Warning: You enter this grammar post at your own risk.
Once you’ve had your feedback and have chopped, pruned, rewritten and reshaped your work, you’re ready to go, right? Wrong. Next, you need to don your pernickety gloves and work on grammar, spelling and punctuation.
This type of revision is called a proofread and it is separate from the critique your friends gave re characters, story, POV, tone and structure. A proofread regards layout and correct use of language. A proofread is the final polish.
Never hand in a submission blighted by incorrect or inconsistent punctuation, bad grammar and misspelled words – thinking the story will shine through. They (the slush pile readers) will be turned off by your sloppy copy and will probably never read on into your story, so it won’t get that chance to shine through. If you’ve spent a year writing a novel, respect your work enough to spend another couple of weeks proofreading. It’s only common sense.
As you’ve probably read your own work countless times, you may be blind to copy mistakes. A keen eyed friend is invaluable here. Also you could cut a sentence sized gap in a blank page and place it over your text to check every sentence individually, with the rest of the text blanked out. This may sound painstaking but it is a very good focusing tool.
Many emerging writers are concerned about grammar, unsure of their own knowledge and application. I’ve been an English (as a foreign language) teacher for fifteen years and can recommend the following grammar self-study book (known in the TEFL world as ‘the grammar bible’): Raymond Murphy Grammar in Use. You’ll be able to pick up a cheap copy on Amazon. Spend a night or two doing the exercises, it’ll stand to you.
Also, I could wax lyrical about whether to use double or single quotes for dialogue (or to use any at all) and the difference between US and UK conventions regarding the same. However, I think the best is for you to take ten novels down from your shelf and see how the majority of them format dialogue and then apply the same convention to your work. Whichever you choose, ensure it is then consistent throughout your text.
Finally, here are some of the most common problems:
****Are you using the right “Its”?
“It’s” (with an apostrophe) is short for “it is”.
“Its” (no apostrophe) is possessive (ie: the dog lost its bone).
NOTE: somewhat confusingly, when you want to use the possessive elsewhere, you do use an apostrophe: “Mary’s coat”, “John’s golf club”, “the dog’s bone.”
****Same sound, different spelling (homophones).
“They’re”, “Their” and “There”.
They’re (they are) sitting the car. They’re listening to their (possessive) music, they’ll be fine there (preposition of place) for a while yet.
****Using “done” instead of “did” and vice versa.
“Done” is the past participle of “do” and is normally used with the auxiliary verb “have”. “Did” is the past simple of “do”.
(And if you have no idea what any of that means, you really do need to order that book).
So, you say either “I have done my homework” or “I did my homework” – and never “I done my homework,” or “he done his homework.”
****Saying “could of” rather than “could have” when using the second conditional tense or “could” as a modal verb in the perfect tense (yeah, see that grammar book).
“He could of gone to the shop,” is wrong.
“He could have gone to the shop,” is correct.
And please accept sincerest apologies for sending any of you off into a coma of boredom with this grammary post – believe me, it hurt me more than it hurt you.
December 21st, 2011 at 20:06
Excellent tips. This is a very big weakness of mine! Thank you. Your blog has become an invaluable reference. Happy holidays.
December 21st, 2011 at 20:09
Ha! Didn’t hurt – at all. Thanks for the reminders and the book recommendation.
December 21st, 2011 at 20:30
As a copy and content editor, I cannot tell you what a difference great grammar and formatting does for a manuscript. I can do a better job with what folks give me if the basics are handled! Also, it frees readers up to really enjoy the neat things you’ve created if there’s nothing hindering comprehension. I tell those I write with that we should treat our writing like our children; that means we dress them up in their best outfits and parade them in front of our families! 🙂
December 22nd, 2011 at 08:18
That’s a nice way of looking at it. I know how hard it is to proofread my own work, especially when it’s a novel. I finished writing my novel and proof read it over and over again about at least 10 times. I was ready to publish but I was unsure about the layout and I haven’t touched it since. That was over a month ago. Now time to get back to it. Perhaps I need an editor.. do you know how much this would cost?
December 21st, 2011 at 20:48
This is excellent – and it’s (it is!) so good to have that book recommendation.
December 21st, 2011 at 21:00
Great post. I think it’s always good to have Grammar reminders. The more you think about this the more it becomes second nature.
