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.
September 14th, 2011 at 21:21
That “could of” one is not something I have had a problem with but it leaps out and bites me when I see it in a piece of prose. It is absolutely true that you think you know grammar until you start trying to write for other people’s approval especially if it’s a long time since your school days. Still it keeps the little grey cells wibbling and wobbling doesn’t it?
September 14th, 2011 at 21:37
Hi Diane, thanks for your comment. I agree that it takes a different type of thinking to write for others’ approval, when you proofread and correct. And, I think there are more mistakes these days because people are relaxed about grammar – which is partly due to text speak, emails etc…
I’m no pedant, language always evolves, so what is ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ now will possibly be standard someday. However, those darned slushpile readers are just looking for an excuse to cut their stack of manuscripts down and what a pity it would be to fall at that hurdle. So, yeah, that proofread is crucial.
September 14th, 2011 at 22:10
I confess… grammary posts make me happy. I like to style myself a grammar and spelling expert, but as I grow older, I realize I’m not as great as I think I am. The more I (re)learn, the better!
I’m curious — I went to Alibris to find the book you recommended, and found he’s written MANY books on grammar. Are you speaking of the one that is called simply “Grammar in Use” or one of the others?
Thanks again for the tips!
September 14th, 2011 at 22:38
Hi Heather, thanks for your comment. I’m glad grammar makes someone happy. Sorry, I ought to have clarified which book in the post. Yes, Raymond Murphy is a bit of a grammar guru but the book I’m referring to is his original text and it is called ‘Grammar in Use’. There is an elementary version (red) and an intermediate version (navy blue). For native speakers of English, I’d recommend the navy blue one. If English is your second language or you feel you have a lot to learn grammatically, you might start off with the red one.
September 14th, 2011 at 22:53
September 15th, 2011 at 02:44
My issue is “brought” or “take.” I grew up hearing proper grammar but never actually learned it so in my world punctuation is the bane of my existence.
September 15th, 2011 at 03:58
In this age of grammar-free tweeting and texting, you offered simple, sound, and timeless advice in this post. You should republish it for your readers at least once a year! 🙂
September 15th, 2011 at 07:46
Thank you, Jacqui!
September 15th, 2011 at 09:06
It may be a hurting one to write and post, but for so many it is a necessary one. I oftentimes shudder when I see what people dare to put down in writing…
September 15th, 2011 at 09:36
Grammary post! Yay! (Even though ‘Word’ hates both ‘grammary’ & ‘yay!’)
My best friend is a professional proofreader. (She is not allowed to leave the country – or even the village, frankly…) Her skill is grammar & although she feeds back on some editorial points, essentially she sticks to what she does best.
I love her more than words!
September 15th, 2011 at 17:18
Keep that friend close! Lucky you.
September 15th, 2011 at 17:26
Oh, and you’ve reminded me, I ought to say (to anyone reading) that writers can pay to have their work proofread by a professional such as your friend. It’s not cheap but if you can’t proofread yourself or know anyone who will do it for you, then it may be the way to go.
September 15th, 2011 at 12:50
Thanks for the very useful post! I consider myself a pedant when it comes to grammar (and that’s a mark of pride, for me), but things often slip through… much to my frustration and embarassment when I re-read it later! I find that a common mistake of mine is to re-draft a paragraph to modify the tense, but upon re-reading find that I’ve only changed a fraction of the necessary words!
Of all the words used incorrectly as interchangeable terms, I think ‘less’ versus ‘fewer’ gets under my skin most frequently.
September 15th, 2011 at 14:43
Excellent post! I always have to force myself to leave a story alone for a good week before tackling grammar edits. Even still, I’ll re-read a story about a month later to double check. Great post.
There are also resources online, this one, http://www.englishclub.com/grammar/parts-of-speech_quiz.htm, has interactive quizzes.
September 15th, 2011 at 17:26
Great post! Hope your having a wonderful day!
September 16th, 2011 at 12:11
You forgot my least favorite, midwestern laziness: I seen the dog.
And yes, I have seen it make its way on to the written page.
September 19th, 2011 at 12:09
I love it! Someone else who thinks grammar is a tad important for writers. A writing forum on LinkedIn to which I belong is full of grammatical errors in members’ submissions. Would we want our mechanics to be casual about fixing our car? I think not. We writers should, therefore, be attentive to using the language correctly.
September 19th, 2011 at 17:22
Yes, I think a lot of writers don’t realize that bad grammar and punctuation just looks unprofessional. We need that polish.