Good morning, my dears. For those who haven’t read the last post, let me introduce myself. My name is Edith, although my former students call me Miss Edith. Since Keli’s taking a break from blogging for a few days, she’s allowed me to take her place.
I’m a retired English teacher who taught many wonderful people over the years, including a number who went on to publish articles as well as books. I’m particularly fond of romance novels, having enjoyed stacks of them in my day, and am here to pass on some tips I hope will be of use to you.
Now that we have the introduction out of the way, let me get to the good stuff. No, not my editing tips, although I find them quite interesting. I’m talking about the treats. It’s expected to reach 99º here in California today, so I did my baking early and whipped up a coffee cake. My recipe calls for Bisquick and oatmeal with a tasty topping of oats, brown sugar, butter and cinnamon. Between the coffee cake and the freshly brewed coffee, the house smells wonderful. So, help yourself to both. I’ve got real cream and sugar on the sideboard if you use them.
You may wonder why Keli invited a snowy-headed antique like me to talk to you about editing. She didn’t. I invited myself. The reason is that although I’ve celebrated more birthdays than I care to remember, editing is in my blood. My students used to joke and say it’s in my name too.
In my book, editing is no joke. Turning in a clean manuscript makes a difference. Some of my students have submitted their work and been told by editors and agents that the manuscripts were the cleanest they’d ever seen.
Getting published is tough. I didn’t mollycoddle my pupils. I prepared them for the lumps and bumps they were bound to take, but I also did my utmost to help them maximize their chances of receiving a contract. I’m here to do the same for you. And lest you think I’ve lost my touch, rest assured that’s not the case. I still assist some talented authors to this day.
Enough chitchat. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get down to business. Today, I’m going to share six more of my secrets for setting yourself apart.
1) Using Contractions
If you listen to someone speak, one thing you’re likely to hear is the use of contractions. (We use them often, especially here in California where we talk fast and clip our word endings. My dear mother was sure I’d end up losing my Southern accent when my dearly departed Horace moved me here from Texas all those years ago. I did to a certain extent, but my students loved to point out the times when my drawl revealed itself.)
Since writers are to show, not tell, I’ll demonstrate the difference using contractions makes. Read the following sentences aloud. The speaker is a supportive young woman talking to her girlfriend.
“Allie, I do not think Jake is interested in you. I know you like him, but he does not even know you exist. There is not anything wrong with you. He is just blind, if you ask me.”
What did you think? People, especially young people don’t talk like that. The speaker comes across sounding stilted or pretentious. Compare that sentence to the one below, which I’d like you to read out loud.
“Allie, I don’t think Jake’s interested in you. I know you like him, but he doesn’t even know you exist. There isn’t anything wrong with you. He’s just blind, if you ask me.”
Did you hear the difference? I thought so. The second example more closely approximates natural speech.
2) Punctuating Compound Sentences
Read the following sentence and tell me what’s missing? And, no, you don’t need to raise your hand. Just say it.
Brianna gazed at her blank computer screen with a helpless shrug but Tyler brought it back to life with the push of a button somewhere on the back.
That’s a compound sentence. It’s made of two separate independent clauses (sentences) joined by a conjunction. You knew that, right? Of course, you did. But what you might not remember is your friendly English teacher (yes, most of us are friendly and mean you no harm) telling you the rule about compound sentences. In most cases, they require a comma after the final word in the first sentence just before the conjunction, like this:
Brianna gazed at her blank computer screen with a helpless shrug, but Tyler brought it back to life with the push of a button somewhere on the back.
Many students leave out the comma in compound sentences. Now, there are rare occasions when it’s become acceptable to do so. If both clauses are short and are closely related in meaning, the comma could be omitted. Here’ s an example:
The 49ers won the game and everyone cheered.
However, if a sentence is long and the two halves aren’t closely related, my advice is to insert the comma and prove you didn’t doze through English class.
3) Punctuation with Introductory Elements
So, are you enjoying the lesson so far? Come now, I saw those eyes roll. Indeed, the same thing used to happen in my classes. Really, these details do make a difference.
Let’s look at the previous paragraph. Each of the sentences begins with an introductory element. What do they have in common? Yes. Each introductory word or phrase is followed by a comma, just as it should be. Why are such details important? Using correct English shows you have a good command of language, which impresses editors. With publishing houses suffering staff reductions, a clean manuscript means less work for overburdened editors as well as the limited number of copy editors at their houses.
4) Avoid -ing Verbs
I once had a student raise her hand and ask in a wavering voice, “How would I write without using verbs?” I didn’t laugh, but I did have to feign a cough. I hadn’t meant to confuse the poor dear. I was quick to reassure Cassie that verbs are a writer’s best friend. Strong, active verbs, that is.
One way to weaken your writing is to sprinkle it with verbs in their past continuous form. I heard those groans, but don’t fret. I’ll explain.
