tree outside Adrian’s room was viciously struck down by the bolt of the vampire’s spell.

Not bad. We get the idea of what is going on here, but if we bring this to a more active tone, and move the vampire to the forefront, we are forced to think of verbs that really say what we want.

The vampire’s spell shredded the tree outside Adrian’s room.

The idea is simple. Replace those verbs that require helping verbs with something a bit more impactful and meaningful for your writer.

Do you have to do this for every sentence? Absolutely not! As I said in the beginning, active or passive writing is not something that will make or break your writing. But, if you find passages that seem to sit there like milk toast, you might want to consider making some grammatical changes. If you tend to get responses from editors, agents and contests that your writing is a bit flat, you might want to explore your verb use.


Monday, March 7, 2011

I Don't Need To Know No Stinkin' Grammar...

My brother, when he was in Kindergarten commented to his teacher that he really didn't need to know spelling. He said that when he grew up, he would have a secretary that would do all the spelling for him. While this comment was funny at the time, it is, unfortunately an attitude that many people around the world have taken. We even see this in the K-12 education system where we teach to the standardized tests and have completely thrown out the old grammar lessons. But I digress on that point.

Writers in particular seem to think that understanding grammar is not necessary because of all the resources they claim to have at their disposal. They have their grammar checkers, the proclaim they have their resource texts such as STRUNK AND WHITE or A WRITER'S REFERENCE (which I personally believe is the best text). The problem though, is that for many of you out there, your grammar checkers are not looking for all of the mistakes you have. You haven't even set it to look for 80% of the problems. As for the books, you will only look at that text if you happen to realize you have a problem.

Now, let's take it to a new level. There are also those out there (including some agents I know) that feel that focusing on the content is the most important because the publishers have copy editors to take care of the problems. Tsk, Tsk, Tsk. The issue here is that, while I agree content and having a great story is crucial, if the story has grammar mistakes, the image the manuscript is giving to that editor is someone who doesn't understand the basic rules of written communication.

Grammar, including spelling, punctuation and sentence construction are the rules of the game we all play by. Yes, grammar is difficult to learn. Yes, many of you haven't had grammar training in a long time. But, this is no excuse. You have to know it and you have to understand it.

When I read query letters and submissions, that grammar really sets the tone for me. Seeing someone with huge issues tells me there is a great chance the content might also be struggling. This is going to be a huge time suck as we try to sell your story.

So what am I saying? Figure it out! Learn that grammar and make sure you use it all correctly. No, I am not saying that you will be rejected with a dangling participle. We aren't that mean. But I am saying it may be a factor that is leading to that rejection letter.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

On The Subject of Grammar

I have to say, I get very frustrated (and I say this lightly) about writers, (and agents and editors) that don't value grammar. There seems to be a belief that if we can craft a great story, it really doesn't matter on the grammar.

In my humble opinion, this is a bunch of garbage.

Sure editors have copy editors dealing with the technical side of things, but I am sorry, there needs to be a heavy focus, early on in the submission process with the grammar. Agents who only deal with the content and worry about the surface level of the grammar need to focus on this just as much as the copy editors. Now, as for the writers, this is a must.

Writing professionally involves much more than simply telling a good story. If this is all that you want to do, then take up the profession of storytelling and go back to the oral tradition. If you want to write, then it is an imperative to know your grammar and to be able to use it effectively and properly.

When I read a submission, I look at the usage of grammar and punctuation carefully. This tells me a great deal about the ability of the writer to produce a well crafted project. Sure, dialogue may have run-ons and fragments, but the narration, the scene building should not have any of that.

I think of the line (and I often use it here) of the Hallmark commercial - "When you care enough to send the very best." This is what we are dealing with when it comes to grammar and writing.

Now, if you are someone that wants to place the blame on other people such as:
  • I have been out of school for a long time.
  • My English teacher didn't teach me #^%$$$!
  • My spell checker and grammar checker is busted.
  • This is just not my thing.

I strongly suggest you fix the problem! Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. Now do something about it.

I do want to say, that I don't want people to think that having any mistake is a problem. Things do slip through the cracks and that is why we have copy editors. They will catch those small mistakes. But for those of you that blow the system off saying it doesn't matter - I shake my head at you.

