English is a strange language, no doubt, and it continues to evolve. But sometimes, people forget that even with all its irregularities and rule-defying spellings, on a sentence level, English still makes sense.
What does that mean? Well, when someone uses a figure of speech or a common saying, the sentence should still make sense. But people make mistakes with these sayings fairly often, especially when they've never seen them written down.
You can usually avoid this common pitfall in your writing if you stop and ask yourself: does this saying make sense?
Here are some examples of common mistakes we see:
WRONG: a Chester drawers
RIGHT: a chest of drawers
(While the usage of chest here as a piece of furniture, like a toy box, is a bit old-fashioned, a "Chester drawers" makes no sense.)
WRONG: I would of come
RIGHT: I would have come
("Of" may be how many people pronounce this, but it doesn't make sense if we stop and think about it, right? And perfect past-tense verbs take had/have as helper verbs.)
WRONG: I could care less
RIGHT: I couldn't care less
(This one I have to stop and think about every time, because it's so commonly misused. If I could care less about something, then that logically means I DO care about it. If it doesn't matter to me, then I could not care any less about it than I currently do.)
WRONG: I defiantly agree
RIGHT: I definitely agree
(Defiance generally indicates opposition to something, so while I can agree with someone and have an attitude about it, I can't really defy them while still agreeing with them.)
WRONG: Peek/Peak my interest
RIGHT: Pique my interest
(This is a vocab mistake we see fairly often. Pique just isn't used often enough in English, outside of this particular phrase, for it to be familiar. But if we think about it, neither "peek" nor "peak" make sense. Sneaky look my interest? High point (of something) my interest? Both choices are plainly nonsense.)
There are many more examples we could go over, but let's cover solutions to this particular editing problem instead.
Step one is to think it through and see if the phrase or figure of speech makes sense.
Step two, if the phrase doesn't seem to make sense the way you've written it, is to look it up. Ask a friend, ask an editor or writer you know, throw it out on social media as a question (because chances are if you're making one of these mistakes, other people are too--it's pretty common, and nothing to be that embarrassed about). Or check it out on your search engine of choice. Googling "sayings people get wrong" brought me up pages of results with lists of all the sayings people tend to misspell.
Number one piece of advice, for this and any other editing problem? Never be afraid to ask for help. We've all been there.
One of the biggest differences between what I thought writing would be like and the reality of what an author's life is like is editing. In high school, English teachers teach minimal revision skills. And with the amount of information they're trying to pack in to limited class time and disinterested students, they're hardly to blame.
The point is, most students (in America, at least) come out of school not understanding how to approach intensive revisions. If you'd asked me ten to fifteen years ago what editing meant, I'd have said copy-editing and a quick check for continuity errors, that sort of thing.
Pause for laughter.
In case you're an editing innocent like I once was, here are some steps you can take in your editing process once you have a completed draft. You don't have to do all of these, or even in this order.
1. Outline your plot as it currently stands. Then compare it to a beat sheet, and plan how to adjust any pacing issues.
2. Write a one-sentence summary of each chapter/scene. Look at pacing, and how each scene furthers the plot. Is anything unnecessary? Does anything need filling out?
3. Examine the main character's emotional arc. What challenges do they face throughout the novel? Do they experience growth? A flat internal arc means readers may have a hard time investing in that character.
4. Find your novel's theme. What's at the heart of the story, and is it clear enough on the page?
5. Read over the draft, making notes on changes to be made. Don't do anything other than minor copy-edits at this stage, because it's a waste of time. If you're going to rewrite massive chunks--and there's a good chance you are--there's no point in perfecting sentences on this read through.
6. Start looking for critique partners. Once you have a draft you're comfortable with, and you feel you've done all the big revisions you know you need to, CPs can help you figure out what to do next. Build friendships and goodwill be being a reciprocal critique partner. Plus, it will help you flex your own revision muscles.
7. Let the manuscript sit for a week or two before diving back in. Coming at it with a fresh eye helps you see problems you might not catch otherwise.
8. If it helps you get your creative process flowing or to pin down themes, characters, or moods, make aesthetics or playlists, etc. Some people find them useful. Some don't.
9. Fill out character profiles to discover what's hiding under the surface of your main cast. When you know more about who your characters are, it comes across on the page.
10. Think about the setting. Is it important? Is it realistic? Do you know enough about the world you're writing? If you need to do some world-building, in between drafts is a good time to do it. Making up major aspects of how your world works can cause inconsistencies, and readers will notice.
