Are you sure your writing is really done?

You know how sometimes fried chicken is all brown and crispy on the outside, but then when you cut it open, it’s pink and bloody inside? That’s how I’m feeling about some of the work I have been reading in my role as one of the editors of the Timberline Review, for which submissions closed yesterday.

It happens mostly in poems, but also in prose. I start reading and think, wow, this is going to be great. What a fresh topic, what wonderful imagery. The rhythm, the emotion, the substance. And then . . . rats. The piece fizzles out. Suddenly I’m at the end, and the writer didn’t carry through with the promise he or she made at the beginning. The piece ends in a stream of vague generalities or clichés, goes on too long, or stops suddenly, leaving me wanting more. We grade the poems on a 1 to 4 scale, 1 being yes and 4 being forget about it. In my weariness last night, I gave one poem a 5. I hate, hate, hate starting out reading a 1 poem and having to give it a 4 because the writer didn’t finish it.

I worked in the newspaper business for a long time. We were lucky if we had time for two drafts, but if you’re writing on your own, you do have time for two or 20 or however many drafts it takes to make sure your work is the best it can be. Right now, take out a piece of paper and write down these words. Write them big. WHAT AM I TRYING TO SAY? Hang it up where you can see it and ask yourself that with everything you write.

Write your first drafts as loose and wild as you want. Don’t worry about things hanging together or even making sense. But when you revise and before you ever send your work out for publication, ask yourself that question. What am I trying to say? Write down what you’re trying to say in one sentence. And follow it up with: Does this piece of writing say it? Does it say it all the way from the first line to the last? Can I tie the opening and closing together? Are there sections that just don’t support that main idea? Did I run out of steam halfway through or quit too soon? Finish your thought. Then stop. The most common editing suggestion we’ve been making to our poets is to cut the final stanza. So take another look. Is your work really ready?

Two other editor quibbles I have to share today:

1) If the guidelines say not to put your name on the submission, don’t put your name on it. Don’t put it in the file name or in your headers or footers, don’t put it anywhere except in your cover letter or the online form you use to submit. When editors say blind submissions, that’s what we want.

2) Learn the difference between lay and lie and how to conjugate them:

I lie down now, I lay down last night, I had lain down last Tuesday, I am lying down now.

I lay down the book now, I laid it down last night, I had laid it down last Tuesday, I am laying it down now.

See the nifty chart and examples at The Grammarist.

Now let’s go write.

Little things that drive editors nuts

Hey, did you know that . . .

* “Alright” is all wrong? It’s “all right,” two words. I know you see it in print all the time. It’s still wrong.

* When you’re about to recline on a bed, floor, beach, etc., it’s “lie” not “lay,” as in “I’m going to lie down now.” “Lay” is the past tense. “She got tired, so she lay down.”

* The past tense of “sink” is “sank.” Not “sunk.” Use it wrong and you are sunk with this editor.

* “Your” is a possessive word that indicates something belongs to you. “That’s your shoe.” If you want to indicate a state of being, such as me praising your wonderfulness, the correct word is “you’re.” “You’re wonderful.”

* “It’s” and “Its” are not the same thing. “It’s” is short for “it is” as in “It’s hot today.” “Its” is a possessive word, as in “The dog was chasing its tail.”

Editors care about this stuff. Get these things wrong on the first page or in your query/cover letter, and they’re going to move on to the next manuscript. So make sure you’re using these words correctly.

Maybe the Internet and Smart Phones are making us more casual with our language, but as writers using words as our tools, we need to get them right, at least in our final drafts. All right?

You might find these links interesting.

Commonly misused words and phrases from Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference

12 Commonly Misused Words and Phrases from the Huffington Post

Wikipedia: List of Commonly Misused English Words (It’s a long one!)

Now let’s go write.

Three Quick Tips for Writers: grammar, poetry, fairy tales

Once a week I am offering three quick tips that you can take and use right away. For those of us who would rather be writing than reading blogs, this is a place you can grab something useful and get back to work. If you have suggestions, please share them in the comments section.


Are you finding that grammar is a mystery? Why do people keep adding commas to your manuscripts? What’s the deal with lay and lie? Find help from grammar guru Mignon Fogarty at Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. She also has a Grammar Girl book by the same title.


The Poet’s Companion: a Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorriane Laux. It’s got everything from getting started to getting published, including lots of poems to read and lots of writing exercises to try.

Try This

Rewrite a fairy tale. They’re doing it on TV and in books. You can, too. Start with your favorite fairy tale or myth, give it a modern setting with modern problems and a new point of view and see what happens. You can do this with current stories, too, but you’ll need to make it a totally new story to avoid copyright problems.

Now Go Write

Is it drank or drunk, lay or lie?

I’m going to be grouchy about grammar today. What I’m seeing lately online and on paper drives me nuts. Now I know most people don’t care, but your editor will nod and smile if you get it right. She’ll say, “Ah, here’s someone who cares about language.”

I’m only going to give two examples today so that you can focus on just these two.

1) The past tense of sink, not the thing in your kitchen but what you do when you’re in deep water weighted down with rocks, is “sank.” More and more, I’m seeing “sunk” as the past tense, as in “The boat sunk to the bottom of the bay.” No! It should be “sank.” “The boat sank to the bottom of the bay.” Sunk is another thing, as in “It would have been tragic if the boat had sunk to the bottom of the bay.” Sink, sank, sunk.

The same rule applies to drink. I drink, I drank yesterday, I’m calling a cab because I have drunk too much to drive. Drink, drank, drunk.

Make sense?

2) Lay and lie. I know a lot of people, including many writers, who just throw up their hands and say “who cares?” Or they really think they have it right, and they don’t. This one is crazy confusing. Whoever invented it must have decided to drink, he drank, and he got drunk. And then he lay down on the nasty sticky floor of the bar and passed out after inventing the lay-lie rules.

To lie down is to recline, spread your body out on a floor, bed, sofa or whatever. If you did it a while ago, you lay down. If your boss asks why you didn’t come to work, you could say you had lain down for a while.

To lay down is to put or place something, as in I lay my laptop computer on the table right now. I know, I know, it’s the same word as the past tense for lie. It gets even crazier. The past tense for lay is “laid,” as in “I laid my laptop on the table.” And the past participle as in “I had laid it on the table, but now it’s not there,” is the same word.

And, of course, to lie is also to tell a fib. What a confusing language.

As I said, they drank and got drunk before they made up the rules.

You can find websites that will check your grammar for you, and most word processing programs will do some grammar checking for you, but I urge you not to trust them. A writer should know how to use his tools. Learn the rules and follow them—even if you’re the only one who knows the difference.

Some sources to check: by Mignon Fogarty, author of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. In fact, why not buy the book?