In my last entry, “Overcome Fear of Writing Even Though You Can’t Spell,” I told you to not let your weakness in mechanics, grammar, and spelling (MGS) stop you from writing your next bestseller. In this entry, I give you a brief cheat sheet to help you avoid common writing errors.
How many of them do you make?
Brief Cheat Sheet
Separating two sentences with a comma instead of proper end punctuation: “It rained all day, I stayed inside.”
The same as comma splices except that when the first sentence ends you go straight to the second with no end punctuation at all: “It rained all day I stayed inside.”
Subject-predicate and antecedent-pronoun disagreement
Historically a problem because the English language had no recognized third-person singular neuter version of “they.” In March 2017, Associated Press editors announced that their stylebook would be “opening the door” to use of the singular “they” explaining that’s how people speak anyway and there’s no alternative. Sue Katz, author of Lillian in Love, celebrates its acceptance: “We feminist writers have been pushing for this for decades but it is now established use.”
Not necessarily an error, just weak writing. Example: “There were a lot of clouds in the sky” instead of “Clouds filled the sky.” Avoid sentences beginning with any variation of “There is/are.”
If you aren’t sure how a word should be spelled, do an Internet search on the way you think it should be spelled and see how many times it comes up. If an alternate spelling has more search results than your spelling, your spelling is probably wrong. Note also that the first entry on the first page is often a formal definition of the correctly spelled word. Finally, if you type a word and a squiggly line appears below it, check to see if you spelled it wrong. That method isn’t airtight but it works often enough to keep an eye on.
Spell-Check won’t catch these common mistakes:
- a/an (it’s “a honest” mistake)
- foreword/forward (please, fellow authors, get this one right)
Used by academics when they can’t think of anything else to say to make readers think they know so much more.
When did the plural of book become book’s?
Avoid them like the plague.
Cheat Sheet Bonus Hints
Remember, this is your book. You have the details in your head but your readers can only read what’s on the pages. You have to include enough specific details so they know what you’re talking about.
Hint #1: Every time you introduce a new character, include a short descriptive phrase:
- Lou Winter, the president of the local teachers’ union
- Mary Katz, professor of business management
Be specific, not general; be concrete, not abstract.
For instance, you’re telling a story about a surfer and it’s 90 degrees out so you write, “It was a nice day.” I picture zero degrees and white mountains because I’m a skier. You didn’t communicate.
Hint #2: Avoid “nice.”
Interpret this sentence: “The thing was uncomfortable wearing a thing around his thing.” What I meant was: “The boy was uncomfortable wearing a tie around his neck.” Is that what you guessed? If not, I didn’t communicate.
Hint #3: Avoid “thing” (advanced writers also avoid “something,” “nothing,” “anything,” and any other “thing” permutations).
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This piece was adapted from Ken Wachsberger’s You’ve Got the Time: How to Write and Publish That Book in You. Ken’s other books may be found here and here. For book coaching and editing help, email Ken at [email protected].