11. Research appropriate final word count ranges. A draft doesn't have to be in the right range, but it's good to know if you need to cut or add to get to your target before you write fifty-thousand extra words and then realize you have to cut sixty-thousand.
12. Research and read about comp titles. You may not want to actually read comp titles as you're working, because it can be intimidating. Or worse, it can influence your own work and land you in copyright trouble. But if you don't have comps in mind already, you can still research online to find books that sound similar in theme, tone, plot, etc.
13. Keep reading in your genre. It's fun, and it's good research for what audiences expect from your type of story.
14. Make sure to keep your creative batteries charged.
15. If you want a boost of energy, researching agents and manuscript wishlists can help. Finding an agent who is asking for your story is a great kick in the pants to keep you going, even when revisions get tough. Plus, making a to-query list early on in the process gives you time to research potential matches and hopefully avoid pitfalls. Never send materials to someone you haven't vetted.
If you have revision process suggestions, let us know in the comments below!
One of the most common questions we get about showing after "how can I improve my Showing vs. Telling techniques" is "how can I figure out when to Show and when to Tell?"
Remember, not everything needs to be shown in a narrative. Showing creates an emotional response in the reader. Sometimes, though, it's better for the pacing to tell an event briefly instead of showing it in full detail. Here's a tip to help you decide whether showing or telling is what a situation calls for.
Showing is best used when you want to evoke feelings in the reader. Telling is best used when something doesn't need to create that emotional connection.
So what does that look like in a manuscript? Let's take weather as an example. Imagine it's important for the reader to know that it's raining, because it affects the characters' choices. Does the storm need to be shown or told? It depends. Does the storm have an emotional significance to the characters? Then use some telling. Is it simply a small element of the plot, without any deeper meaning? Then it can be told.
The choice whether to show or to tell is two-fold. It affects both the emotional response in the reader and the pacing of the story. Too much showing can actually drag the pacing down too much. Too much telling speeds the pace, but it also makes the story feel shallower. Finding the balance between the two is important for crafting a story with good pacing and compelling characters.
Today's editing tip was inspired by my personal editing work. I always have to double-check mentally whenever I mention "breathing" in a manuscript. And while my characters don't let out breaths they didn't know they were holding any more, they still have to breathe sometimes.
So how can you remember the difference between breath (short E sound) and breathe (long E sound)?
We have two handy mnemonic devices for you!
Tip #1: Lack of breath can lead to death. Breath and death rhyme, and they're spelled the same way. It's not the cheeriest mnemonic, but it works.
Tip #2: Breathe, with the long EE sound, is the one with more E's.
Now take in a deep breath, let it out, and enjoy your editing! For more hints and tips, you can browse our archives on the sidebar, or read tips sorted by category. -->
And you can always use the Contact Us form with suggestions or questions.
Adverbs. Possibly the most maligned part of speech.
Stephen King famously said, "I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs." But why does everyone hate them so much?
Because most adverbs are unnecessary. They're sentence clutter, and usually indicate places where the writing could be stronger.
Now, before we dive into the mechanics, I'd like to clarify: like most other writing "rules," this isn't an absolute. You're still allowed to use adverbs. Just use them sparingly. In fact, in the King quote linked above, he used eight adverbs in discussing why adverbs are so bad (not counting the ones he used as examples).
Why are adverbs often a sign of weak writing? Take a look at these examples:
#1: "Coffee, black," he said brusquely.
#2: The child skipped happily around the playground.
#3: She quickly ran from her car to the building.
#1. This isn't bad, but it could be better. Instead of using a boring verb plus an adverb, I could pick a better verb:
"Coffee, black," he snapped.
Or I could use an action to show the man's mood:
"Coffee, black." He rapped his knuckles on the counter while the waitress fumbled to make the right change.
"Keep the pennies, just get my drink already!"
This second method results in more words, but it works to create a mini-scene. Depending on how much weight you want to give to an event, you can spend less time on it (with stronger verbs) or more time (with actions and showing).
#2. Part of the problem with this one is that "happily" is, presumably, redundant. "Skipping" implies a happy mood, unless the scene has demonstrated otherwise. So this adverb can be cut out altogether:
The child skipped around the playground.
