Good Writing is Invisible


Continuing my series on the Twelve Rules of Writing, here is rule 2: ~

2. Spelling and grammer are what copy editors are for.

Clearly, as a creative person, you do not want to be burdened with the task of spelling things correctly or constructing sentences that are grammatically correct.  This is, after all, what copy editors are for and you will be depriving them of their livelihood if you do their job for them.

Did you spot the deliberate mistake?  This is one of my blind-spots – I consistently type grammar with an ‘e’ when I know it’s spelled with two ‘a’s. It’s the sort of thing that I rely upon copy editors to spot for me because I just don’t see it for myself. That’s what copy editors do – except it isn’t. They will do it, but only when you don’t.

What your copy editor is really there for is to sense-check what’s been submitted, enforce a consistent style, and make sure there are no unexpected surprises in the text. For instance, did your character wake up with blue eyes and now they’re brown? Has your character been drinking from the same wine-glass for five hours without ever filling it? Are names consistently used throughout the text – is it Catherine or Katherine? These are the sort of things that trip writers up, and copy editors are there to make sure you don’t fall on your face.

So what about spelling and grammar (see, I caught it that time)?  Well, curiously enough, that’s your job. You’re the writer and words are supposed to be your thing. More importantly words are meaning, and so is punctuation. Take the following passage: ~

he slaked his thirst taking long gulps form the glass realizing that no matter how much he drank he would never loose his thirst again: the eternal thirst

Starting a sentence with a capital letter and ending with a full stop (a period in the USA) is not optional. These, like commas, are clues that allow the reader to break sentences into digestible pieces. Learn where to use a semi-colon, a dash and a colon. You may think that this advice is obvious, but ask any agent or editor and they will tell you that there are those who believe they are unnecessary.

A spell checker is not a cure-all. The word form instead of from, and loose instead of lose, would not be picked up by a spell check. They are valid words, they’re just not the right words in that context.  Is it realizing or realising?

Is it single quotes around speech or double? Do you put one space after a full stop or two?  Is full-on hyphenated? These are things that may be adjusted by a copy editor to conform with house style, but if you don’t use them correctly in the first place then it makes the job of preserving your meaning that much harder.

Readers like to be drawn into a story. You know you’re winning when people can’t remember reading the words, they just remember what happened. Good writing is invisible, but spelling mistakes, poor grammar and bad sentence construction will have your readers puzzling out what you mean, and at that point they’ve left the story and are focused on the text – exactly what you don’t want.

In the next post in this series I’ll talk about meaning and how you select the words you need. Have your thesaurus at the ready.

  1. #1 by Skylar Kade on November 24, 2010 - 3:47 pm

    Mike, THANK YOU for posting this. I’m a huge proponent of writers being responsible for their grammar, mechanics, usage, and syntax, though this point of view is not always shared by my fellow authors. I look forward to future posts in this series!

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