Master the basics of writing (so you won’t look like a total amateur)

From Rick:

As readers of this blog know, periodically I like to step up on my soapbox. Before I do, I’d like to categorize the manuscripts I am called upon to read in my various capacities.

As editors of an online fiction magazine, most of the work my wife and I put in involves determining the suitability of the submissions for our magazine. First, we have to like the story. Second, we consider whether the story fits the tone of the magazine.

Somewhere in there, we must deal with the quality of the writing. Gorgeous writing is not a prerequisite for acceptance, but poor writing or writing that can’t be fixed with a few simple edits will almost certainly result in a decline.

Some magazines work with the author to make the story acceptable. We expect a story to be reasonably polished when it arrives. If it just needs minor changes, we will make suggestions and let the author decide. If the author makes changes, we review the piece again and make our decision.

Sometimes the author declines our offer to resubmit with changes. And that’s perfectly fine. After all, it’s not our story, and another magazine editor may like it as is.

In my capacity as a paid editor of other writers’ stories and novels, my job there is not to judge the story (unless specifically asked to) but to render the writing quality suitable for publication, cleaning up grammar and spelling errors and missteps.

From time to time I participate in critiques either for an individual or in a group setting. In that role, all reasonable critique is fair. My job there is to point out problems and issues I see. These can include poor writing, weak story line, plot issues, poor story pacing, and boring parts, as well as grammar and punctuation. My goal is to help the writer craft a good piece of writing, but it’s always up to the writer to decide whether to act on my suggestions.

I’m also a reader. In my reader role, I see mistakes in self-published novels that were not properly edited, and sometimes I wish I could have helped the writer before it was too late. As the competition in the indie publishing world has markedly increased, I believe that more writers are paying attention to the quality of their work and, where needed, seeking professional assistance in rendering their work acceptable.

Drawing on experiences from my four roles, I’ve pulled together a list of the most common issues I’ve encountered, and these are not always from new writers.

—SPELL CHECK! While no spell checker will catch every error (such as properly spelled words that are simply the wrong word), there is no excuse for delivering a manuscript rife with easily found errors.

—Avoid long paragraphs. Long paragraphs make it harder on the reader. Minimize them. I’ve read a few stories that were just one long paragraph. The same applies to long sentences. Some are fine, but too many make the writing difficult to follow.

—Know how to properly form plurals and possessives (“my parents’ house” not “my parent’s house”—unless you have only one parent)

—Use exclamation marks in moderation, but don’t listen to anyone who says you should never use them.

—The quickest ways to turn off a reader are errors with the following: its/it’s; there/their/they’re; your/you’re

—Learn the basics of dialogue tags and how to punctuate them.

—Use dialogue tags in moderation: Don’t overuse them when it’s clear who is speaking, but do use them when confusion might arise. I’ve seen both overuse and under use.

—Use a new paragraph with each new speaker in general. Exceptions to this should be rare.

—Spell out numbers 1-100 and large round numbers (five thousand, two million)

—Understand the meaning of comma splices and run-on sentences and why they should NOT appear in your writing (except on extremely rare occasions).

—Understand sentence fragments: when they’re acceptable and when they’re not.

—Get basic expressions and sayings right (“make do” not “make due”). Look up even common expressions you think you know. I see too many cases where the writer has them wrong.

—If you use dashes and semicolons, learn how to use them properly.

—NEVER use multiple returns to start a new page! Use a page break. In MS Word, do that by holding CTRL while you press the ENTER key once.

—Never press the return/enter key at the end of a line unless it’s to create a new paragraph.

Above all, if you’re going to be a serious writer and expect to get your work accepted, then you need to learn the basics of grammar. In this day and age, there is no excuse for misusing words or phrases that are easy to look up.

NOTE: If you write your stories on your cell phone, you need to transfer your writing to a decent word processing program or app so you can format it properly before submitting it anywhere. (Yes, I’ve seen this done.)

You don’t need to be a grammar expert to be a writer (that’s what editors are for), but without a BASIC grasp of grammar and the rules of good writing, you’re going to find yourself struggling to gain an audience or publication acceptance.

Finally, you should learn to format your manuscript properly. Even if you have someone else edit and format your work, it helps if you deliver as clean a manuscript as possible.

Here’s an excellent article I think every writer should read. The only point that I don’t feel is necessary (unless you’re submitting to a publisher) is the header. And the only reason for a header with the title and your name was when publishers received hardcopy manuscripts and there was a chance of pages getting misplaced. But it doesn’t hurt if you add a header or footer.

MANUSCRIPT FORMAT

Next week, I’ll be starting a new series on how to analyze your story in terms of whether it’s accomplishing what you intended, or the analysis steps may help you in crafting a story from an idea. I’ll be asking you to consider, among others, the following questions:

What is your story about? (Can you say it in a couple of sentences?)

What is your goal in writing the story (apart from entertaining the reader)? What are you trying to convey to your reader?

What is your main character’s goal (which may or may not be different from your goal in writing the story), and what conflict is driving the story?

—Rick

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