Or I could add body language or some other type of showing to demonstrate the mood instead:
The child skipped around the playground. A grin spread over his face as he skipped faster and faster, the wind rushing past him like he might fly away in between a step and a hop.
#3: This is another redundant adverb. Running is already quick. Again, this passage would be stronger either by removing the adverb or by showing why she's running:
She ran from her car to the building, holding an old grocery bag over her head to keep off as much of the rain as possible.
So when you're editing and looking for adverbs, think about if the adverb is necessary. Is it adding any new information to the sentence/scene? Does that information change how the reader views the scene? If it new and important, would the sentence be stronger by choosing a different verb or by using showing techniques instead?
Today's tip is a twofer: a tip that helps you, and helps other writers at the same time. What could be better than that?
Take time to thoughtfully review other authors' books.
Reviewing other authors' books is helpful, because more ratings mean books appear higher in search engines and bookseller rankings. Readers are more willing to take a chance on a new book or a new author when that book has a decent number of reviews. As a writer, you'll want people to leave reviews of your own books someday, so it's good karma to help other authors out by reviewing their books.
But how does reviewing other people's books help YOU, as an author?
1. It can help you build your own following, which will hopefully help you create sales of your own someday.
2. It can help you build a broader network of fellow writers. Building goodwill in the community and engaging meaningfully with other authors makes it easier for you to find help when you need it. Critique partners, beta readers, listening ears, friendly advice, shoulders to cry on, sounding boards for that weird idea you thought up at 3 A.M. that you're not sure about...other writers are great resources for all these things. Make friends and build your network!
3. The biggest reason of all. Reviewing books thoughtfully helps you become more aware of what works and what doesn't. A while back I posted about why it's important to read in your genre; reviewing is just as helpful.
When you finish reading a new book, there are layers to your response. Did you like it or hate it, or just muddle through? How many stars would you give it? That part is simple. That's based off a gut response to how the book made you feel. (And leaving star-only reviews is still helpful, so if you don't have time to take it a step further, don't feel bad!)
To look deeper, you have to ask questions: Why did I like the book? Did I like the plot, the characters, the romance, the suspense? Did I like the magic system? Did it make me laugh? Did I enjoy the plot twists? Did I appreciate the setting or time period?
Once you've pinned down what you liked or disliked about a novel, you can take it one step further. If you liked the characters, why? What made them compelling or relatable? Find specific passages or plot arcs that illustrate that. If you liked the author's way with words, look for passages that stood out and analyze them. Anything you thought was well done can be broken down into a miniature lesson on how to improve that aspect of your own work. And if you run across a book you don't enjoy, ask the same questions and figure out how you can avoid any mistakes the author might have made.
Do you have favorite books or authors you've learned a lot from? Share in the comments, so everyone else can enjoy them too!
This is one of those spelling errors that I know everyone has seen. I see it at least once a week. And like many common mistakes, this one is rooted in the fact that so many English words sound similar, and are spelled similarly as well.
So how can you remember the difference between then and than?
THEN, like WHEN, is a time word.
In other words, then will always give information about when something happened. Then is used to describe the order of a sequence of two or more events:
First he ate breakfast, then he brushed his teeth.
She clicked the key fob, then opened the car door.
You put your right foot in, then you put your right foot out; you put your right foot in again, then you shake it all about.
If I eat the entire batch of cookies, then I would have a stomach ache. (This last one sometimes trips people up, because it's cause and effect: If/then. But think of it as two events in time that are linked. First comes the cause, then the effect.)
So what is than used for, you ask?
THAN is a comparison word.
For example, it can describe the difference between two nouns, between different statuses, or between different time periods:
She can read faster than he can.
This flower is prettier than that one.
The restaurant looks different than it used to.
And just to show how complicated things can get:
He smells better than he did (comparison) back then (time sequence), before he showered.
Hopefully you know more now than you did at the start of this post! Happy editing!
All right, it's time for another quick run down of two similar English words that we see writers mix up from time to time: invoke and evoke. Not only do these two words sound alike, but they also have similar meanings. English is fun, right?
To invoke something or someone is to call upon it/them, usually for some sort of aid or presence. Occasionally, invoke is also used in legal situations: to invoke the law. If you've attended a religious ceremony, you may have heard prayers called an "invocation."
He invoked the law against jay-walking.
The Pastafarian invoked the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
The desperate writer invoked the Muse Erato, which was an unfortunate choice since she wanted to write Middle Grade novels.
