Tag Archives: grammar

Stephen King as a Writing Teacher

I loved On Writing, and it surprised me just how much I embraced it. Now, even though I’ve read only a few of his books, Stephen King has become one of my favorite authors–not for his writing, but for his devotion, his thoughtfulness, and his brain. I wish I could meet him.

Stories like this one remind me of how much I like him and want to hang out with him.

He’s just very authentic, and honest, sometimes about things that people (writers) aren’t comfortable admitting.

For example, he says that grammar–while still needing to be taught–isn’t the most critical skill.

And, even more heretical, he says that not everyone needs to be a writer. The scandal!

(I’ll take it a step further: not everyone needs to be a self-published writer…)

But I think he’s right. Sometimes it’s a matter of teaching people what they need right now in their real lives; they have opportunities later to further develop their talents if their interests take them there. Fundamentals. (See what he says about teaching kids to write directions from A to B.)

Also, I just love his frank crassness, like this: “Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex.”

Oh heavens, Mr. King, you’re givin’ me the vapors!

Anyway, he’s fabulous.

What do you think of King’s advice? Does it hold true in your experience?

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Grammar in the Cat-iest (Best) Way

Special thanks to grammarian extraordinaire and friend-to-cats Tex Thompson for her shout-out and grammar lesson featuring my very own cat! My own naughty kitty can now help you learn more about the “royal order of adjectives” (he’s the one who prefers Coke products and espionage).

Tex is a great resource for the fine and tricky points of grammar that can be hard to grasp and harder to explain. She’s one of my favorites, too. Check her out!

From her post:

“The what?  The royal what?  Don’t be coming ’round here with all your highnesses and majesties and HMS Jolly Longbottoms.  This is AMERICA, dammit, and we speak democracy!”

YES WE DO.  And that means we have the right to life, liberty, and a full, complete understanding of where all those dang commas go between the adjectives — including the reason why we have one in “full, complete understanding” but not in “all those dang commas.”

Read more to get all the deets!

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Editing Quick Hit: Like vs. Such as vs. Including

This is one of those times that spoken English has messed up written English, because casually, we do not care. But in writing, sometimes this one actually matters. (You’ll hope your lawyer understands this grammar rule.)

“Like” means “similar to but not including.”

“Such as” means “similar to AND including.”

“Including” means… including, or, as the dictionary likes to say “containing as part of the whole being considered” (that’s Google’s dictionary, btw). And works as a more flexible catch-all when you’re confused about whether you should be using “like” or “such as”

Let’s just assume the pomegranate is behind the pear back there, ok? Ok.

So putting this to work, an example: If you are picking out a fruit to eat and know you like apples but aren’t in the mood for one right now, you might say “Give me something like an apple” and I might hand you a pomegranate. (Because a pomegranate is similar to, but not, an apple)

If you are picking out a fruit later but now are more flexible on what you’d like, you might say, “I’d like a fruit such as an apple, orange or banana” and I might hand you any of the three or I might hand you a pear. (Because you want something similar to the things you listed, as well as the specific fruit you mentioned.)

If I’m offering you fruit from my selection and just want to list them off, I’d go with “I have a variety of fruits for you to enjoy, including an apple, banana, pear, orange and pomegranate.” If you wanted a grapefruit, I’d have to send you down to the grocery store to buy one yourself.

Got it?

Hungry now? Man, I want a strawberry after all that fruit.

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Editing Quick Hit: Month and Year

For some reason, people sometimes have a proclivity to write dates like this: “February of 1990.”

This flummoxes me, because the correct way is actually easier: February 1990. And you’d never say “February of 1990” aloud, would you?

I mean, no one says, “Oh yes, I got that cat sweater during the Christmas of 2011.” Unless you’re working on your Abe Lincoln impression, maybe, trying to sound old-timey?

Perhaps it’s an effort to aggrandize your writing. Well, stop it! Stop it, I say! Leave “of” out of your dates. They’re happier that way.

November 2013. Done.

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Editing Quick Hit: Latter vs. Ladder

This is an easy slip-of-the-fingers to make, because when said aloud, “latter” and “ladder” frequently sound pretty similar.
But “ladder” is for the thing with rungs you climb to get to a high place. “Latter” is the much less common word you use in the phrase “the former and the latter” (meaning the one prior and the one second).
I tried but failed to come up with a helpful mnemonic for this: anyone have suggestions?

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It’s Dictionary-Official, Guys.

