Category Archives: Tips for writers

Quick tutorial: the semicolon

iStock_000018482964XSmallIt’s been a while since I posted a quick tutorial, but I was asked recently to explain when and how to use a semicolon. Some writers hate this innocuous little slip of a thing, mostly because they’re not sure what to do with it. Others seem to like the idea of it but use it indiscriminately, hoping they’ll get it right.

Here’s a quick and easy guide.

Holding things together

The semicolon can be used to join two parts of a sentence that are closely linked in meaning and are independent clauses.

For example:

Charlene ate all the chocolates; she should have felt guilty.

Charlene ate all the chocolates and she should have felt guilty are linked in meaning and are independent clauses—that is, each could stand as a separate sentence:

Charlene ate all the chocolates. She should have felt guilty.

Whether you join them with a semicolon or cast them as two separate sentences is a matter of choice and nuance. Joining them perhaps confers a greater sense of judgment on the greedy Charlene!

Note that independent clauses can also be linked with a coordinating conjunction—for example:

Charlene ate all the chocolates and she should have felt guilty.

Charlene at all the chocolates so she should have felt guilty.

Each of these also gives a different nuance to the sentence.

But a comma should not be used to join two independent clauses. The following example, known as a ‘comma splice’, is incorrect:*

Charlene ate all the chocolates, she should have felt guilty.

Pushing things apart

The semicolon can also be used to separate items in a narrative list that contain internal commas.

Take, for example, this list of items:

  • three bags of coconut rough, one weighing 600 grams and the others, 400 grams
  • six bars of dark chocolate, two of them 85% cocoa
  • a silver-embossed, ribbon-tied foil carton of truffles

If this list were to be used in narrative in the usual way—that is, by separating each item with a comma—the sentence would look clumsy and be confusing to read, so semicolons are used instead of commas between the items:

That greedy Charlene ate three bags of coconut rough, one weighing 600 grams and the others, 400 grams; six bars of dark chocolate, two of them 85% cocoa; and a silver-embossed, ribbon-tied foil carton of truffles.

(OK, I confess: Charlene is me.)

I hope that helps!

*This ‘rule’ is often intentionally broken for creative purposes—for example, for rhythm, or to achieve a particular effect.


Filed under Editing, Tips for writers, Writing

Research: 8 tips

iStock_000018482964XSmallResearch is an inspiring, challenging, time-consuming, frustrating, exhilarating part of the process of writing a book. I know that some writers find it a chore, but for me it’s where ideas grow, and I am very much at home in libraries and archives or in front of my own laptop, exploring, speculating, following threads. The hardest part for me is to stop, as there is always another thread…

Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

1. Begin with a plan—all the things you know you want to cover. But that’s only the start: you don’t yet know all the things you will want to know. And the more you know, the richer your work will be. Be flexible; refine your research plan as you go.

2. Keep a record of your sources: full referencing details, page numbers, links, dates of interviews and conversations. It will save you hours later.

3. Follow tangents: they are often where the magic lies.

4. Photograph everything, even when you’re transcribing or taking exhaustive notes. Photographs add another dimension, and can also serve as a backup.

5. Take your own pulse along the way: whatever makes your heart race is gold.

6. The net is a constantly changing beast. Repeating a search six months after your first might reveal new information. (Something I learned, to my joy, in researching Kathleen O’Connor of Paris.)

7. Organise your research materials. It doesn’t matter whether you use manila folders and boxes, digital files or software programs: you just need to be able to easily retrieve information later.

8. Know these truths: the research will always take longer than you think; it will never be enough; and yes, at some point, you will have to draw a line, and stop.

One more thing: I’ve heard it said that allowing yourself to be ‘distracted’ from the main topic you’re researching is self-indulgent and a waste of valuable time. But it was through reading widely while researching The Sinkings that I happened on something that turned out to be one of the inspirations for Elemental. I like to think that, when it comes to research, nothing is wasted.

Good luck with yours!


Filed under research, Tips for writers

Creating a sense of place

I was recently invited to contribute a piece to the Scottish Book Trust’s ‘Five Things’ blog. The Scottish Book Trust is a fabulous organisation that promotes reading and writing as having the power to change lives—and that’s my kind of ‘mission statement’!

My piece is on creating a sense of place in fiction, and you can read it here.


scottish book trust


Filed under Elemental, Tips for writers

Working with an editor: 12 tips

iStock_000018482964XSmallWriters who are new to the editing process (and even some who are not so new) sometimes feel apprehensive about working with an editor. Here are a few tips that might help.

1 Don’t be defensive; approach the process with an open mind

2 Do remember that the editor’s role is to help you bring the manuscript to its full potential. The editor is on your side, and if it sometimes feels like that isn’t the case, remember that the editor is also the reader’s advocate

3 Don’t dismiss the editor’s questions without really thinking about them—let them sit in your mind for a while, take a walk around them to see what might be on the other side. If you’re unsure why the editor is asking a question or what it means, ask

4 Don’t feel you have to accept every suggestion the editor might make just to make them happy. This is a relationship of mutual respect and cooperation; it’s about getting the best result. It’s not about power and it’s not about keeping the peace

5 Make yourself familiar with the publisher’s house style and don’t berate the copyeditor for changing your double quotation marks to singles, or your -ize spellings to -ise—or, worse, undo all of those changes in the edited manuscript. If keeping double quotation marks or -ize spellings feels like an issue of life-or-death for you, discuss this with the editor and publisher before the editing process begins

6 Don’t format your manuscript with fancy headers and footers, headings, columns

7 Don’t ever submit a manuscript that contains text boxes

8 Don’t use the space bar to attempt to align lists or indent paragraphs (use tabs or indents)

9 Do hand over a style sheet, if you have one

10 Do hand over a chronology, if you have one (please have one!)

11 Do hand over any other relevant guide documents, e.g. genealogy, physical descriptions of characters, mud map

12 Do tell the editor if you’re computer-challenged and you’re unfamiliar with onscreen editing using Track Changes

I hope your experience of the editing process is as rewarding as those I’ve had—both as a writer and as an editor. Good luck!


