Get it Right: A cranky editor's tips on grammar, usage, punctuation and writing
self-published, June 11, 2013
The first several pages of Get it Right:
One of the greatest gifts we’ve been given as humans is the ability to express ourselves. We’re lucky enough to live in a time when we can do it with the written word faster, more efficiently and in more ways than ever before. Even so, the basic rules of writing that first began to form when a caveman put charcoal to wall still exist: If the message isn’t clear, no one is going to listen. This is true whether it’s a novel, blog post or a newspaper story. Grammar, word use, punctuation and style can be daunting. Don’t be afraid, it’s really very simple. The rules of writing exist to make your message clear. Once you know this, they make sense and are easy to understand. When I was a young reporter, I had an editor who used to say, “If you want a hug, visit your mother. If you want to get it right, listen to me.” Newsrooms, both yesterday and today, don’t have time to worry about writers’ self-esteem and don’t have the luxury to be sloppy. Clarity, accuracy and thoroughness — the foundation of news writing — are basic for all good writing, whether it’s that sci-fi novel you’ve been laboring over for a decade or breaking news that you have to get on the web five minutes ago. There’s no better boot camp than a newsroom for learning how to write and how to get it right. With that in mind, this book offers tips that anyone who aspires to write can understand. It’s not a total writing guide and doesn’t cover all aspects of usage and grammar — for instance, you won’t find everything you need to know about commas — but you will find the common mistakes and pitfalls I see most frequently. Commas included. This book isn’t about quantum physics or how to bake a soufflé. I don’t know anything about those things. But I do know this stuff. The knowledge behind these tips comes from thirty years in the trenches. The delivery may be blunt at times. That’s okay, right? You want to be a better writer. You know where to go if you want a hug.
CHAPTER 1: Some basics of good writing
Have something to say Writing a sci-fi novel? A magazine article? A poem? A newspaper story? It doesn’t matter. If you don’t have something to say, few people will listen. Make sure your idea is well-developed and you know where you’re going with it. Ask yourself why someone would want to read it. Even the most brilliant writers can’t get by on great writing alone — they all have something to say.
Care enough to work at it If you want someone to care about what you write, you need to care about it,
That means paying attention to and respecting the craft and following the rules. Computers and the Internet make it a lot easier to write than the good old days when typewriters, pens, pencils, erasers, white-out and reams of paper were the tools of the trade. But the fact that it’s easier to get the words down isn’t a license to be lazy. Just as having spell check doesn’t mean you get a pass on knowing how to spell (more on that later), having a computer doesn’t give you a pass on using your noggin and working hard to make what you are writing worthwhile.
Care enough to get it right So you think grammar, punctuation and spelling are for the other guy? Your genius can’t be reined in by The Man’s uptight rules? Think again. No one wants to read something that’s sloppy, no matter how brilliant it may be. Again, the rules exist to clarify what’s being said. The less clear your message, the less anyone will get it. Put it this way: If your home is a mess — dirty dishes in the sink, dirty clothes in the living room, smelly, dog hair everywhere — people aren’t going to want to visit, no matter how much they like you. The same goes for what you’ve written: no one’s going to want to read it if it’s a mess.
Read, read, read No writer who is not a reader is good, no matter what kind of writing he or she does. It confounds me as an editor that someone can send me a 200,000-word manuscript and proudly say “And I’ve only read four or five books in my life!” Gosh, I never would have guessed. It astounds me how many writers I’ve edited remark on how little they’ve read. You can’t be a good writer if you don’t see writing in action. This goes for good writing and bad writing alike. The good writers show you how it’s done; the bad writers show you what not to do.
Omit unnecessary words Strunk & White said it first; editors, writing instructors and writers who have written books about writing have repeated it for decades. I know, I know. Every word you write is golden. Sorry, not. Cut, slice and trim as we used to say at the newspaper. Sounds harsh? It is.
But you know what's worse? Being a reader and slogging through snowdrifts of adverbs and adjectives, overblown descriptions and huge blocks of exposition in an attempt to find the story buried underneath.
Think you’re done? Sorry, it’s just a first draft One of the biggest issues I see as an editor, both of manuscripts and newspaper stories, is that what I’m looking at is not finished. Rarely is the first way you wrote something the best way. You must go through, tighten, revise. Look at every sentence, every word — yes, every word — and ask yourself, "Is this really how I want to say this?”
Spell check is no substitute for your brain Don’t rely on spell check to do the work for you. Spell check is good as far as it goes, but know whether you want where, wear, we’re or were. You certainly don’t want minuets instead of minutes (this has appeared many times in books I’ve edited). I used to edit a reporter who constantly wrote indicated instead of indicted. He blamed spell check. I blamed him. Make sure when you use spell check that you are not ignoring what you’ve written. When I lived in Manchester, N.H., I was running one day when a woman stopped her car next to me and asked where St. Anselm College was. We were about fifty yards from the front gate, which I pointed out to her. She then told me that couldn’t be right, because her GPS showed it on another street. Yeah. Okay. See where I’m going here? Some people rely on the technology so much they forget to think. Use spell check, but don’t expect it to do your thinking for you.
