Archive for May, 2009

What do Editors Look for?

Many authors want to sell the rights to the book they’ve written to a publisher. Perhaps these authors don’t realize their writing is intellectual property and is as valuable as their homes (real property) or their cars or electronics (personal property).

Once you sell your home or your car, it’s not yours anymore to use as you please. And so it is with intellectual property that you’ve sold–it’s not yours to use any longer as you see fit.

Yet, authors persist in wanting to sell their work for a small advance (if any advance at all) against sales. If the advance isn’t paid back, that advance dollar amount (typically something under $5,000) is all  the author gets for all the work put into writing the book.

Yet, I think it’s important to help writers understand the publishing business, so here’s what editors look for.

  • How tightly is the work written? That is, are there superfluous words (example: the level of the water rose so high it flooded should be changed to the water rose to flood stage).
  • Did the writer select the best word? What makes one word better than another? Ask if the word is right for the intended audience, if the word makes the idea clear for the reader, or if the word is used often by other good writers. (Example: Facilitate could be changed to help.)
  • How long are the sentences? Shorter sentences appeal to readers. Shorten sentences by breaking a long sentence into two shorter ones, by cutting unnecessary words (or phrases), and by using appropriate punctuation.
  • Did the writer write in active voice? Since I’ve already written on this, I’ll move on except to say restrict using passive voice to those times you want to leave the subject (person taking that action) out. That’s exactly why government, business, and academia use passive voice as much as they do–no ownership regarding action taken.
  • Is the author consistent? To be inconsistent is to be sloppy–if you write judgement in one place and judgment in another, you’re showing the editor your writing is sloppy and just maybe your research follows the same pattern. If inconsistency is your curse, create a style sheet and keep it handy when you write. Note your spelling preferences. Note other things you do such as use %, instead of percent.

Now that you know what editors look for, you’re ready to edit yourself first. Happy writing!

Conversation or Dialogue?

There’s a good chance you’ll incorporate dialogue into your writing at some point. Unfortunately, writing dialogue requires good writing skill, for it is one of the most difficult challenges any writer faces. Perhaps that’s because writers don’t distinquish between conversation and dialogue.

Conversation is the way people talk (not very dramatic). Here’s an example of conversation:

“What are you doing this weekend?”

“Not much.”

Here’s an example of dialogue:

“Any great plans for the weekend?”

“Not unless you call babysitting my neighbor’s dog great.”

What’s the difference between the two examples? Conversation is boring, exchanges information. Dialogue is dramatic, leaves an opening to further the story.

So, what does it take to write good dialogue? You need

  • the voice to be specific to the character (so the reader knows who’s speaking without a tagline),
  • the setting surrounding the dialogue,
  • some tension or conflict embedded in what’s said,
  • the dialogue should further the story, so may offer some foreshadowing,
  • another tool that works in furthering the story is explanation, so the dialogue could explain something that wouldn’t otherwise be known.

Practice writing dialogue to show character traits you can’t physically describe–maybe your character is cynical or maybe your character is gullible, for example.

Make sure you have a reason for every piece of dialogue you include in your writing. If there’s no reason for the exchange between two characters, don’t write it.

At the risk of too much repetition, I’ll finish with this. If the dialogue doesn’t move the story forward, don’t include it–period. Happy writing.

Ellipsis versus Dash

Punctuation doesn’t make for scintillating conversation, but it’s hugely important for clear writing. In fact, we need punctuation to give order, direction, flow, emphasis, and even drama to our messages. Get the punctuation right, and your reader will follow you anywhere.

I first starting seeing ellipsis (. . .) used incorrectly when email became the written channel of choice. Perhaps because email is so fast, people just got into some bad habits. Too often I see email that ends with . . ., as if the message ends with the writer riding off into the sunset. . .

Ellipsis is used to alert the reader the something has been removed from quoted material or that there is more material than cited in the current writing.

Ellipsis is also used in dialogue to show the speaker has hesitated or faltered.

Perhaps authors decided to combine the two–use the dialogue ellipsis for hestitation in place of the narrative ellipsis for omission. But that’s just plain wrong.

What should you use to show pause in your narrative?