December 21st, 2011 at 21:23
Exceptions: if you are using (deliberately) a narrator or dialogue of a person who uses poor grammar where the poor grammar is a part of the characterization. (Think Huckleberry Finn.) But you have to know good grammar to do this.
December 21st, 2011 at 21:39
True, Sue Ann, thanks for pointing this out. Within dialogue or when using the ‘voice’ of a poorly educated character – it is OK to use ‘their’ grammar. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is a good example too. However, as you say, your own grammar must be impecable to pull this off –
December 21st, 2011 at 21:37
Thanks Sue, this is actually one of the things an editor friend of mine really helped with. Grammar is more important than many people would like to think and many judges and editors will dismiss a great work of fiction offhand if there is one grammatical error on the first page. So listen to the woman who has been published and won several contests this year, check your excitement to share your work for a bit and take the time to polish the manuscript first.
December 21st, 2011 at 21:49
This is where I’m fortunate to know a professional editor who can be that “fresh eye” near the end of the tunnel. Even though my job has always included a significant amount of editing, we are often blind to our own mistakes. Her freelance rate is well worth the investment.
December 21st, 2011 at 23:08
Never apologize. It’s generous of you to take the time.
December 22nd, 2011 at 00:10
Brilliant and much needed post!! Thanks, keep them coming Gill
December 22nd, 2011 at 06:29
I just wanted to let you know that I nominated you for the Liebster Blog. I don’t know how it works but your blog came to mind. Keep up the great work 🙂
December 22nd, 2011 at 08:51
Thank you Eva, that’s kind of you.
December 22nd, 2011 at 07:32
Grammar rules are like traffic rules. If everyone follows the rules, traffic flows freely (except in Manhattan). When writers consistently apply grammar rules, the reader doesn’t end up stuck in literary gridlock.
One of my pet peeves is creatively formatted dialogue. It’s such a pain to wade through that I give up in disgust, even if the writer is a Nobel Prize winner for literature.
December 22nd, 2011 at 07:57
Unfortunately many people need that book.
December 22nd, 2011 at 14:30
It didn’t hurt me at all; in fact, I was delighted to see someone else to whom these things actually matter. I, too, did a grammar post a few months ago. Here is the link, in case you’re anxious for one more kick at the can. http://elainecougler.wordpress.com/2011/07/03/its-and-its-bits/
December 22nd, 2011 at 20:15
Anything to clean up my act is always welcome!!
Funny thing is, many times I’m in a rush to post, I skim.
IF, I ever re-visit the Post, I wind up not just correcting Grammar, but I re-word chunks!!
Ah, proofreading…a job NEVER Done ♥
December 23rd, 2011 at 00:40
I think I was robbed at school. Grammar is a great weakness of mine, one I try to improve on, yet seem to constantly search for answers.
I will try that book, do we mention you when buying? Are you on commission? 🙂
December 23rd, 2011 at 01:14
It hurts that educators in the US have abandoned teaching these basics in favor of “whole language skills”. I am forever grateful to my High School freshman English teacher who made us copy out a notebook full of punctuation and grammar rules. As a substitute teacher, I’d pepper the Daily Oral Language exercises I did with some of these rules. The students’ only answer for “why did you put a comma there?” was always “because I pause there when I read it”. No understanding at all. A pity.
December 25th, 2011 at 01:48
I Nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. Merry Christmas! 🙂
December 25th, 2011 at 01:49
December 25th, 2011 at 14:03
Sue, you didn’t induce a coma — I thought this was fascinating! (But then, some of my best friends are reference books…) Thanks for taking us back to the basics. It’s necessary and you did it with aplomb.
December 25th, 2011 at 15:55
So basic, yet so necessary. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve checked out after seeing multiple grammar errors on someone’s post.
Ever read the book “Eats shoots and leaves?” I highly recommend it to your followers given the educational nature of your posts.
All the best.
December 27th, 2011 at 01:04
I have three words: Strunk and White.
I read and reread The Elements of Style at least three times a year.
December 27th, 2011 at 15:59
Yes, that’s a great recommendation.
December 30th, 2011 at 16:24
Three times a year? I should try that. I’ve started S&W several times, but never got all the way through it. SHAME on me! There’s a New Year’s Resolution. Read it at least once all the way through.
January 1st, 2012 at 17:04
Great resolution! I’m sure you’ll make it – it’s such a quick and easy read.