Please people. For the sake of the English language, learn that grammar. If you have no idea how to do that, invite me to your writing group. I'll take a full day (or more if necessary) and help you all out! Tell your conference coordinators to "get of the stick" and help you out on this one.


(Sorry but the English teacher in me is coming out).

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Let's talk Dashes Today

Dashes are used for three reasons:

  • To set off material you might put into a parenthetical expression but deserves more emphasis.

"Everything that went wrong -- from the peeping Tom at her window last night to the my head-on collision today -- we blamed on our move" (Hacker, 2007).

  • To set off nouns or noun phrases that rename the earlier noun

"In my hometown, the basic needs of people -- food, clothing and shelter -- are less costly than in a big city like Los Angeles" (Hacker, 2007).

  • To set up a list or a dramatic shift in tone

"Along the wall are the bulk liquids -- sesame seed oil, honey, safflower oil, maple syrup, and peanut butter" (Hacker, 2007).


"Kiere took a few steps back, came running full speed, kicked a mighty kick -- and missed the ball" (Hacker, 2007).

Yesterday we mentioned the em-dash. What we are referring to here is using 2 hyphens ( --). Most computer programs already have this in the formatting. If you have ever noticed when you put in a hyphen and then move on, how it increases in size. This is the em-dash.

It should be noted that in the case of the list, using a colon would be the better choice.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Time for some GRAMMAR!

This one is going out to all of you writers that seem to think the semicolon is the worst punctuation mark out there.

First of all, I am very much aware that the publishing world shys away from these little beauties. I do think the reason stems around the "readability level" of the material going to print. Remember that when calculating the readability level of a text, one element is the length of the sentence and, obviously, using a semi-colon will create longer sentences. Still there is a great power in this punctuation mark.

Let's start first with the definition. According to Diana Hacker (2007) "The semicolon is used to connect major sentence elements of equal grammatical rank." In other words, if you have two sentences, or equal strength, but kept separate are weaker, you would want to find a way to bring these together with a semicolon. This also adds an element of increased fluency to the sentence. Instead of two short choppy sentences, grammatically, you can blend the two together with the semicolon.

Now, there are three rules for using a semicolon...

RULE #1 Combining two sentences together and using a transitional expression to connect the two. These transitional expressions may be words such as anyway, however, specifically, and so forth. You might also use phrases such as: at the same time, as a result and so on.

In this case, you would start with sentence #1, add a semicolon, add that transitional phrase and then follow it up with a second sentence.

Niles relished the thought of being in complete command of his business; however, he far from relished the thought of being commanded by a woman, especailly Claudia.

In this case, both of the sentences tell something about Niles but become stronger because it shows the internal struggle he was facing.

RULE #2: This is the same as #1 but we eliminate the transitional expression. For many of you, I find authors using a hyphen instead.

Niles relished the thought of being in complete command of his business; he far from relished the thought of being commanded by a woman, especailly Claudia.

In this case, we get that same struggle, but the tension of the situation he has with Claudia becomes even stronger.

RULE #3: This one you may not use in writing but I figured I would cover it anway. In this case, you "use a semicolon between items in a series containing internal punctuation" (Hacker, 2007). In this case, when you have a list of items that you would normally separate with a comma, but one, or more of those items contains commas, you would use a semicolon to break up the list to prevent confusion.

Here is the example from Hacker:

Classic science fiction sagas are Star Trek, with Mr. Spock and his large pointed ears; Battlestar Galactica with its Cylon raiders; and Star Wars with Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vadar.

Now you know and now you don't have to be afraid.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

On Grammar...

I am pretty picky about grammar. Hey, when you have taught grammar and writing for 20 years, seeing mistakes becomes second nature. I wanted to bring this up today to stress that, as a writer, it is up to you to get that grammar of yours up to speed. No, I am not talking about figuring out some of those strange rare cases, (dangling participles) but I am stressing the need for that basic understanding.

But Scott, why do we need to? If we sign with some agents, they have outside readers to fix our problems and certainly the editors have copy editors?

Well, that is correct. There are resources in place to remedy that. But the grammar issue becomes key during the early submission phase. I like to think of the Hallmark commercial and their slogan "When you care enough to send the very best," as a model. Sending along a submission that demonstrates little or no grammatical knowledge is a BIG red flag! The first thing that goes through my head is: "If this person can't put together a basic business letter or query, what will their story look like?"

