Entries tagged with “proof-reading”.


by Jim Harrington 

I am, but I’m getting better. First, I have a confession. It’s not my fault!!

In seventh grade, the school placed me in a remedial English class due to a scheduling conflict. Because I did so well, I was assigned to the advanced class in eighth grade. I reveled in that accomplishment for about three days. That’s how long it took me to realize I was way behind everyone else in the class. Too embarrassed to admit I didn’t know what the teacher was talking about, I slogged through as best I could.

I still struggle with certain aspects of grammar. Here are some steps I took that might help readers who, like me, hold up a wooden cross whenever the word grammar appears.

Buy a style book*

It doesn’t matter which one, and you’re not going to read it cover to cover. I use it as a reference. For a while, I questioned every aspect of grammar from where that comma should go to am I supposed to capitalize the names of the seasons. I still use it from time to time. However, I find the more I write, the better I get at spotting errors. 

Read for grammar, not for content

Pull a few novels off the shelf and read them for grammar and word usage, especially when looking at dialog. From a grammar standpoint, ask such questions as: Where is the punctuation placed prior to he said? If the dialog ends with a question mark, is the he capitalized? Does the question mark go inside or outside the quotation marks? Where do the quotation marks go when the dialog runs across two or more paragraphs? Why is there a comma in one sentence but not another? When looking at usage, ask why that word? To answer this, replace the word with something else to see how the flow and context change.

I need to add a caveat here. When choosing books for these exercises, select ones that were published a few years ago. Too many recent books suffer from a lack of editing. This is especially true of self-published books. Unfortunately, these authors fail to realize they are branding themselves as amateurs when they put a mistake-laden work on the market. Readers notice!

Follow online sites

There are sites online like Grammar Girl that provide insight into grammar issues. On this site, you can ask questions and sign up for a free newsletter.

Write shorter sentences

This may seem like silly advice, but I’ve read many submissions with grammar issues that could have been solved by, as John Gardner suggests, getting to the period sooner. There are times when using longer sentences helps set the tone, but incorrectly punctuated ones can create an unintended response in the reader.

Grammar counts! Many editors say they will forgive a few mistakes, but don’t usually say how many that is. Other editors simply pass on a work that doesn’t show a certain level of professionalism (i.e., poor grammar). Getting it right is important, whether it’s grammar, or plot, or overall storytelling ability. How the manuscript looks is just as important as what it has to say. Grammar errors and misspellings stick out. Don’t let your manuscript be the one the editor sets aside because of poor craftsmanship. Make it one of your writing goals for 2013 to improve your grammar skills, even if you think you know it all. How about a goal to learn one new grammar “rule” a month? Even the busiest writer should be able to accomplish that.

 

*Online style book links:  The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and  GrammarBook.Com by Jane Strauss.

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Jim Harrington began writing fiction in 2007 and has agonized over the form ever since. He serves as the Flash Markets Editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Jim’s Six Questions For . . . blog provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” You can read his stories at http://jpharrington.blogspot.com.

I addressed the importance of reading stories out loud in my last post. It was short on purpose. I wanted the readers to think about how reading out loud might help in their writing process, as opposed to me telling them how it would. Still, some may wonder what things twang for me when I read my work.

I was a music major in college and continued to play–trumpet, for those who need to know–for a number of years after graduation. (I don’t anymore.) So, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the main thing I listen for is the rhythm of the prose. I read one sentence over and over and over, tinkering with the words until I’m comfortable with the cadence. There are a number of twangers that jump off the page during this process.

Consistency of voice: When I read out loud, I am the character(s). I let the words and actions on the page show me how I should stand and whether my voice is pleasant or strident. If I don’t get this from the words, how will the reader? Being the character makes it easy to identify those words, phrases, or sentences that differ in pacing and language from the tone set by the opening–assuming the opening uses a correct, consistent voice. :)

Nouns and verbs: Changes in verb tense often show up during this process. Bland words also stick out. “Jeremy walked into the store.” This doesn’t show me anything about Jeremy (remember, I’m acting out the part). “Jeremy marched into the store” is better. Sometimes, I notice a character’s name is spelled differently when I read out loud. Marissa vs Melinda is an easy catch. Katie vs Katy may not be.

Adjectives and adverbs: I’m not an advocate of eliminating adjectives and adverbs totally (see, there’s and adverb). Although, I use few adjectives and fewer, if any, adverbs in my own fiction. Still, there are times when a well-placed adjective can improve the rhythm of a sentence or phrase. The opposite is also true. Deleting the adjective may smooth out a troublesome section.

Repeating words: I notice problems like “He clutched the canvas bag to his his chest” when I read out loud. I’m more likely to notice a word or phrase appearing multiple times in close proximity, too. In an earlier version of this post, the end of the second paragraph and the beginning of the third both read “when I read out loud.” I didn’t notice it until I verbalized the words.

Punctuation: I find reading out loud helps me with one of my weaknesses–commas. Sometimes, I realize a pause is needed or required. I also recognize instances when a comma shouldn’t be used. It’s a rhythm thing. The same goes for em dashes vs parentheses. Em dashes provide a longer pause, a pause that feels right in some places and not others. The poor semicolon is much maligned now. I’m not sure why. I don’t use it often, but there are times when neither the full pause of the period, nor the partial pause created by a comma feels correct. It’s then I use a semicolon and put the onus on the editor to change it.

