A common gripe about self-published authors is that their work is riddled with errors. Great beta readers, ARC contributors and a professional editor can aid in ensuring that your masterpiece is practically perfect in every way. But, most of us know Betas and ARC readers can flake out and not all of us can afford a professional editor, especially if you’re just starting out.
Everyone knows you’re supposed to run spell check, but less obvious grammar faux pas can derail the success of your book. Below are ten tips to help you avoid the wrath of the grammar police.
- Johnny Go Lately (Subject-Verb Agreement)
Back to freshman English: Subject-verb agreement is the agreement in person, number, and tense between the subject and verb of a sentence.
Example: “You’re a wizard, Harry” uses correct subject-verb agreement in the subject. “You” agrees in person, number and tense with the verb “are” (both words are squished into a contraction but you get my drift)
It’s common for non-native English speakers to get tripped up and drop the S when using a third person singular.
Example: In 1987’s Good Morning, Vietnam during the penultimate scene between Adrian Cronauer and his Vietnamese friend who had betrayed him, Tuan says, “My brother is dead. And my other brother, who be 29 years old, he dead! Shot by Americans! My neighbor, dead! His wife, dead. WHY? Because we’re not human to them!
However native English speakers often make these mistakes in more complicated sentence structures.
Joining one or more subjects creates a compound subject which can be tricky if you’re not paying close enough attention.
Example: “Castle or hut, either was fine with Harry as long as they were safe and together.”
The compound subject “Castle or hut” and the main verb “was” are separated by the plural word “either” which might seem like the subject but it’s actually a conjunction, joining the subject with the verb. The subjects “Castle” and “Hut” are singular, so we should use the singular verb tense.
Another common confusing instance is when using collective nouns. Phrases such as the Weasley Family, the Golden Trio and Hogwart’s Staff use singular nouns to refer to a group of people. In this case, each collective noun is considered singular.
Example: Family is the most important thing to Mrs. Weasley, as everyone in the order would come to know.
- Oxen and Boxen (Plural Endings)
English is just a mean, mean language, folks. Oh, to make something plural you just add an -s.
Except if the word already ends in -s than you add an –es
Unless it ends in an –x you add an –en
Or sometimes, and no one really knows why, the singular and plural forms of nouns are the same. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
One of my favorite comedians, Brian Regan, did a great sketch about this and since I just banged on your brain a little too hard with all that subject-verb stuff how about we take a break and watch a funny-haha?
- Eats, Shoots and Leaving (Problems in Parallel Structure)
When an editor offers a Line Edit option, where they literally go through your entire manuscript line by line, as one of their services, problems in parallel structure are likely 90% of what they are looking for.
Sentences with parallel structure flow much better than ones that don’t. Ever feel like your writing is a little clunky and just doesn’t resonate well. You might be having a structural issue.
Example: “It took them no time to find the little group of people around Katie, who was still writhing and screaming on the ground; Ron, Hermione, and Leanne were all trying to quiet her.”
The above sentence is written in passive voice. Notice that all the gerunds (verbs masquerading as nouns) end in –ing. If we were to change one of those to active voice the sentence would lose its flow. See the following:
Clunky: It took them no time to find the little group of people around Katie, who was still writhing while she screamed on the ground; Ron, Hermione, and Leanne all tried to quiet her.
Yuck, right? Mixing active and passive voice is only one way to muck up your parallel structure. Being conscious of how you are structuring your sentences, and striving for grammatical balance, can be the secret weapon your manuscript needs to go from good to great.
- STOP YELLING (Misused Styles)
Ha ha you thought I was gonna talk about boring, old commas and apostrophes didn’t you? The best resource for that kind of thing is Strunk and White’s, The Elements of Style. I have a copy on my desk and refer to it often.
Nope, I’m talking about the visual styles of text formatting. Because English cannot easily change around its word-order to convey new meanings or emphasize certain words or phrases, writers often use all-caps or italics to indicate a change in tone. Which one to use in any given sentence is more a stylistic preference than a grammar rule.
Excessive use of capitals, WRITING IN ALL CAPS, is generally associated with shouting whereas the use of italics can vary. It has replaced underlined text for proper nouns like titles, names of boats, stores, etc. and can also be used to convey a heated discussion, whether a character is yelling or not.
