Writing lessons — a writer’s toolbox

Note: This is a post in an occasional series of reprints. Not necessarily my greatest hits, these posts are just some of my most useful commentary that may have gotten buried in the mists of time.  This post first appeared in April, 2009.

If you’ve been listening to NPR today you know that The Elements of Style is 50 years old. This is the book commonly referred to as Strunk & White after its authors, William Strunk and E.B. White (Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan, Charlotte’s Web).

Writers don’t need much — but a case can be made that this book is essential for any writer’s toolbox. I think they’ve tarted it up in recent years, but early editions were all of about 80 pages, and that’s the edition I suggest you find at your local used bookstore.

S&W is famous for its simple rules. “Omit needless words” is one of the most famous of its admonishments. You’d be surprised at how that works for writers. Try it on your next edit.

The book covers punctuation, usage (or grammar), style, and commonly misused words. It’s essential. Often aspiring writers neglect to pay attention to language and grammar, but you will find that professional authors rarely put a foot wrong. It’s not that the pros are naturally gifted with an understanding of the written word, although we tend to have a leg up — it does come easily to us. But it is essential to be familiar with and competent in the use of grammar and style in order to make the next step from aspiring to pro.

In addition to Strunk & White and a dictionary, look into a book on writing. Stephen King’s On Writing is a good source of inspiration, understanding, and solid rules for writers. The autobiographical details are fascinating too.

Ann Lamott’s Bird By Bird was my go-to book on writing. I wrote my first selling story after reading her book (The Warlord and the Princess, on this site). But choosing a book on writing is a pretty personal decision. You may find that Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin is more to your taste; plus, she has the home-court advantage, as it were, since she is one of us. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg is an oldie but goodie. It didn’t work for me but I know people who swear by it.

One more thing — I mentioned a dictionary but not a thesaurus. People get sniffy about thesauruses, saying that they encourage irresponsible word choice. Why use an exotic alternative when a good basic word will do just as well? However, when used sparingly, a thesaurus can be an asset. Just don’t go overboard, because I will have to rescind my permission.

Finally, I will leave you with the words of Mark Twain, because really, what more do you need: “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug.”

Why you should love your copy editor. No, I mean it.

semicolonLouise Marley has a trenchant post on the copy editor’s craft on Red Room, the writing site she blogs for, and let me add hear hear! to her words.

Copy editors are often unsung heroes in the publishing world. And I say this not only because I’ve been a copy editor, but because the one who was assigned to Gordath Wood saved me from myself quite often.¬† Sure, there was that nasty continuity error in Red Gold Bridge, but that had nothing to do with the copy editor and everything to do with me. (It’s also why I won’t ever turn around a book that fast again, ever.)

I’ve heard writers complain about copy editors and I’ve never quite got why. Copy editors are better than writers at catching grammatical errors because they do it all day, every day. If I were to try to copy edit professionally now, I would have a lot of catching up to do. A good writer understands grammar and spelling and has a facility for it, since that’s part of the toolset. A copy editor lives it. They also catch consistency errors, errors of fact (factcheckers, a different breed, make copy editors look like anything goes flower children), and anything else that can make a writer look like an idiot.

Copy editors talk about grammar like they enjoy it.

Copy editors get deep into conversations on whether something is a misplaced modifier or an unclear antecedent, and they enjoy that too.

Copy editors love words, style, punctuation, and grammar, and read grammar books for fun. Speaking of which, does anyone know where my copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves went to?

Copy editors put the hyphen in “anal retentive,” but only when it’s modifying a noun.

In short, love your copy editor.

Writing lessons — punctuation

It occurred to me I hadn’t done one of these in a while. Sorry about that. This installment is a simple one, but it came to mind because one of the students at the workshop was having difficulty with it. A poorly punctuated manuscript will be thrown out by an editor ASAP. No one will give you any leeway on this, so if you think you are shaky on your punctuation, make sure you know the rules.

We’re just going to focus on punctuation in quotes today.

Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. Yes, there are exceptions, but usually that is in non-fiction, when the author is writing lists or quoting material or in similar constructions. But in fiction, punctuation goes inside quotations.

“Oh,” he said.

See where the comma is? Inside the quotes.

“Hello?” she said.

See the question mark? Inside the quotes AND you don’t need a comma after the question mark. Same thing goes for an exclamation point. No comma afterwards.

“Wait–” He stopped.

See the dashes, which will be turned into an em-dash by the typesetter? Yup, inside the quotes. Note as well that I upper-cased He but there’s no period after the dash.

“Let me tell you a story.” He paused. “It goes like this.”

Periods, inside quotations.

What if you have a sentence and then a statement?

Stavin grunted. “Lucky man.”

You don’t use a comma before the quotes start. You write your sentence, end it with a period, and then write your quoted statement. By the way, you don’t need to write

Stavin grunted. “Lucky man,” he said.

Because you have already established  that Stavin is speaking.

If you have any doubts, pull down any of the contemporary books from your shelf and see how a modern author does it. This way you will not run into old conventions.

And here’s the thing. Punctuation, like grammar, is for the benefit of the reader and ensures that s/he understands your story. These elements of writing, while not as fun as the storytelling part, are essential. If you don’t have an understanding of the rules, go back to your Strunk & White.

No go forth and punctuate!