Writing is a form of communication. With all the text abbreviations, emoji’s, gifs, lack of grammar taught in schools, and a general decrease in people reading, seeing the written language is not as common as it used to be. Improper grammar and punctuation contribute to the degradation of the language, as well as confusion in meaning. If a book is full of typos, punctuation, and grammar mistakes, odds are it won’t sell well, and it will teach the readers incorrect grammar and punctuation. And as much of the meaning of the story will be lost in poor sentence structure and flow, it may even turn people off reading. It’s like a chair made with faulty glue. Sit in it, and it falls apart.
I read many Kindle books, and always start with the free sample chapters. Many of the indie books aren’t edited, because editors can be expensive. As a result, some are so full of typos¸ punctuation errors¸ and misused words that I can’t continue, and delete the sample. Ideally, a story should be professionally edited. But there are ways to improve your story that don’t cost anything.
If you can’t afford an editor, the first step in your process should be to run your story by as many beta readers as possible and consider their feedback carefully. A beta reader is a person who reads a work before it’s published, to mark errors and suggest improvements, typically without receiving payment. There are different kinds of beta readers; subject matter experts, people who look for character development, people who enjoy reading, etc. You can find beta readers among your friends, on social media, at your local library, or book clubs and writing groups.
The second step could be to find an editing buddy. This isn’t always possible, so it’s important to study your craft seriously, to maximize the quality of your work.
Recently an author’s rep DM’d me on twitter and offered me a free copy of their book in exchange for a review. Before accepting, I downloaded sample chapters of the book and was dismayed at how unclear and convoluted the writing was. I checked the reviews, of which there were many, mostly good, and saw only one that mentioned this lack of clarity. This could be due to no beta readers, beta readers who gushed over the work, or poor editing. Or perhaps the author wouldn’t take constructive criticism. There was a typo in the first paragraph, and in the first five pages many formatting gaps, extra words that should have been deleted, and words missing. So I suspect there was no proofreading either. And possibly it hadn’t been edited after all. I declined the offer.
Reviews on your own work will require Marketing, which is a topic for another day.
Study your craft
Learn your punctuation and grammar, google spelling you’re not sure of, listen to and act on your beta readers’ feedback, and above all proofread your work numerous times. When you’ve done the last proofread, wait a week and then do it again. Of course, there are exceptions. Some poorly written books do very well, but it’s like winning the lottery. Better to stack your odds by writing well. Your reputation and brand as a writer depend on it, especially for the first book, as shoddy writing can derail a career.
Read your story out loud. Often when I’m finished with a story, it doesn’t seem quite right, but I can’t tell what’s wrong. Then I remember to read it out loud. It’s amazing how this helps you identify stiff dialogue.
“Please hold still while I brush your hair, Melissa. Yes, Melissa, I know that it hurts you. It is a tangled mess.” Vs. “Hold still, Sweetheart, and I’ll brush your hair as gently as I can.”
Awkward sentences are sentences where the phrases are out of order. e.g. Often when I’m finished with a story, I can’t tell what’s wrong, but it doesn’t seem quite right. Not only is that sentence awkward, but the most important word, wrong, is in the middle. The most important word is the essence of the sentence. Putting it at the end emphasizes it, and it sticks in the reader’s mind. Sentences don’t always end easily with the most important word. Sometimes a writer will leave it, but when it’s required, will sometimes restructure a sentence so that the most important word is at the end.
I often try the phrases of a sentence in different orders to find the most effective one. That sentence took me five tries to write.
Who to write for yourself
Not everyone will get your work, and that’s alright. Some will. Trends are fleeting. What’s popular today will be cliché by the time you finish your book. Start your own trend.
We absorb the craft by reading. Read everything. Work that has been professionally edited will show you how to write, work that has not will show you how not to write. Learning grammar and punctuation will help you know the difference.
Practice proper grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure until it becomes a habit. I recommend starting with your second draft. This will save a lot of time in editing, and make it easier on your beta readers.
Don’t trust Spellcheck. It’s wrong half the time and doesn’t even know the difference between its (possessive), and it’s (contraction of it is.) And I is not possessive. I’m seeing and hearing this more and more. There is no such word as I’s.