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Submitting a manuscript: 10 tips

iStock_000018482964XSmallAt the beginning of a new year, writers have often been working hard on a manuscript and are trying to summon up the courage it takes to submit it to an agent or publisher. Here are 10 tips for those who are new to this stage of the journey to publication.


1. Don’t send your manuscript to a publisher who doesn’t publish in your genre. It sounds obvious, but publishers report that it happens all the time. Do your homework first. Take note of who publishes the books in your genre that you read, and research those publishers. Look for information in the newsletter or on the website of your state writers centre or other writers centres you belong to. Read the websites of publishers; if you’re still not sure, email a polite enquiry. Commercial marketplace guides, online or print, are also available (e.g. Australian Writers Marketplace).

2. Adhere to submission guidelines (e.g. what publishers or agents want to see, how much, what other information they want, whether to submit in hard copy or email, whether they use online submission processes).

3. Use double spacing, with wide margins left and right. Don’t use fancy typefaces and elaborate formatting. If you’re sending a hard-copy submission, don’t bind your manuscript in folders or files.

4. Don’t arrive at a publisher’s or agent’s office in person, expecting to discuss your manuscript.

5. Don’t follow up with phone calls and emails; if you haven’t heard back after two months, enquire but don’t make weekly contact.

6. Do avail yourself of the new submission processes that several publishers have put in place for unsolicited manuscripts (e.g. Allen & Unwin’s Friday Pitch, Penguin’s Monthly Catch, Hachette Australia). Follow the guidelines carefully. Receipt of your submission will be acknowledged. If they are interested in you and the preliminary sample you supply, they will ask for more. Take note of what they say about response times (e.g. some advise that if you haven’t heard back from them within a specified period, you should assume they are not interested).

7. Don’t submit your manuscript to a publisher or agent that states that it doesn’t accept unsolicited submissions—unless you’re prepared for it to go into the black hole of the slush pile.

8. Make your manuscript the best it can possibly be before submitting it. Revise and redraft it yourself, many times. Seek help from writing buddies/writing groups. Consider getting a manuscript assessment. If you can afford professional editing or proofreading help, consider that.

9. Be professional in your communications with publishers. And be brief. Don’t hold back on telling them anything that might make you stand out in a crowd—awards you’ve won, or that you have a blog with 900,000 followers, or any ‘marketable’ facts about you or your work (e.g. you recently won Master Chef; your novel is based on your experiences as a retired ASIO spy; your manuscript has been endorsed by Greenpeace and the National Heart Foundation). But don’t exaggerate, don’t make outrageous assertions (this novel is the best thing you’ll ever read in your life!), don’t send them a six-page letter about your aspirations as a writer, and don’t send false or dubious endorsements from others.

10. Proofread your covering letter and proposal several times. This is your first chance to make an impression. Don’t compromise that opportunity by sending out a document littered with typos or grammatical errors.

Happy New Year, and good luck with your submissions in 2016!



Filed under Tips for writers

Quick tutorial: it’s worth its weight in gold

iStock_000018482964XSmallFirst of all, apologies for the title of this post: I’m not trying to make extravagant claims for a very modest quick tutorial. But it does illustrate the point.

A friend who is a retired university professor tells the story that he used to begin each unit with a short lesson on the difference between its and it’s. He’d warn his students to listen carefully because every time they made an its/it’s error in their assignments, he would be deducting a 1% penalty mark. He swears it made a difference—but also said there were always students who had to pay his rather high price.

If you have difficulty with this one, here’s a recap, with a couple of easy guidelines:

its is a possessive, the neutral equivalent of his or her.

If you can’t replace its with his or her (leaving the gender issue aside!), you probably mean it’s.

Mary is publishing her novel. Wally is publishing his memoir. The company is publishing its annual report.


it’s is a contraction meaning it is or it has.

If you can’t replace it’s with it is or it has, you probably mean its.

It’s not unusual. [It is not unusual.]

It’s always been this way. [It has always been this way.]

So, to return to that clichéd title with the grandiose claim:

It’s worth its weight in gold means It is worth the weight of it in gold—but you knew that, didn’t you?

Give it a try next time you’re proofreading. And let’s all be thankful that editors don’t apply penalties.



Filed under Tips for writers

Another quick tutorial on apostrophes…

iStock_000018482964XSmallThis especially quick tutorial is to clarify a single apostrophe usage that often confuses writers.

In manuscripts—and even in print—I frequently see the following:

Let’s go to the Molloy’s house.

Grammatically, this means:

Let’s go to the house of the Molloy.

Now, perhaps there is a big burly guy out there who is referred to as ‘the Molloy’, as in ‘Give that burrito to the Molloy before he chews someone’s arm.’ In that case, the above would be correct. But what the writer usually means is:

Let’s go to the Molloys’ house.


Let’s go to the house of the Molloys. [a couple, or a family, or the three banjo-playing Molloy sisters]

If, on the other hand, the writer is referring to a particular Molloy:

Let’s go to the house of Molloy. [e.g. Joe Molloy]

then it would be:

Let’s go to Molloy’s house. [singular Molloy; no definite article]

Again, it comes down to singular versus plural: one Molloy or a bunch of them!


Filed under Tips for writers