Back to Basics

April 24, 2013

Most writers write without giving much thought to basics. I’ve noticed a trend in the manuscripts I edit and in the assignments my college students turn in–knowledge of basic writing rules is lacking.

Here’s a refresher to check your own writing.

  • A sentence is a group of words that expresses a complete thought. It requires both a subject and a verb. A subject is a noun (person, place, or thing) and a verb shows what the subject is or does.
  • An incomplete sentence may contain a subject and a verb, but it is called a sentence fragment because it does not express a complete thought.
  • A run-on sentence is created when two or more complete thoughts are joined without punctuation. If you join the thoughts without a conjunction, the correct punctuation is a semi-colon. If you join them with a conjunction, the correct punctuation is a comma.
  • Words that modify a noun or pronoun must appear in close proximity to the noun or pronoun being modified.
  • Dangling modifiers confuse the reader. Example: Walking down the pathway, the agate caught his eye. This says the agate is doing walking. Corrected example: Walking down the pathway, he noticed the agate.
  • Misplaced modifiers obscure the modifier meaning from the reader. Example: She noticed the loose tile in the restaurant’s kitchen while conducting a safety inspection after hours. You can make the meaning of what she is doing more clear by rewriting the sentence this way:¬† While conducting a safety inspection after hours, she noticed the loose tile in the restaurant’s kitchen.
  • Pronoun/antecedent agreement has surfaced as a huge problem since we’ve become politically correct. Back in beginning of time (kidding), the masculine pronoun was standard. Today, to avoid offending anyone, the generic plural (they, them, their) gets used. The problem arises because a singular antecedent (that’s the noun the pronoun refers to) needs a singular pronoun. Example of what’s incorrect: The neighbor won’t keep their yard mowed.¬† Neighbor is singular. Their is plural. Those two disagree and that’s bad writing. The fix is easy. Make neighbor plural (neighbors) or change their to the. Look at your own writing and see if you can improve it with just a little more effort in the pronoun/antecedent agreement area.
  • Subject/verb agreement is another area that needs attention. Agreement refers to number. A singular subject needs a singular verb. A plural subject needs a plural verb. Be sure you don’t confuse the subject with its modifier, which can cause you to use the wrong verb. Example: The closet containing all the art supplies is locked. Closet is the subject and singular. Supplies is plural but is a modifier, so doesn’t impact the verb. Thus, use the singular verb is with the singular subject. NOTE: Collective nouns (these refer to a group acting as one unit such as family, committee, team, etc.) use a singular verb.

Hope this primer helps you get back to basics.

Happy writing!

Unexpected Capital Letters in Last Post

November 6, 2012

When I received my copy of my last post about the checklist, it contains some unexpected capital letters that aren’t in the post I typed. Technology gremlins, perhaps. Anyway, my apologies to readers. I hope the errors don’t distract you from the content of the post.


Troubleshooting Your Manuscript

July 16, 2010

Most writers know what they expect of their editors–grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization are the minimum.

For a little more money, they can expect content editing where the editor looks at clarity, conciseness, redundancy, flow, etc.

But what about troubleshooting? What about pitfalls? What about those things that impact author credibility? After all, the author, not the editor, is responsible for providing original content.

No reputable publisher knowingly publishes material that involves copyright infringement, plagiarism, hoax, libel, obscenity, or even examples that could hurt author/publisher credibility.

In our publishing company, Expert Publishing, I’ve suggested authors reconsider using examples of Toyota, Enron, etc. that were good examples when the manuscript was originally written, but not so good for the duration a book is in print. I’ve also required authors to change words that were potentially offensive to readers. Better to have readers excited about your book than concentrate on one or two negatives and talk just about those.

Add the cost of litigation (because you pay the lawyers to defend you whether or not you win the case), and it’s just not worth not troubleshooting your manuscript for potential problems.

So, who’s responsible for the troubleshooting? You, as author, are ultimately accountable. When Doris Goodwin Kearns faced plagiarism charges, the media wrote about her, not her editor. When James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces was exposed, Frey, not his editor, faced Oprah.

If you have an editor who suggests potential trouble spots to you, you are fortunate. Be sure you consider any warnings or suggestions offered because your published work is around a long time.

Here are some things to correct in or eliminate  from your manuscripts.

  • Words or terms that offend a specific group of people
  • Incorrect dates
  • Words consistently misspelled
  • Mislabeled photos
  • Unattributed directly quoted material
  • Incorrect names for people
  • Incorrect spelling of people’s names (if you’re sloppy on spelling their name, how sloppy is the rest of your research?)

I understand anything humans do won’t necessarily be perfect, as none of us is perfect. However, the more we strive to eliminate trouble in our manuscripts, the more errors we catch.

Happy writing!