To evoke something, on the other hand, usually refers to less tangible things. You can evoke a mood or a memory; you can also evoke a reaction, like laughter or protests, from an audience; you can even evoke a spirit by summoning. (I'll admit that last one was a usage I don't think I've seen before.)
The smell of cinnamon evoked a memory of winter and warm cookies.
The comedian evoked a chorus of boos from the crowd.
The child evoked the spirit of the house's past owner. His success evoked a wave of terror through the neighborhood. His mother then invoked the family's patron saint.
To sum up: Calling on a specific person or force or law? Typically INVOKING.
Calling up something intangible? Typically EVOKING.
Hopefully our posts evoke in you a renewed desire to keep on writing and editing!
Today, for a slight change of pace, let's address a common question about querying:
How do you address an agent in your query letter?
Here are a couples guidelines to keep in mind:
1. Remember, a query is a business proposal, not an email to a buddy. You don't have to be overly formal, but you definitely don't want to be super casual either.
2. Always, ALWAYS address the agent by name. The only exception to this is when you're querying an agency as a whole, and not a specific agent. Very few places ask you to do this nowadays, though.
3. For the love of all you personally hold dear, triple check the spelling of the agent's name. And check to make sure that your query is addressed to the right person--not, for example, the last agent you queried. Cutting and pasting can be dangerous!
Now, the harder question, because this is more a matter of personal taste:
What name should you use when addressing an agent?
First off, "Dear Agent" is the wrong answer, unless it's a general agency query as specified above. When you query an agent with "Dear Agent," it can give the impression you have no idea who this agent is and what they represent. It looks like you're mass-querying blindly. Using an agent's name shows you've put in a minimum of effort, and that's appreciated.
Second, whether you should address an agent by their first name or their last name is often a matter of personal taste, but most agents agree that they don't like being addressed by first and last name. For example, "Dear Jane Doe" is NOT a good choice. It's overly formal, and it's just not how we address letters in English.
So how do you choose whether to use first or last name? There seems to be a shift in recent years toward agents asking to be addressed by their first name. This is to querying author's benefits, because then you don't have to worry about choosing the wrong title (meaning Mr, Ms, Mrs, or Mx). How a person likes to be identified may not be easy to find online. And misgendering an agent or mistaking their marital status isn't the best way to get off on the right foot with a potential agent. So first names are often the safest bet.
Now, if your research shows that you're addressing an older agent who's been around for a long time, and they seem fond of formality online, then you could consider addressing them by Mr./Mrs. AgentLastNameHere instead.
But here's the secret: If an agent is going to turn down your query simply because you addressed them as "Dear John," instead of "Dear Mr. Doe," then maybe that agent isn't the best for you.
Because an author-agent relationship is a partnership. You don't have to be best friends, but you do need to treat each other with respect and feel like you're on equal footing. Someone who's so far above you that they reject your query for a small error--and something like their preferred form of address, which you couldn't have known about--is not likely to make a good partner.
So shake off the querying anxiety, double check how you've addressed your queries, and send them off into the great unknown! Good luck, my writer friends.
Apostrophes seem to be tripping everybody up lately. And it doesn't help that auto-correct tends to put them in the wrong place at least half the time. So let's talk about one we're seeing misused fairly often lately:
Whose vs Who's
Whose is ALWAYS possessive. It's always talking about who something belongs to.
Whose shoes are those?
Whose book is that?
Do you know whose laptop this is?
Who's is another way of writing who is or who was. Remember that in a contraction, an apostrophe always replaces at least one letter. (And apostrophes are only used to indicate possession with nouns, never with personal pronouns like its, hers, whose.)
Who's going to the baseball game?
Do you know who's driving tonight?
Can I ask who's read Rebecca's book?
In all these cases, you can look at those apostrophes and see that they are replacing missing letters. Who IS going, who IS driving, and who HAS read.
Remember, unless you're using an apostrophe with a noun to show possession, it stands in for a letter. So if you're unsure whether you need who's or whose, just stop and ask yourself:
Does this sentence make sense with WHO IS/WHO HAS? If the answer is yes, then you need an apostrophe to cover for those missing letters.
And then double-check that your spellchecker or auto-correct didn't change your contractions behind your back!
Every Wednesday and Saturday we bring you an edit tip of the day. Be sure to check out the archives for our popular summer series of SHOW DON'T TELL workshops!