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.


Think You’re Finished? Take That Extra Step

Last weekend, I attended a conference called “Compose” at Clackamas Community College near Portland Oregon. Unlike so many conferences these days, we did not talk about marketing, pitching, platforms or publishing. It was all about writing, and I learned something very important. I learned to try again.

In a flash fiction class taught by Samuel Snoek-Brown, we read some super short stories, then wrote our own. Then we wrote them again. And again. Each time, we were instructed to look for the moment, the epiphany at the heart of our story arc. Even though we were trying to write as short as possible, we needed a scene, a character, and something happening. We needed sensory details. In our second pass, we were to add whatever was missing and subtract whatever was not essential. In flash fiction, which can range from a few words to 1,000 words, much is left to the reader to figure out. There isn’t room to spell everything out. Finally we were asked to write one essential sentence that told our story. That one sentence was so rich because we could not waste a single word..

My next class was memoir, taught by Jay Ponteri, whom I had met last fall when he was one of our guest authors at the Nye Beach Writers series. He’s a dynamic writer but just as impressive as a teacher. With a two-word prompt, “laundry basket,” we filled pages with memories and story possibilities. But here’s the thing. We divided our pages in half. On one side, we wrote what the prompt first brought to mind. On the other side, we jotted down other ideas that came up in the process. Then we took a new page and wrote about those other ideas, starting a new column with what came into our minds next. People came up with wonderful stories, all different. In many cases the original prompt disappeared and the story became about something else. The writers were able to find it because they went beyond that first idea. They let their minds wander past the laundry basket to what else it made them think about and took the time to explore wherever it led.

So often we feel like once we’ve written something, we can’t change it, we’re stuck with what we have. Or we’re anxious to send it out, so we hit save and send and move on to the next piece. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can try again. We can dump all but the one gold nugget that we find and go where it leads us, to the gold mine

Of course it helps to be in a classroom with nothing to distract you, no kids, jobs, cell phones, chores, or Facebook. Look for opportunities for undistracted writing in classes, writing groups, or whatever. Leave your desk and go where all you have to do is write. Then try it again. And again. Don’t think about marketing or publishing. Just think about getting to the heart of the story. If it takes 1,000 or 10,000 words to find that perfect 100 words, so be it.

Now let’s go write.


Watch out for sneaky little words that say nothing

Useless little words tick me off, as do words that are used incorrectly. I know, most people have bigger problems to worry about, but I want to look at some words we tend to put in the strangest places. I’m talking about to do and to have, and their variations.

Consider: “I do the dishes.” Do what to them? Do them as in have sex? Hard to get it on with a dinner plate. Some people even do them up. No. We wash the dishes, we dry the dishes, and we put them away. “Do” is so vague. How about throw the dishes? Fill the dishes? Scrub the dishes? Scour? Scrape? Soap? There are so many other words that actually do some work. But what does do tell us? I suppose do sums up the whole job. We take them off the table, empty the leftovers into the trash, clean them and put them away. The whole job.

Likewise, we do the laundry. We get our hair done, and people order steaks well done. Criminals do time.

Busy little verb, isn’t it? Do: To bring to pass, to perform, to execute, to make it happen. Do is a great word. When you’re speaking in the voice of a character, feel free to use “do” just like real people. “Let’s just do up these dishes.” But in other writing, stop and think: Is do the right word, or would another, more specific verb give that sentence more color and power?

Then there’s have. It has a lot of legitimate uses, including: to hold or maintain in one’s possession (I have five dollars), to hold or contain as part of the whole (the car has an automatic transmission), or to feel an obligation in regard to something (we have to pay our taxes). We use it as a helping verb to change tense with other verbs. “I have worked hard today.” “I have been to France.”

But what about when we say “I had a pizza”? What, did you keep it in your sock drawer? Did you have a pizza and someone took it away? No, you’re probably saying you ordered a pizza at a restaurant and then you ate it. Devoured it. Gobbled it. Wolfed it down. Shared it with your friends.

We have all kinds of weird phrases including the word have and its cousins: had better, have it in for, have done. What the heck do these things really mean? Again, if you’re projecting the voice of a character or a colorful narrator, use these words however you please. Have at it. But otherwise, think about it. Might there be another word with more power?

We’re guilty with other words, too. Like “get.” We “get” all kinds of things that we don’t actually “get.” And “make.” We “make chicken” for dinner. No, we cook it. And don’t get me started on all the ways we use is, was, and were when other words would work better.

We have so many great words. If you can’t think of the right word in your first draft, mark it and keep writing. Later, go back and find that word. Don’t settle for the lazy choice.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Now go write.

I feel sorry for anyone trying to learn the English language.


The way to great writing? Slow down

Last weekend, I attended the Northwest Poet’s Concord right here in beautiful Newport, Oregon, and I learned a few things. Don’t tune out if you’re not a poet because the most important lesson I learned applies to all kinds of writing—as well as to other things in life.

The workshops covered many different aspects of poetry, from line breaks to language to setting poems to music, but for me it all boiled down to one thing: slow down and pay attention. Don’t just whip it out and call it done.

Our keynote speaker David Biespiel, poet and poetry columnist for the Oregonian newspaper, showed how us how to read poetry in a way I had never tried. Don’t just dive in, he said. Prepare.He compared us to Olympic divers, who spend more time preparing than actually diving. When preparing to read a poem, look at the title and think about what it suggests the poem is about. Think about the poet. What do you know about him or her and the era in which they wrote this? Read the first line and stop. Consider that line as an entity on its own. Now go down to the bottom and read the last line. How does that relate to the title and the first line? Then look at the ends of the lines. What kinds of words do you see? Are they concrete, philosophical, erudite, slang? Do they rhyme? Finally, read the poem, slowly. Then read it again.

Now, try this with your own poems as if you have never seen them before, as if you were a reader approaching them for the first time. Look at the title, look at the first line, look at the last line, etc.

Another session focused on revision, particularly the use of line breaks and sentences. The instructor urged us to consider every choice we make. Why are we breaking the line here? Why are we putting a comma there? Can we justify every adverb or adjective or are they just lazy ways of saying something that could be said with one powerful word if we took the time to find it?

Finally, choose the strongest line in your poem and work to make every line meet the same standard. Stop and think about this. Find the strongest line and work to make every line meet the same standard.

For prose writers, instead of lines, we can think of paragraphs. Maybe you have a brilliant first paragraph, but some of the others are just . . . there. Can you make them better? Can you leave them out? What about characters? Are a few so clearly drawn you can see and hear them while others are clichéd or vague? Stop and make each one as strong as the best.

As a former newspaper reporter, I write in a hurry. What if I took more time? What if I sat with that poem, story, essay, or novel as if it were the only one I would ever write?

This, I think, is the key to greatness. Try it. Take one piece of writing and see what you can do. Maybe a few changes will make it stronger. Remember, if you don’t like the changes, you can always delete and start over, and Word has a wonderful feature called “undo.” Control Z.

I’m heading out to the backyard now with one of the poems I read at the Concord. I thought it was fine before, but now, I think I can make it better.