If you are a person that struggles with grammar, then how do we fix it?

Some people like to spend money on paying someone to edit their work. While this sounds great, the odds are, in most cases, but not always (I am doing this to prevent people from saying "But person X does it this way)... Let me do that again. The odds are the person is just using a grammar and spelling checker. You can do the same.

Go to the settings and adjust it to look for grammar and style. Then re-check it. If you don't understand it, ask the grammar checker to explain. You can also use a great book to check this. I personally recommend, Diana Hacker's A WRITER'S REFERENCE.

You can also take grammar classes at the local college.

I don't care what you do, but let's get it figured out.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

But they have a copy editor?

Grammar is one of the most important tools any writer can have in their writer's toolbox. Actually, I should say a knowledge of good grammar. Remember, it is the grammar, the knowledge of spelling, punctuation, sentence construction and the like that controls what and how we read your stories. In the end, it doesn't matter how well developed your story is, if the grammar is detracting from the story, you will not make a sale.

Now, I should say that many agents, and even editors might night have a 100% grasp on all elements of grammar. In other words, they might miss those dangling participles, but they do have enough knowledge to see if a writer is missing the point. I for one can also tell if the only knowledge of grammar is that which comes from the use of a grammar and spell checker.

Let me say, that there is nothing wrong with either of these computer tools. Both have their benefits, if (A) the writer knows how to use each properly; and (B) if the writer has set the computer properly to cause both of the checkers to work correctly.

"What is that you say, they don't work correctly?" That's right. You have to understand how each works, and actually set each to do what you want them to do. This is especially true with the grammar checker. For most computers, the grammar checker isn't checking for all of the items that could potentially create problems. The default setting is pretty basic.

Along the same lines, the grammar checkers only state if there is a potential problem. It is your job to check and see if that is really the case. When writing fiction, this can be a serious problem considering your characters may speak in fragments or broken grammar. Still if the narratives and the other major elements of your story have problems, this is a sign to the editor and agent that you might not be fully ready for publishing.

I should also add that when I see poor grammar, or a lack of structural knowledge from a writer in the query letter or the packaging of the material sent to me, I have pretty much already decided that I won't sign that person. First impressions mean a lot and the issue with grammar and spelling is a huge red flag.

Sure, the publishers have copy editors but they are not there to fix the mistakes that you as a writer should have known and understood.

So, what is the best solution? If you are a writer that finds grammar and spelling to be difficult, it is time to start learning. This may include taking classes at the local college. I know that many of the community colleges offer basic grammar classes. Audit the class. Take it for a credit/no credit option. If course work is not your "cup of tea" then find a resource that would help. Personally, the best source I have found is A Writer's Reference by Diana Hacker. It is published by Bedford/St. Martins and I haven't found a question that can not be answered by this book. I know many look at this and say it doesn't deal with fiction, but I have to break it to you, there isn't much of a difference. I'm not talking about creating the story, I am talking about the basic rules of grammar that do not vary from one genre to the next.

I'll also throw this offer in. If you are a writing chapter and interested in a full day grammar workshop, I could put something together for you. Just let me know.

Now, go out their and get gooder with your speling.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Do you know your grammar and spelling?

When was the last grammar class that you took? How is your spelling? I ask this because there are many of you out there that have no clue about what you are doing when it comes to the basic conventions of the English language. What makes it worse, is that for many, you are out there advising others on these rules.

Please, STOP!!!!

Essentially, what you are doing would be the same as me trying to tell someone how to fix a car. I have no idea what I am doing, and I certainly am not an expert.

I want to take this one step further. Many of you are using grammar checkers and spell checkers to fix your errors. Again, this is a big mistake, especially in the case of grammar checkers.

Grammar checkers are only looking for things that might potentially be a problem. This does not mean that it is in your case. Along the same lines, they only suggest possible solutions and you have to know the grammar to understand how to fix the issue. Again, you need to know what you are doing.

I bring all of this up because of late, I have had a ton of manuscripts submitted to me that were full of HUGE grammar issues. Now, although I am looking at the story and I understand there are some things that we can fix once I sign a writer, these errors simply tell me the person is far from ready!

Remember also, you only get ONE shot. If you screw it up, unless an editor or agent tells you that you can re-submit, you just lost that one chance.

Please, make it count!