Whichever you decide to use, consistency is key. If you establish that your work uses all-caps to convey a raised voice, occasionally using italics for the same purpose can confuse the reader and muck up your scene.
- Rebel without a Clue (Breaking the Rules)
Artist, Pablo Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Writers are famous for breaking the rules to push the boundaries of their work and the craft. We make up words when we find all the real ones to be unsuitable and tinker with basic grammar principles like capitalization and spelling to bring a unique life to our stories.
It’s important that we do not break grammar and structure rules out of ignorance. Writers should have a good reason to throw the rule book out the window and “I didn’t know,” is not one of them.
- Alexa, Tell Me a Story (Read Aloud)
Okay, confession time, I love reading aloud. I read to my cats all the time. They are generally ambivalent but I’m enjoying myself so who cares.
Reading your work aloud is a great way to spot typos and awkward sentence structures. Because your brain must slow down to get all the words out of your mouth, it forces you not to skim and instead actually process what you are reading.
If you’re not someone who is in love with the sound of your own voice using a text to voice app can get the job done as well. Just don’t let your mind wander, and if it does consider a re-write of that section.
- Know your Weaknesses (Target Own Errors)
Knowing where you struggle in your writing is very important in strengthening it. Personally, I am shit with clauses and commas and I’m adverb-happy, especially the word “slightly.” My main character squinted his eyes slightly. A side character leaned over slightly.I use it to suggest subtle movements or changes because – I dunno – I guess I have commitment issues.
Being able to pin-point your own errors can make the editing process go by much faster. For instance, I do a search for all the “slightly-s” in my manuscript and tinker with the sentences to better convey what my characters or doing or I decide to get rid of it all together. Some writers kill their darlings; I kill my slightly-s.
- #YNAFB (Your Need a Fucking Beta) (get someone else to read your work)
One of my indie author friends coined the hashtag #YNAFB because many of the ARCs she was receiving, as well as self-published works she was purchasing, were riddled with errors. Stupid things like the character took off his shoes earlier in a scene and at the end stormed out the door…in his socks I guess because he never put his shoes back on.
Having a second set of eyes to catch little (or big) continuity issues is integral to editing your work. Beta readers can also tell you if something isn’t working, you misspelled “villain” again and the entire chapter about the dog was completely unnecessary. Don’t wait until you’re sending out ARCs to get initial feedback on your work. Those readers are going to be writing reviews and nothing hurts worse than seeing “I just couldn’t get in to this story because this bitch referred to Diagon Alley as Diagon Ally for three chapters and my head was going to explode if I continued on.”
- You Deserve a Break (Let the writing “rest”)
I believe this is one of the most crucial pieces of advice in writing. Rereading your manuscript over and over deadens the part of your brain that catches errors and you’re more likely to miss crucial problems in your plot if you can recite your copy word for word.
While writing Lumen Cove I am forcing myself not to reread what I’ve already written so that when I finish, no particular chapter or scene will be overly familiar. Added bonus: it forces me to write till the end of a scene or chapter because I’m not allowed to re-read in order to figure out where I left off. Win/Win.
- Wedding Bells for Obama and Castro (Oxford Comma)
You might remember an incident several years back where a 24-Hour British news network embarrassed itself with a news alert that ended up going viral.
This is a pretty good example of why the Oxford Comma—a popular name the serial comma that separates the final two items in a list—should be used when listing three or more items in a sentence merely on humiliation avoidance alone.
While SkyNews only came out of this instance red faced because everyone knows that Barack wouldn’t live much longer after trying to leave Michelle (#QUEEN), the use of the Oxford comma In more subtle sentences can help avoid confusion in your writing.
Example: “Kelsey found herself in the principal’s office with Mr. Danvers, a police officer and the school guidance councilor.”
While my main character, English teacher Alex Danvers, has many talents he is not in fact a policeman or a guidance councilor. But how would you, who had just picked up Lumen Cove, know that without the use of an oxford comma? Because you are all smart people it wouldn’t take you long, but that kind of unnecessary confusion disrupts the flow of your scene and takes your reader out of the story.
Have you been tripped up by any of these errors? What is your biggest stumbling block when writing? Comment below of @ me on twitter, @dianneinwriting