Thank goodness there is something to talk about besides “twerking.”

Oh wait, no, there’s not, because even the good ole’ dictionary is in on the butt-oscillation trend. It was announced yesterday that a bunch of internet-originated terms, including “twerk” of course, have been included in the Oxford Dictionary Online.

Twerk it.

Cue massive moaning and gnashing of teeth and cries about how the world is probably coming to an end, or worse, English is so over.

There’s a whole crop of “new” words that have been officially recognized by an official-sounding dictionary linked to an actually official dictionary; you can read the whole list here.

(But you probably won’t; it’s TL:DR. Oh well).

And, as always happens when dictionaries do this, people freaked out, because there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about the point of dictionaries and the validity of language.

Here’s the truth: Putting a word in a dictionary does not make it “official.” It does not make a word acceptable to use in all cases, and it doesn’t mean it’s more or less legitimate than other words people use. It just means it is a word that has reached an arbitrary threshold of use in pop culture and someone thought maybe you’d benefit from having a definition to help you in the event that you run into it in the wild and don’t know what someone is saying.

That’s it! That’s all it means!

As for appropriateness, you should use whatever words you need to in order to tell your story. If that means inventive, morphine-induced Jabberwockys–power forward, friend! If that means a carefully culled vocabulary from your Scrabble dictionary? Blessings be upon you. One of my favorite books of all time progressively eliminates letters, making it amazing and a challenge I can’t wrap my head around. And that’s great!

As an editor and a reader, I might flag something that I don’t think fits or makes sense, but I’ll never tell anyone they can’t use a word if they want to, dictionary-approved or not. Go ahead! Have a ball!

Actually, I think the Oxford Dictionary Online deserves props for lighting the internet (temporarily) on fire. I mean, how often do you get people to talk about a dictionary, anyway?

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Is There an Echo in Here? Editing Out Repetition

Inspiration can come from the damnedest places, and so today’s editing lesson comes from a rather old inspiration: the Bible. Specifically, the book of Daniel, chapter 3.

You’ve probably heard this one, the story of the three guys who refused to worship a golden idol and were thrown into a blazing furnace but didn’t die because God was down with their loyalty. (Veggie Tales has a pretty fun take on it if you want a refresher–Rack, Shack, and Benny).

But this is an editing lesson, not a Bible lesson. Bear with me here.

If you go read that first link, you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about. Daniel Chapter 3 is really repetitive.

  • “the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials” –stated 3 times
  • “the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music” – stated 4 times
  • “Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace.” -stated 4 times (one has a different tense, but close enough)
  • “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego”–always listed together, just like that, is repeated 11 times.

To be clear, it’s not that long a chapter. Let’s just say the congregation got pretty restless during the reading. It was like “come ON already, get to the point!”

Shel Silverstein does repetition right. I love “Lazy Jane.”

Repetition has its place–it’s a fantastic way to provide emphasis, and you should certainly have repeating themes throughout your book. Stephen King in On Writing talks about how he specifically went back and added more mentions of blood and blood-related imagery to Carrie to help sneakily prepare the reader for the bloody mess at the end.

But often writers end up a bit more like the book of Daniel, just repeating things for the sake of it. I mean, I don’t think this chapter would have been changed at all had some of those “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego”‘s been changed to “the three men” or, heaven forbid*, “they.”

A lot of the time, our repetitions are smaller: “crutch words.” Every writer has a certain proclivity to use the same word over and over and over and over. (Mine is “actually.” I shudder when I reread my manuscripts and find it everywhere. Bleah.) Another one I see a lot in my editing is “seemingly” or “seemed to.” (For the most part, if something “seems to be,” you can just cut it out entirely…if you’re locked into a character’s perspective, everything they perceive can just be reported.)

The problem with this kind of needless repetition is a) it bores your reader which b) makes them less likely to keep reading. It slows the pace down dramatically, which can kill your pivotal scene. Even if you don’t notice your crutch words, I guarantee the reader will.

Repetition, particularly of “crutch words” because they’re harder to notice when its fresh, is one of those things that justify an editor, or at least a second read after you’ve put it down for awhile. Your grammar and spelling can be perfect, but if you’ve got a bunch of repeated phrases, it’s going to throw the reader out of the flow. But take the time (and, often, money) to get it thoroughly edited, and you’ll cut down, if not outright cut out, a lot of the problematic repetition.

 

 

*This is a joke. Get it? Heaven forbid? Bible? I’m hilarious.

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