Feb 08

The Five Most Common Errors

I review a lot of books--more than 80 last year, and some years over 100--and, as someone who’s worked as a copy editor for a major publishing house, I notice errors in them. 

I notice the same errors over and over, which is why I wrote The Well-Presented Manuscript. I'm not just talking about indie authors, either. I read a lot of trad-pub books as well, and I've seen all the same errors in books from major publishing houses as I see from indies. 

Some of the errors that I notice over and over are particularly common, so I thought I’d write a brief summary of them: what they are, and how to avoid making them. There are two tense errors, two comma errors, and an apostrophe error. I see them in books that are otherwise well edited and smoothly written, so it seems not nearly enough people are aware that they are errors. I’d like to change that.

In no particular order, because I see all of these about as often as each other:

Missing Past Perfect Tense

Most books--most books written for adults, at least--are written in the past tense. It’s not the tense we use most often in daily life, though. So there are a couple of pitfalls that I see a lot of authors dropping into in past tense narration.

The first relates to the “narrative moment”. If you’re narrating in the present tense, the narrative moment is the present--that’s when the story’s current action is occurring. But if you’re narrating in the past tense, the narrative moment is a specific time in the past. Whether it’s yesterday, last week, or a thousand years ago, there’s a particular time when the action you’re describing occurred.

The problem occurs when you refer to events that happened before the narrative moment, in what you might call “the past of the past”. For example, if I’m narrating action that happened yesterday, and I need to talk about something that happened the previous week, I need to signal my reader. The reader needs to know that the event happened at a different time, before the main action that I’m narrating, otherwise they’ll be confused.

There’s a tool for that, and it’s called the “past perfect”. It works like this:

John knew how to use the past perfect tense, because one of his professors had taught it to him.

At the narrative moment, John knew a skill. Prior to the narrative moment, one of his professors had taught it to him; the professor was not teaching him at the narrative moment. By using “had”, I signal the reader that the teaching happened prior to the time that the main action took place. It’s confusing to say:

John knew how to use the past perfect tense, because one of his professors taught it to him.

The teaching happened before the knowing.

Now, that example isn’t necessarily all that confusing. An alert reader will figure out that the teaching happened before the knowing without too much of a blip. But people who have a habit of leaving out the past perfect frequently do confuse their readers, when they switch, without signalling, from talking about the moment of the present action to talking about earlier events. Consider this sentence:

The implications of what she did struck him.

If “what she did” was a thing that happened at a previous time, say, the day before or the week before, this is disorienting to the reader, who is whiplashed from the previous week to the current narrative moment without notice. In the particular example I'm paraphrasing there, "she" wasn't even present in the scene, which made it still more disorienting. Much better and clearer to say:

The implications of what she had done struck him.

“May” versus “Might”

Another common error is also about past-tense narration, so I’ll talk about it next.

Consider these sentences:

I know that I can use tense correctly.

I knew that I could use tense correctly.

I say that I will use tense correctly.

I said that I would use tense correctly.

I hope that I may use tense correctly.

I hoped that I might use tense correctly.

Note that last one in particular. Surprisingly often, I see an author narrating in the past tense use “may” rather than “might”. I don’t know why people don’t get “can/could” and “will/would” wrong, but do get “may/might” wrong. (I have actually seen one author get “will/would” wrong, but only one).

It is wrong, though. There’s a narrative convention known as “free indirect speech,” which is a summary of what someone said or thought, rather than a quotation or transcription of their exact words or thoughts. All of the above examples are in free indirect speech, and when you’re using free indirect speech in a past-tense narrative, the speech gets converted into the past tense as well. All of the speech, including “may” being converted to “might”.

"May" and "might" do have some differences in usage, and they're used sometimes to mean subtly different things, but in the case of free indirect speech, convert "may" to "might". Otherwise, the effect is as if your past tense narration switched momentarily into the present. It draws attention to itself, and can cause readers to stumble.

The Coordinate Comma

The coordinate comma is the comma that goes between adjectives in a list:

Henrietta was a famous, wealthy aardvark.

You could replace the comma in that sentence with “and”:

Henrietta was a famous and wealthy aardvark.

Or you could mix them round:

Henrietta was a wealthy, famous aardvark.

Neither of those adjectives sticks more strongly to “aardvark” than the other. But consider this sentence:

Henrietta was a small grey aardvark.

You wouldn’t say:

Henrietta was a small and grey aardvark.

Nor would you say:

Henrietta was a grey small aardvark.

And because of those two tests, you also shouldn’t punctuate it like this:

Henrietta was a small, grey aardvark.

The comma doesn’t belong there. In part, this is because “grey aardvark” forms a unit that is more tightly bound than, say, “famous aardvark”; it seems to be a characteristic of colours and substances in English that they bind to their nouns, almost forming noun phrases. Hence, you’d say “a large stone castle” or “a thick red rug” or “long black hair” or “a thin cotton T-shirt,” all without the comma.