Incomplete sentences: Sometimes the rhythm of an incomplete sentence works in a particular sequence, or with the chosen voice. Sometimes, it creates a pothole in the prose.

Invisible words: These are commonly used words when we speak, but ones to avoid when we write–that, then, so, and just are examples. “That” is my nemesis. It appears at will in my early drafts. There are times, however, often for the sake of rhythm, that (<–) I keep one; but it doesn’t happen often, and I’ve read the sentence many times before deciding if it goes or stays.

What problems won’t be discovered by reading out loud (at least, not by me)?

Homophones and homonyms: They’re, their, there, and read, reed sound the same whether verbalized or not. It takes a special effort on my part to locate and resolve problems with the misuse of these words

I should have kept track of the number of times I read this before submitting it to Gay. Fifteen to twenty is a good guess. If you don’t read your stories out loud, it’s a practice you should incorporate into your writing process. Editors will appreciate it, and your acceptance rate may increase.

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Jim Harrington discovered flash fiction in 2007, and he’s read, written, studied, and agonized over the form since. His Six Questions For. . . blog provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” In his spare time, he serves as the flash fiction editor for Apollo’s Lyre.

“So to edit your work, you go back and thrum [like you would a stringed instrument] to it. And you go thrum, thrum, thrum, twang! And when you go twang! as a reader, mark that passage.” — Robert Olen Butler in From Where You Dream.

I love this quote, and I’m not going to say much about it. The words speak for themselves. It’s another example of why writers should read their works out loud–over and over and over. I do after each edit (even if the change is a single word). It’s the only way–or at least the best way for me–to find those parts of the prose that might jar the reader. I do this when critiquing stories, too. If I come to a section that doesn’t feel right, I read it out loud.

Do you read your work out loud to find those twangy parts? You should.

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Jim discovered flash fiction in 2007, and he’s read, written, studied, and agonized over the form since. His Six Questions For. . . blog provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” In his spare time, he serves as the flash fiction editor for Apollo’s Lyre.

gayforwowStories sometimes fall out of our heads and onto the computer screen, surprising us, filling us with an elation that comes mighty close to other kinds of elations.  The temptation is to get it out there into some editors hands immediately.  Usually we zip it straight to the editor we want most to love our work, an editor who’ll email us with praise, no edits, and a Pushcart nomination.  We are hot and bothered, and to use a phrase from my junior high years –STOKED–because we realize we’re beginning to get it. Writing is getting easier…

Beware the flush of love…I mean, the flush of drafts that are effortless.  Sometimes they really are good.  Sometimes they just FEEL good.  The most important thing to remember is WAIT.  Sleep on it.  Don’t lose your heart on a one night stand.  At least not yet. 

After you’ve cooled down, taken a hot shower, and rested, you may discover that what you’ve written is almost ready to go, but it needs proof-reading, a little polish, it needs to be more than it is.  On the occasion when the Muse has guided you, maybe a proof-read is enough.  But most of the time–I’d say 99% of the time–if it’s that good, it can still be better. 

Taking a piece of writing one more level up can mean the difference to finding a home for a story and not finding a home.

It could be as simple as doublechecking to see if your opening is sharp, seductive, and just as important, prescient.  Does it set up your ending.  If the first sentence, the first paragraph is a scene where siblings fight, then what you have communicated to the reader is that the relationship between this brother and this sister is important enough to start off your story.  I’m basically talking about short stories here, especially flash because the word count is such that nothing can be put into the story because because the author likes it or because that how it started in the head of the writer.  Not good enough. 

That opening paragraph must signal in some way, and yes it can be subtle, what it is this story is about. It should suggest both the main characters “journey and epiphany” without giving away the ending.  It can be done in clear straight forward way or it can be subtle, even metaphorical, but it does need to give the reader a hint to the main conflict, what this story is about on a “plot level” and on a “thematic level.” And yes, good genre writing has a theme just like “lit.”

 Creating the link between the beginning of the story and the end will bring complexity to a story.

Word count is a tool.  It sets up boundaries and when there are boundaries we are pushed to know about them, accomodate them, and break away from them.  Word count forces us to look at our stories under a microscope and to needle away anything that doesn’t do service to the story.There are almost always words and phrases that can be cut or sentences reworded by finding more exact and vivid language.

We all put words and phrases in stories when we are writing drafts and some of them eventually become invisible to us. But many of them become obsolete or unnecessary as we work with the material zeroing in on just what the story is about. 

I am trying to teach myself patience.  Trying to set aside work I think is strong in that first rush to the page, just for a day or two, before deciding if this is the best I can do.  And it never is because when I reread the attachment to the submission I’ve sent off in the afterglow of a good write (and I can never resist), there’s always a flaw in the first paragraph, a misused word, an awkwardness, and I want to haul it back from the ether and have it at least one more time.

 

Gay Degani has published in journals and anthologies including The Best of Every Day Fiction 2008 and The Best of Every Day Fiction  TWO (2009)Her stories online can be read at Smokelong Quarterly, The Battered Suitcase, Night Train, Every Day Fiction as well as other publications.  Pomegranate Stories is a collection of eight stories by Gay. She is the editor of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles and blogs at Words in Place.