And there’s nothing wrong with looking up a word in a good old-fashioned dictionary when you’re not sure. Context: The most important forgotten thing You’ll see this word a lot in this book, but won’t hear it a lot in discussions about editing and good writing. Too bad. Context is important for everything from what words you use to what those words say. One reason people avoid it like the plague is that recognizing its necessity means you’re in for some hard work. To be sure you have context, or that it’s accurate, you have to be sure of what you’re writing. Know your subject matter, the background, the characters, the setting. The more confident you are of your subject matter, the better your context will be and the more consistent it will be. News writing, fiction, a memoir for your family — context can make it or break it. You’ve heard of the five Ws: who, what, where, when and why? If your article has all of those, it has the basics. If it has why, it also has a start on having context. Don’t forget about that last W. For more on context, see page 50.
Chapter 2: Punctuation Before we start: Go easy with the punctuation, okay? It’s there to help clarify, but too much makes what you’re writing an obstacle course for the reader. If a sentence is loaded with punctuation, chances are it’s a bad sentence.
Apostrophe The apostrophe in a contraction tells the reader “there should be a letter here, but there isn’t.” Is not? Isn’t. Do not? Don’t. It’s also used in a possessive: Suzy’s book. Apostrophe mistakes occur most frequently not when they’re forgotten, but when they’re used when they shouldn’t be. The possessive of its has no apostrophe. The dog buried its bone. It’s? It is. It’s time to go. But “The dog needs a walk, get its leash.” No apostrophe. Other possessives that don’t come with an apostrophe are hers, his, ours, yours. In other words, proper nouns (Ted’s fish) have an apostrophe when they are possessive. Pronouns (his fish) don’t.
The apostrophe is one of the most misused punctuation marks. Some people believe whenever something ends in an S that normally wouldn’t, it must have an apostrophe. They are wrong The sign on your neighbors house says “The Smith’s.” If it means the house is the Smith’s, okay. But we all know they’re more likely announcing the Smiths live here. The Smiths. No apostrophe.
Colon Don’t use this as much as you want to. The most common use in a sentence is with an independent clause (a part of a sentence that could stand alone as its own sentence). Jen’s favorite fruits were all citrus: grapefruit, oranges, lemons and tangerines. The list at the end of the sentence elaborates on the beginning of the sentence (the independent clause). Another frequent use with an independent clause is an example or explanation that comes after the clause. The rules of the game were simple: Don’t let anyone take your flag. The premise is the same for both uses: The colon is used when an independent clause is followed by something specific to that clause. The colon is also used to introduce a topic, like a salutation, date or lead-in item on a resume. It’s also used in reference formatting in academic papers, to separate hours from minutes in the time of day, Biblical citations and other similar, specific instances. Don’t use it where it doesn’t belong. For instance, many writers use colons in dialogue as a substitute for attribution. Instead of Mary said, “Start the car”
They write Mary said: “Start the car.” That’s improper use, so don’t do it. If what follows the colon can stand as its own sentence, the first word is capitalized. If it can’t, it’s not.
Comma A comma is another way to separate clauses in sentences, usually dependent clauses. That is, those clauses that wouldn’t make sense without the rest of the sentence. Look at the first sentence in the previous paragraph. The stuff that comes after the comma wouldn’t make sense without the first part, so it’s a dependent clause. The second sentence in the first paragraph shows how a comma is used to link an introductory clause (that is). A comma can also separate a clause in the middle of a sentence. John, who was three years older than Bill, always got the biggest piece of pie. You don’t need the part of the sentence about him being older than Bill, but it adds some meaning to the sentence. Commas can also separate a list of things in a sentence. The barn was filled with horses, cows, pigs and chickens. A note on this use: many styles, including AP style used by most newspapers, don’t use a serial comma. That’s the comma that would come after pigs and before and. Other styles, particularly Chicago style, which is used by book publishers, do use the serial comma. It’s also sometimes called the Oxford comma. Be sure you know which style you need to use for what you are writing (more on style can be found on page 49).
A comma goes inside quotation marks in American punctuation. Fred told the others that Bill said his tummy felt “all squishy,” a sure sign of food poisoning.
There are two kinds of dash, and the hyphen isn’t one of them. They are the em dash (long dash) and the en dash (shorter dash). Both (as well as the hyphen, which again, isn’t a dash) have distinct uses and are frequently misused. In other words, they are not interchangeable.
em (long) dash: The em dash is used to separate clauses. Don’t overuse it — a comma is usually fine. See what I did there? I used it. It’s best used to set off the clause for emphasis. Old school writers still type two hyphens (no long dashes on typewriters), but Microsoft Word changes that to an en dash. If you don’t have a key stroke for an em dash, get it from the insert symbol function on your tool bar, then cut and paste. Never open a clause with an em dash and close it with a comma. For instance: Jack — he of magic beans fame, was shredded by the giant. The right way is: Jack — he of magic beans fame — was shredded by the giant. On the other hand, in some instances, one em dash, then a comma, is okay. Do it when the clause comes at the beginning or end of the sentence, like this: The em dash is frequently misused — it’s a hazard of having too many punctuation choices, I think.
en (short) dash: The en dash should only be used to separate ranges and numbers. Don’t use it for anything else, particularly in lie of an em dash because that’s what your Microsoft Word is “correcting” it to. This is a range: He coached from 2010–12.
hyphen: .It’s not a dash, so you’ll find it under hyphen.
The terms em dash and en dash are printer’s terms that go back to when individual lead letters were used on presses. The m or “em” takes up the same amount of space as the long dash, the en takes up the same as the shorter dash. Why em instead of m? Newspapers (and other publications) want to make sure that nothing that shouldn’t go into print sneaks in. So words used for production are deliberately misspelled: hed for head, lede for lead, graf for graph. Spaces are em and en spaces. Old timers used to call those mutts and nuts. The digital age has taken some of the fun out of publishing.