Now, in my book I say, “This is kind of an obscure rule, and if you don’t know it, or if you mess it up occasionally, most people won’t notice.” That’s true--unless you get it wrong constantly. As I write, I’m reading a book in which the author is extremely fond of the pattern “adjective adjective noun,” and almost always puts a comma in between the two adjectives, and is almost always wrong to do so. There are dozens and dozens of them, and any minor mistake repeated often enough becomes a major mistake. It’s driving me to distraction--distraction from the story, that is.

Not to mention that she does it in situations like:

one, sudden lunge

Yes, “one” is technically an adjective (like all numbers). No, you shouldn’t put a comma between it and another adjective, because you wouldn’t say:

sudden, one lunge

She also manages to write "regular, twenty-second intervals", "the prevalent, ammonia tang of fish", "his hated, human shape", and "black, drawstring trousers".

If you are going to use the “adjective adjective noun” pattern often, make sure you learn the coordinate comma rule--all of it, not just the “include a comma” part, but the “here’s when not to include a comma” part.

The Vocative Comma

“Vocative” just means that you’re addressing someone, so the “vocative comma” is the comma you use when you’re addressing someone--whether by their name, their title, or some other form of address.

Consider these sentences:

I don’t know, Jack.

I don’t know Jack.

Let’s eat, Grandma.

Let’s eat Grandma.

Shoot straight, boys.

Shoot straight boys.

The first in each pair uses the vocative comma, and addresses Jack, Grandma, and some otherwise unspecified “boys”. The second in each pair doesn’t, and it means something different. Instead of being addressed, Jack, Grandma, and the boys are the objects of those sentences, and are (as grammarians say) suffering the action of the verb. Grandma and the boys are suffering rather more literally than Jack is.

The vocative comma is always required, any time someone is being addressed. This is true whether the term of address is at the start of the sentence:

Mr. Watson, come here--I want to see you.

In the middle of the sentence:

I have to say, Colonel Baird, that’s remarkable.

Or at the end of the sentence:

What a day, bro.

The vocative comma comes after a term of address at the beginning; before and after a term of address in the middle; and before a term of address at the end.

If you leave the vocative comma out, not only do you risk suggesting to your family that you should cannibalize your grandmother, but your sentences will sound breathless and rushed. It’s one of the mistakes that, to me, most clearly distinguishes professional from unprofessional writing.

Plural Possessives

I’ve already explained these at length in the apostrophes post, so I’ll just point you there. I hope it’s clear and straightforward.

And if I had to pick a sixth most common error? Mispunctuated dialog, especially punctuating the "tag" ("she said" or equivalent) as if it was a separate sentence. It's less common than the other five, and tends to be an error of inexperienced writers (whereas I've seen the others committed by more experienced people as well), but it's not nearly as uncommon as it should be.

I’d say that, out of the authors whose books are appealing enough for me to actually pick up and try to read, about 70% make at least one of these errors. If you can eliminate them, that will make your manuscript cleaner than most. 

May 03

Style and Voice

In order to explain the main purpose of this book, I need to talk about style and voice.

Style is about the choices you make between valid alternatives. For example, do you use parentheses, dashes, or commas to set off a clause that "interrupts" the main sentence, or do you not put such clauses in at all? All of these are valid choices, and if you make one particular choice consistently, it becomes part of your style.

Voice is largely, but not completely, made up of the sum of all your style choices. It also takes in point of view and a few less definable qualities. This is what tells us that we are reading Ursula K. Le Guin rather than Neil Gaiman, however similar their writing might be in some ways.

Voice is also something that belongs to characters, as well as authors, and one of the skills that raises authors above mediocrity is the ability to give their characters distinctive voices. Again, point of view, the things they notice and talk about, has a lot to do with it, but so do stylistic choices. I often make my characters sound less like me by having them choose a word which wasn't the one I first thought of.

George Orwell, in a famous essay, spoke about language which, like clear glass, was there for people to look through, and other kinds of language which were like stained glass: designed to be looked at. In fact, there's a spectrum of style, which Jeff Vandermeer sums up well in Wonderbook. (I recommend that book, by the way, which is about everything about writing that I don't cover here: how to find ideas and develop them into stories.)

Vandermeer mentions four levels of style, which, as I'm sure he'd be the first to acknowledge, are points on a spectrum rather than distinct steps.

Minimal or stark style has hardly any detail or description, leaving a lot to the reader's imagination. Done badly, it's dull and unengaging, emotionally distant and ploddingly literal.

Invisible or "normal" style aims to disappear, like Orwell's clear glass window. It's the most common style of writing, particularly for commercial fiction. Although it doesn't sound the way people actually talk, because we're used to fictional conventions we think of it as sounding like the voices of real, ordinary people. Done badly, it's mediocre, bland and lacklustre.

Muscular or conspicuous style uses more sensory detail, more metaphors, and more complex sentences than ordinary people tend to in real life. It draws a little attention to itself. Done badly, it seems too clever and gets in the way of the story.