Past continuous is the use of a form of the verb be followed by a past participle. Clear as molasses, I know. But, give an old lady a chance. I’m haven’t quite finished. Was and were are the forms of be I’m talking about. You’re familiar with them, I know. A past participle is a verb in its ongoing form. Just as ongoing ends in -ing, so does a past participle. Think of running or choking. Now let’s look at sentences using them.
Steve was running to catch the bus.
Rachael was choking on her tea.
If a student turned in an assignment with either of those sentences, I’d have wielded my blue pencil. Why? I had many say, “Because was is a passive verb.” I’d then provide them with a quick review of passive voice, which I’ll do for you as well.
Passive means the subject is being acted upon rather than doing the acting. Compare the following sentences:
The ball was thrown threw the window.
Dan chucked the ball through the window.
In the first sentence, the subject, the ball, is not taking the action. An unnamed person is. In the second sentence, we learn that Dan is the one who threw the ball. The first sentence is passive; the second is active because the subject, Dan, took the action.
Now, I’ll return to the discussion of -ing verbs with Steve and Rachael. In both sentences was is used, but those aren’t passive sentences. The subjects in the sentences did the running and choking. I would have circled the was + -ing verbs to remind my students to use simple past tense because that form makes stronger writing. The following sentences read more quickly and carry more punch than the earlier ones.
Steve ran to catch the bus.
Rachael choked on her tea.
Have you fallen asleep? I hope not. I’ve done my best to keep you from nodding off. Why do you think I offered coffee when you arrived? There are only two more tips today, and I’ll be brief.
5) Using Dialogue Tags
When I first began teaching, characters responded, replied or exclaimed. Some were even more melodramatic. They hissed, shrieked or bubbled. Those posing a question implored, inquired or queried.
Today, writers are instructed to keep to the basic tags, said or asked. Emotion is shown through the use of the dialogue itself as well as action beats instead of using tags to tell the reader what’s happening.
One final comment on tags, and I’ll move on. Said or asked follows the speaker’s name or pronoun replacing it:
“I’m going,” Jim said.
“Where?” Tess asked.
This convention is explained well in a book I recommend to all writers, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. They point out that putting said or asked first would sound odd if we were to replace the names with the pronouns:
“I’m going,” said he.
“Where?” asked she.
That’s all I want to say on tags today. One last tip, and you’re free to go. I wasn’t one to keep my students after the bell, unless they wanted to pepper me with questions on their own time.
6) Avoiding Unnecessary Directional Adverbs/Prepositions
I’m not going to address the reasons to avoid -ly adverbs today. Instead, my focus is on words indicating direction that aren’t necessary. Here are some examples.
Bob knelt down to tie his shoe.
Kristi lay down on her bed.
The nurse checked in on the patient.
In the first two examples, the word down is redundant. Bob couldn’t kneel up to tie his shoe, and Kristy wouldn’t lay up on her bed. In the third example, the word in isn’t needed. Removing extraneous words tightens one’s writing.
Well, my dears, that’s more than enough for one day. You’ve been quite patient. I didn’t notice a single yawn. Either what I shared was helpful, or you’re too polite to complain. Bless you.
If you have any questions for me, leave a comment. I’ll pop in from time to time to reply.
And since the bikini bag doesn’t interest a relic like me, I’ve added a drawing prize of my own.
Leave a Comment for Three Chances to Win
Miss Edith’s Drawing
My drawing will take place July 22nd.
The winner will receive a copy of Merriam Webster’s Guide to Punctuation and Style, a handy reference to keep in your writing area.
To enter the drawing, just leave a comment on this blog post by July 22nd and enter your email address when prompted. (Keli doesn’t share your information or add it to any mailing lists.) On July 23rd, I’ll post the winner’s name right here.
Keli’s Regular Drawing
My next drawing will take place July 20th.
The winner will receive a vinyl lined bikini bag, which is just the thing to toss in your tote for a trip to the pool, beach or seaside resort.
To enter the drawing, just leave a comment on any blog post by July 20th and enter your email address when prompted. (I don’t share your information or add it to any mailing lists.) On July 21st, I’ll post the winner’s name in the Welcome post at the top of the blog.
You could also win a First Sale Scrapbook!
If you’d like to have a chance at winning a First Sale Scrapbook created by me, your blog hostess Keli Gwyn, leave a comment on any post between now and July 31st. Be sure to include your name and email address when prompted if you want to be entered in the drawing. (Your information will not be shared.) Click red link above to see samples of covers and pages.
On August 1st, I will choose one person who will have her/his choice of several covers on an 8×8 inch, twenty-page scrapbook in which s/he can document that long-awaited first sale. The pages will cover various milestones including The Call, signing the contract, receiving the first advance payment and holding your debut novel in your hands.
(No scrapbooking skills required. You just add your photos and journaling.)