Silly Goofs You Can Avoid for a More Professional Book or Blog Post
by Laura Orsini
I don’t usually teach writing. Ask any of the members of the Phoenix Publishing & Book Promotion Meetup. We talk very little about writing during our meetings because writing training is available in lots of other places. We focus on the publishing and marketing aspects of getting a book into the hands of readers. Nevertheless, my work does involve a great deal of reading and editing.
As the moderator and editor of this blog, I see all of the posts as they come in. The writing, for the most part, is quite good. Talented authors with a gift for painting word pictures, conveying important ideas, and teaching little and big things that go into writing and publishing success. That said, most make at least a few common mistakes which I work to clean up. Some – like the two spaces after a period – are style preferences I correct for the sake of consistency. Others are silly goofs, typos, errors made in haste.
Here are some points that may help you clean up your own writing before presenting it to an agent, publisher, or even sending it off to your own editor. These are in no real order – just a list I’ve been keeping as I’ve noticed these mistakes/inconsistencies.
Use only 1 space after a period. In the days of typewriters, every letter took up the same amount of space. An l took up the same space as a w, so the extra space between sentences was necessary to indicate the end of a sentence for the reader. In modern typography, letters take up only their actual width, so the shape of a word contributes a great deal to its readability. I never took a formal typing class, so I’ll admit that this was not an enormous adjustment for me to make, but it’s the first thing I correct on every document I receive from another writer.
Put your titles in italics. Since we don’t have to use typewriters anymore, and virtually every font in which we publish text has an italics option, we should get used to italicizing titles instead of using quotation marks or just capitalizing them.
Don’t capitalize articles and prepositions in titles. Following the previous point, I use a hybrid personal style guide, so in titles I use lowercase for articles (a, an, the), the word “to” in virtually all instances, and prepositions 4 letters long or shorter (in, up, with, etc.). This is the AP way. The Chicago Manual would have you lowercase ALL prepositions, regardless of length, but it skews my aesthetic preference to see “because” or “throughout” in lowercase. Find your own preference and be consistent about it.
Put the punctuation inside the quotation marks. I grew up doing it this way, so it feels very natural to me – so much so that seeing a period on the other side of a closed quotation mark makes me a little edgy. The Brits do it the opposite, though, so if that bears on your training, you might feel differently. However, correct American punctuation puts the period, comma, question mark, exclamation points inside the quotation marks. There are odd exceptions – and you should look them up. “But please stop making me move the commas to the inside of your quotations,” she said.
Use apostrophes correctly. This, admittedly, is one of my BIGGEST pet peeves. The good news is that I don’t see it very often in the writing from our blog authors, but when I do, it makes me want to scream and gnash my teeth. I got so frustrated at one point that I did an ENTIRE post about it for my own blog. In a nutshell: an “s” with NO apostrophe at the end of the word makes the word plural. An “s” with an apostrophe makes a possessive. This is one of the most basic rules of grammar, and it confounds me how/why so many people get it wrong.
Omit www in web addresses. This is more of a style thing than a matter of right or wrong, but anymore, we can recognize a web address when we see the .com, .org, .info, .net, etc. at the end of a string of text with a bunch of words smushed together. Of course, there are new ones springing up every day. Today I learned about .rocks – kind of cool, though, eh? So maybe you want to include the www in front of that till people become aware of it. But .com? We get it. No need to include the www.
Use bullets or numbered lists. This is particularly true for blog posts and short pieces of writing. You can definitely overdo lists in a book! The point is that we always want to make comprehension and retention as easy as possible for the reader. So if you’ve got a list that lends itself to a numbered or bulleted format, use that instead of a string of commas. Remember that a numbered list means the items are in a particular order for a reason. A bulleted list is in no particular order. Remember also that the items on the list should agree (all verbs, all nouns, all full sentences, etc.)
Spell it out instead of using abbreviations. I think texting has made us a bit lazy and, as a result, sloppy. In formal writing (which I consider posts for this blog), it’s important to spell out all the words instead of using abbreviations like AZ., Jan., and ye old ampersand (&). Additionally, two-letter state abbreviations should be reserved for use in a full address only. Otherwise, if you’re going to abbreviate a state name, use the longer versions (e.g., Ariz. for Arizona).