Lush or ornate style draws a lot of attention to itself, like a beautiful woman dancing in a sequinned dress. Extended metaphors, long sentences, passages of pure description, language tricks borrowed from poetry, unusual word choices and a layering of detail give an overall richness to the prose. Done badly, it's like wading through treacle, and produces impatience in the reader who just wants to know what happened next.

The commonest style, and the one that's easiest to read and easiest to write, is "invisible" style. My advice in this book is aimed at helping you to write invisibly, because if you use the basic tools of language correctly, nobody will notice that you're using them. Using them badly draws attention to your writing, for all the wrong reasons. It's like you're a cabinetmaker, and you've left tool marks on all your surfaces and your joints don't fit well. People will notice that you're incompetent with your tools, rather than noticing the piece of furniture and forgetting that it was made with tools at all.

Myself, I wouldn't advise attempting anything other than invisible style until you can write invisible style competently and smoothly. I see far too many people trying to write like authors they admire without the basic grasp of language and style that those authors possess. In particular, if your vocabulary isn't as large as you think it is (and most people's isn't), you'll embarrass yourself by using fancy words that you don't really know the meaning of. I see this all the time in books I review. If you're going to use a fancy word, look it up and make sure it means what you think it means.

The more you depart from normal or invisible style, the more obvious any mistakes will be, because the other styles deliberately call attention to your use of language. If you attempt a lush style, in particular, without understanding exactly what you're doing, it will fail, and fail horribly. A lot of readers don't like lush style much even when it's done well (I'm one of them), and seeing it done badly is agonising.

The time to let your prose draw attention to itself by dancing is after you're confident that it won't draw attention to itself by falling flat on its face.

By the way, if you want to read a wonderful (though tragic and heartwrenching) example of the use of changes in style and voice to convey a character's experience of the world, find a copy of Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon (either the original short story or the novel that he later expanded it into). It's the journal of an intellectually disabled man who gets an experimental treatment that increases his intelligence to well above average, and what the author does with language is brilliant. The impact of the story would be much less without it.

It's also a great example of knowing when to break the rules. All rules--even the ones for correct punctuation--can be broken to create a deliberate effect (such as conveying the writing of a semi-literate, intellectually disabled man). Some people will tell you not to worry about the rules, that telling a good story is the important thing. Telling a good story is extremely important, but another important thing is to know the rules, and know the effect that you'll get from following them, and the effect that you'll get from not following them, and choose which effect you want--rather than accidentally create the effect of looking unprofessional.

Apr 16

Introduction

More than 90% of what gets submitted to editors--both fiction magazine editors and publishing house editors--is rejected as soon as a reader sees it, often because it doesn't meet basic standards of competence in presentation and language use. This blog series will give you a guide to meeting those standards.

Meeting them will help with self-publishing too, since discerning readers also reject books that don't meet them. A review, or, even worse, multiple reviews that mention basic errors in your prose can do a lot of harm to your sales.

I'll mainly address the short story market, because I've done a lot of short story submitting recently. I have also been an editor in a major publishing house, though, and a lot of the advice also applies to submitting novels, or even nonfiction, to traditional publishers.

Beyond just getting past the gatekeepers, developing the skill of communicating clearly with correct punctuation, grammar and usage will help you become a better writer. A musician plays notes; a great musician knows why those notes, in that relationship, work together, and what effect that will have on the audience, because a great musician thinks about the notes, and plays only the ones he or she means to play. For us as writers, words are our notes.

I review a lot of books, and I see the same easily-corrected errors over and over. In fact, I've analysed the errors that I've found in dozens of published and unpublished books, to figure out which basic problems are most common. So here's what I plan to cover on this blog (which will later become a book, all going well):

Note that this isn't about writing the actual story, which is another set of skills above and beyond these. This is about meeting the basic standards that will get your story read in the first place.

Does every editor care about these things? No--as poorly-edited books from major publishing houses demonstrate--but most will. Does every reader? No--as five-star reviews for books that are full of errors demonstrate--but some will. If you want to communicate “I am basically professional” so that people who read your writing won’t be distracted by simple language mistakes and can concentrate on your story, this series is here to help you achieve that standard.

The aim is to provide just enough information to help you look competent, so I won’t go into the finer details in some cases. For example, there are some arcane comma rules that are really only known or understood by advanced editors and grammarians, and if you don’t observe them, nobody but a serious pedant will dock you points. I’ll point to places where you can find details about those rules if you want--if your comma usage is generally good already, knowing these rules will make it excellent--but if you struggle with the basics of commas, you don’t need to confuse yourself with these more advanced rules.

There are several good grammar sites around, most notably Grammar Girl, but they do tend to focus on theory and get deep into the detail, and they're for a wide audience, not just writers of fiction. The famous Strunk & White is, I'm afraid, overcomplicated, outdated, and doesn't always follow its own (sometimes bad) advice. This guide is written by a working fiction writer--one who's also a former book editor and technical writer, and a current book reviewer and beta reader--as a practical tool for other working fiction writers.