Use the em-dash (so-called because it’s the width of the letter m).  You don’t want to overuse the dash because it is startling and can lose its impact. However, it warns the reader of a change in pace or a break in thought (a pause).

Quick review: Ellipsis shows omission in narration and hesitation in dialogue. Dash shows break in narration.

I’ve seen many of the major publishing houses get this wrong and it reflects negatively on the author, the editor, and the publisher–and it’s such a simple thing, too.

Affect or Effect?

Since my previous post concerns itself with when to use that versus which, I thought I’d offer some help on the second most common mistake I see when I edit manuscripts–the improper use of affect versus effect.

Not only do these two words sound alike, they’re only one letter different in spelling. Also, many of us aren’t immersed in parts of speech (we write because we have something to say, not because we’re experts in grammar).

This should help:

Affect is almost always a verb. Remember what verbs do? They show action.

Affect means to influence.

Example: The bad economy will affect the unemployment figures for a while yet.

Effect is almost always a noun. Remember what nouns do? They name a person, place, or thing.

Effect means result.

Example: She wondered what effect the swine flu had on school attendance last month.

How will the effect of this little discussion affect your writing in the future?

That or Which?

One of the most common problems I run across when editing a manuscript is the use of that versus which. Even when authors try to look it up, often the only explanation given talks about restrictive/non-restrictive intent. And almost as often that isn’t very helpful.

The next time you’re deciding on whether to use that or which, consider the following:

That restricts meaning. Example: The house that Jack lives in. That restricts the meaning to one  house.

Which elaborates (is non-restrictive). Example: The stock market, which tends to fluctuate, was down yesterday. Which elaborates (doesn’t restrict) the meaning of the stock market, but rather offers one tendency it has.

Here’s another tip regarding non-restrictive clauses. Non-restrictive clauses are interruptive (non-essential to the sentence), thus they require commas.

If we eliminated the non-restrictive clause from the which example above, the sentence would still make sense. That’s why we use commas to set it apart from the essential words in the sentence.

That or which? That decision, which every author needs to make, should come easier now.

The Importance of Reference Books

I was first published  in the early 1970s and as much as technology has changed the writing/publishing industry, there are some things that remain constant–like having access to desk reference books such as a dictionary, thesaurus, and grammar book.

Why do you need books when you can access just about anything you want on the Internet? Convenience comes to mind. I’ve tried looking things up both ways–online and on desk–and reaching for a book while keeping your writing going on the screen can be  much quicker.

Everyone knows you need a dictionary to find out how to spell a word, but it does much more than that for you. By reading the word’s meaning, you can determine if the word you need is capital or capitol, complimentary or complementary, stationary or stationery, etc.

All good writers look for ways to express themselves without being trite or overusing favorite words. Here’s where your thesaurus can help.  I like my desk copy for quick reference, but the electronic versions are equally helpful.

Good writing requires good grammar. I’m amazed at how many authors approach Expert Publishing and they obviously haven’t taken any time to show they understand grammar or punctuation.  I don’t understand how people can think they’re writers, yet they don’t know how to work with their primary tools of words and punctuation–the two things that make writing clear and understandable. If your grammar is rusty, get a grammar reference book, get familiar with grammar basics, and keep it handy for reference.

While I agree that looking things up online works well, I also encourage you to keep hard copy reference books close to where you write. Sometimes they’re a better, quicker choice and you get back to your writing, which is what you really want to do anyway!

Spelling Rules!

We’ve gotten a bit lazy when it comes to learning how to spell words. And why wouldn’t we? We’ve got spell checkers to do the job for us.


Your spell checker can’t determine whether you want two, to, too, or they’re, there, their. You need a set of human eyes to determine such things.

I know, I know. Spelling is boring. But it’s a primary tool writers use to express themselves so their readers can understand what’s written. If you misspell colander and calendar, your message changes. Or if you get imminent and eminent mixed up, you’re writing about a different problem.

Of course, some words just trip us up individually. I always want to put a second s in occasion, for example.

Figure out which words give you the most trouble from a spelling perspective, then create an alphatbetical list of those words and keep the list handy when you write. You’ll spend less time looking up words and more time writing!