Use dashes and ellipses appropriately. Here’s one instance where I actually make a distinction in my personal writing vs. formal writing. It’s a lazy – and incorrect – use of ellipses (…) to indicate a pause. Yet we’ve become accustomed to using them that way. Technically, an ellipsis indicates missing words, typically in a quotation. A pause should be created with a comma; a longer pause should be created with an em dash. Before we go there, though, let’s look at the three dash-y symbols:
Another pet peeve of mine is the use of a double-dash (- -) to indicate a longer dash. This, like two spaces after a period and quotation marks around titles, was OK before we had word processors. Today, there’s no excuse for it. Now I’m not a fan of the old em dash. It’s long, and used the way all the grammar gurus teach, has no spaces on either side. Like this—butted up next to the words on either side. I hate the way that looks – and prefer to use an en dash to give the text some breathing room. This is my personal preference. Here’s a great post from the Chicago Manual website, if you want the lowdown on the precise and correct use of all three of these dash-y symbols.
Use ALL CAPS very sparingly. This is another preference. Given the easy access word processors provide us to italics, bold, and even underlined text, we have much less need to use all-caps for emphasis. You may have heard, particularly in reference to email, that writing in all caps feels as though you’re being shouted at. Well, it’s true in blog posts and book manuscripts, too. Unless there’s a very well defined reason, find another way to emphasize. Given that we’ve also become accustomed to underlining indicating a text link, I tend to avoid that one unless it is a link to a website. One thing you should never do is use bold, italics, and underline all at once.
Avoid overusing there is/there are configurations. I see this one in virtually every post. It’s not grammatically incorrect – it’s just wordy. And a post containing lots of these can get cluttered in a hurry.
Example: There are plenty of best-selling authors who don’t have agents.
Improvement: Plenty of best-selling authors don’t have agents.
Use a variety of paragraph lengths. This, too, is a preference and probably the reason I am not a Hemingway fan. Virtually all of his paragraphs are one or two lines, at most. This is necessary when you’re writing a string of dialogue. But otherwise, group your sentences together to make fully formed paragraphs. One complete thought = one paragraph. Too many long paragraphs can give the reader the opportunity to get bored, but too many short ones can make for annoying reading.
Use that and who appropriately. I’m starting to really notice this one all over the place. This is simply a matter of making the pronoun agree with its antecedent.
well disciplined authors WHO practice their craft
the car THAT was totaled in the accident
Authors are people – so they take “who” as the pronoun. The car is a thing – so it takes “that” as the pronoun. Pretty simple stuff: getting it right will make you look sharp, while getting it wrong will make you look sloppy.
Use semicolons and colons appropriately. I recently completed editing on a book that was incredibly clean and needed very little correction – with one major exception: it was rife with semicolons where commas should have been used, unnecessary colons, and missing or overused commas.
Simply, commas are used to create pauses in sentences or to separate brief items in a series.
Semicolons are used in two ways:
- to connect clauses to form a sentence without the use of and/but/or (e.g., I went to the doctor; he told me I am in perfect health.)
- to connect a series of long phrases in a sentence when commas could cause confusion (e.g., The invitation list included a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and his beautiful young wife; three Russian inventors credited with finding a cure for a rare disease; and my next-door neighbor, Joe, and his grandson, Stephen.
A colon is used to introduce something: an essential point in a sentence or a series.
Certainly this is an incomplete list. These are just the most common issues I see when editing posts for this blog. I’m not a grammar Nazi. I don’t go out of my way to correct people’s writing or speaking, write scathing comments about bad grammar on other blogs, or even notify our bloggers here when I see mistakes. For the sake of efficiency, I simply fix them and move on. Perhaps these tips will be useful to you in your own writing. Anyway, that’s the goal.
LAURA ORSINI is a self-publishing consultant who works with authors who want to change the world. From concept to publication to the first-time author’s book launch, her expertise will help you make a better book and find more readers. Laura is the organizer of the Phoenix Publishing and Book Promotion Meetup and the host and creator of the Holiday Author Event. She will be exploring more about the power of the group in her coming posts for this group blog. In the meantime, read her posts at Marcie Brock – Book Marketing Maven. Friend her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, and check out her pins on Pinterest.