grammar rules

The Five Most Common Errors to Avoid in Your Writing #editingtips #amwriting #selfpublishing #writingcommunity

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I’ve been editing for a few years now, and the same issues come up again and again. Here are the five most common:

Unnecessary dialogue tags

It is best, on the whole,  to stick to ‘said’ and ‘asked’. There are a few reasons for this. Readers are so used to seeing ‘said’ and ‘asked’ that they skim over them, noting quickly who is ‘saying’ or ‘asking’ and getting on with the important things. The flow of the writing isn’t interrupted, the reader reads on smoothly and happily. If a dialogue tag suddenly crops up, like ‘chuckled’ or ‘screamed’, or, possibly worst of all, ‘interjected’, the reader is forced to pause, to think about the tag. The flow is interrupted, and for no purpose. A dialogue tag is only there to identify who has spoken. It shouldn’t need to tell the reader anything else. The character’s words, their actions and their situation should be sufficient.

Physical description

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It’s really only necessary to include physical description if it is relevant to the story. If you do want to have some physical description, then rather than have the details all together when you introduce a character, intersperse them gradually through the narrative, using actions/dialogue etc. For example:

She shook her head, her dark eyes flashing.

‘What do you want?’ he asked, pushing a strand of his unruly curly hair behind one ear.

This way, you continue moving the story along without holding the narrative up.

Bear in mind too that you don’t need every detail of every movement. Your readers can fill in the gaps. Your reader doesn’t need to be told every move a character makes. Give enough information to build a scene, show what’s important, and let your reader fill in the details.

Exposition issues

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Be very careful of using exposition. Exposition is important in a manuscript – it gives us vital background information about a character’s past, their likes and dislikes, their beliefs and motivations as well as context and prior events. But the crucial thing about exposition is that it needs to be handled very carefully – it’s the way that you do it that matters.

You need to ‘show’ your reader information, not simply ‘tell’ them. This way you ‘expose’ the back story without being boring. And some of the best ways to do this are through dialogue, conflict, revealing a character’s thoughts and using physical props such as newspapers, letters and emails.

For example, have your characters talk to each other  about events that have happened, what those events meant to them, how they felt and reacted to those events.  But you need your dialogue to be realistic. Don’t use it as a way of dumping information. And make sure your characters never tell each other things they already know – it’s obvious that this is for the benefit of the reader rather than a natural part of their conversation.

Too many adverbs

Adverbs modify verbs. If you’re using an adverb to modify a verb, then ask yourself why you need to. Is the verb not doing its job? If the verb alone can’t tell your reader how someone or something is doing something without an adverb, then is it the right one to use?

For example:

John walked quickly down the street.

You want your reader to know how John walked, so if he’s walking quickly, then say so – right? Well, no.

John hurried down the street.

One word instead of two – tells us exactly how John is moving.

How about:

She totally, completely accepted that her work needed editing.

Neither of those two adverbs is needed. Just say:

She accepted that her work needed editing.

(Actually get rid of ‘that’ too!)

There are also adverbs that are totally redundant.

The fire alarm rang loudly.

How else would it ring? It wouldn’t be much use as a fire alarm if it rang quietly.

And if it is ‘clanging’ then ‘loudly’ is also redundant – the word ‘clanging’ implies loudness.

Similes and metaphors

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A clever, well-thought out simile or metaphor can add a deeper meaning to your narrative. It can give your reader a new way of looking at things. But similes and metaphors need to be handled very carefully indeed. Only use them if they add something new or interesting to a description. Otherwise, they jar and only serve to remind the reader that they are reading a book. You are crafting a world that your reader needs to believe in in order to be invested in your story. As with dialogue tags, an awkward or clichéd simile brings them out of that world that you have carefully constructed. A clunky metaphor will do the same.

 

 

Writing ‘rules’ and why we have them #amwriting

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When editing manuscripts for clients, I honestly don’t sit there with a big list of rules next to me, making sure that the author has stuck religiously to a set of pre-ordained laws that are non-negotiable and that are designed to crush spontaneity or creativity.

Why am I making this assertion?

Well, because some writers seem to think that this is what I do. They rail against these so–called rules that are preventing their genius from shining through. Why do I have to stick to conventions, they ask? Why can’t I do what I want?

Well, because the ‘rules’ aren’t there to suffocate creativity. They aren’t there to restrict or restrain.They bring clarity to a writer’s work. They aren’t a list of things a group of people out there somewhere have come up with out of thin air.

They fall into two groups.

One group aren’t up for discussion. Sorry, but grammar rules and the rules of punctuation are non-negotiable. You want your reader to be able to understand your book, don’t you? You are writing for a reader, aren’t you? In that case, you need to adhere to grammatical rules. These are not stylistic choices. And yes, there are certainly amazing writers out there who have written wonderful books that don’t follow these grammatical rules, writers like Hubert Selby Jr. But that is a whole different set of circumstances.

The other ‘rules’ don’t have to be obeyed. But they are there to help make your writing shine. For example, one thing I’m always saying to writers is that they need to avoid using complicated dialogue tags. You can pepper your manuscript with ‘interjected’ and ‘explained’ and ‘sighed’ if you really want. You can use every single alternative to ‘said’ and ‘asked’ if you want. But you’ll look like an amateur who doesn’t know what they’re doing, or people will think you’ve swallowed a thesaurus. That or you’re Joey from Friends.

joey

I’m really not being mean here, honestly. When I studied text after text after text after text for my degree and my masters, we analysed what worked and what didn’t. These ‘rules’ work. They’ve worked for successful writers over the years and if that’s what you want to be then you need to use them. They are conventions because they work.

So back to my original point. Despite all this, I don’t have a great big list of rules (OK, I do have Elmore Leonard’s ten rules in my desk drawer as guidance if I need it, but that’s usually for my own writing). But if the writing is flowing, if it is working, if it is concise and the meaning is clear, the characters have depth, the dialogue is realistic, then these rules are being followed, whether consciously or otherwise. If something brings me up short, or something jars, or is boring, or long-winded or dull or the dialogue is unauthentic, or if something happens that reminds me I’m reading a book, then one of the ‘rules’ has usually been broken.

So here are Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing. He made them rules because they work.

Never open a book with weather.
Avoid prologues.
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.