No> This is I’s pet peeve.
Yes> This is my pet peeve.
No> Harry’s and I’s wedding went off without a hitch.
Yes> Harry’s and my wedding went off without a hitch.
No> Tiffany’s and I’s vacation was ruined by a hurricane.
Yes> Tiffany’s and my vacation was ruined by a hurricane.
“But,” a small voice from the audience pipes up, “I can’t afford or understand those complicated books on grammar and punctuation.”
I try to see the speaker, but offstage is only darkness. “Many people have trouble punctuating dialogue,” I reply. “But you can download a kindle sample of one of Jim Butcher’s or Stephen King’s books, and study how they do it, and it won’t cost you a cent.” Or, you could check out books on writing at your local library. Your librarian would be overjoyed to see you.
Do research your stories. Details enrich a story, and research can also give you ideas that will improve the rest of your story. For my own, I’ve researched Far Eastern religions, dates of inventions, and watched YouTube videos. When writing a piece about a ship, I was lucky enough to speak to a real sailor. He told me that when he’s reading, he wants to feel the ocean spray on his face. Details give verisimilitude, the appearance of being true or real. So if you know anyone who has experience with the nitty gritty of your story, talk to them!
Structure your sentences, so the action is written in chronological order. This helps the story flow easily. This applies to sentence structure, not timelines, which can be every which way.
The following aren’t great examples, but they’ll give you the idea.
No > He saw the shooter, before ducking the bullet.
(Verb tenses are important here as ducking is present tense, therefore the action is ongoing. In the next example, ducked is past tense, the action occurs, and is over; the same way it happens in real life.)
Yes > He saw the shooter and ducked the bullet.
No > He sipped his coffee, before looking at his watch, which showed 9:00 a.m.
Yes >He checked his watch, which showed 9:00 a.m., and then sipped his coffee.
(Even time is tricky. I had to google how to write it. Three times!)
Beware the word before!
Do not wallow in your world. I was reading a sample of a thriller with a fascinating premise. But even after two chapters, the author hadn’t gotten to any action; they kept going on and on about the Main Character’s (MC) history, and intricate details of the law, and police procedure. Worse, the MC was doing nothing but complain. Even though I really wanted to find out what happened, I couldn’t take anymore and deleted it. Such information should be given in the body of the story, as it’s needed.
When introducing a new thing or idea that is not widely known, and has a specific name, include a description. I once used the word pseudopod in a story. I wasn’t trying to show off my vocabulary or impress anyone with big words—something you should always ask yourself when tempted to use a fifty cent word—it was the exact word I needed, and I thought everyone knew what a pseudopod was. Turns out, they don’t. So I had to write it as; No yellow pseudopod snaked out to wrap itself around his throat …
For a story to be realistic, a character’s actions must be justified, even if only in the character’s mind. E.g., if a person is killing, they must have a reason. If the reason is evident—if they’re killing zombies, or the enemy, or animals for food—there’s no need to explain. But if the story hinges on the killing, e.g. the MC is killing people with the generalized explanation that it’s because they’re causing trouble, and the trouble isn’t evident, the writer must give their reasons. If a scout ship lands on a new planet and one of the crew starts popping off the native creatures because they’re stirring up trouble, but no trouble is evident or explained, then you must give the crew member’s motivation for doing it. E.g.. they’re (non-gender pronoun) crazy, they’re testing their weapons, they like to kill things, they perceive the creatures as a threat to humans.
Finally, enjoy your work, and be patient.
Lord of the Rings took Tolkien twelve years to write.
Louise Sorensen has been taking writing courses, and workshops with a retired Literature and Theatre professor, for twenty years. Her short stories have been published in anthologies, Just a Minor Malfunction Magazine, and Cirsova Magazine. Duel Visions, a SciFi, Fantasy, Horror Anthology she co-wrote with author Misha Burnett, was published February 14, 2019, and is available on Amazon.
You can find her on Twitter as @louise3anne
Word Crafting is a blog to help writers strive for excellence. If you would like to be a guest blogger, pitch me an idea.