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.

9 Comments

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!

8 Comments

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

8 Comments

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!

27 Comments

Filed under Tips for writers

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!

 

13 Comments

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.

 

9 Comments

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.

meaning:

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!

14 Comments

Filed under Tips for writers

Quick tutorial: where does that damned apostrophe go?

iStock_000018482964XSmallA friend asked me recently to explain where the apostrophe should go in the phrase my parents house. I realised that this is something I’ve corrected many times when editing manuscripts, so it seemed a good subject for a quick tutorial. Here’s an easy way to work it out.

Ask yourself: How many parents are we talking about? If only one (singular), then the apostrophe goes after the word parent:

my parent’s house
meaning: the house of my parent

But if we’re talking about plural parents—mother and father, two mothers, two fathers, any combination of people playing parental roles!—then the apostrophe goes after the plural s:

my parents’ house
meaning: the house of my parents

In summary, to indicate possession:

add apostrophe + s to a singular term

add apostrophe only to a plural term

Where it gets complicated is when the singular term ends in s. There are acceptable variations here, and it becomes a matter of style rather than a rule. I prefer the recommendation of the Style guide for authors, editors and printers (6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, 2002), which is:

apostrophe + s (i.e. no change to the rule above for a singular term)
Dickens’s novels
meaning: the novels of Dickens
Burns’s poems
meaning: the poems of Burns
For: It’s easy to remember because it’s the same style!
Against: Some people think it looks clumsy.

Feel free to disagree! Here are a couple of alternatives.

Some guides recommend:

apostrophe only
Dickens’ novels
Burns’ poems
For: Some people think it looks neater.
Against: Why complicate things?

Others recommend different styles depending on the number of syllables in the singular term:

more than one syllable: apostrophe only
Dickens’ novels
but
one syllable: apostrophe + s
Burns’s poems
For: I can’t think of one!
Against: It looks inconsistent, and why complicate things even further?

There’s yet another variation involving pronunciation (i.e. whether you sound the s or not), but that, in my opinion, is a highly dubious way of deciding which style to use: not everyone pronounces words the same way. So let’s not even go there.

As with any point of style for which there are variations, what’s important is that you choose one (or follow the style set for you) and use it consistently.

Happy apostrophising!

11 Comments

Filed under Tips for writers

Quick tutorial: the singular subject in plural disguise

iStock_000018482964XSmallThis quick tutorial is on a point of grammar that often trips people up. But before I begin, I want to offer an observation and a disclaimer.

Over the years, some of the writers whose work I’ve edited have expressed embarrassment over their lack of grammar knowledge. But, as I always tell them, it’s probably more to do with failures of the education system than with any lack of aptitude on their part. From about the 1960s, education theorists decided that grammar—the structural basis of language—inhibited children’s creativity. It imposed on them too many rules. It was boring. It was hard. And so it was pretty much wiped from the curriculum. (You can read more here and here.)

Thankfully, grammar is making a comeback in today’s schools (more about that here)—too late, of course, for those generations who missed out.

I was lucky enough to have a mother who was ‘good at English’, and I’m so glad she instilled in me a few boring rules when I was in primary school. I want to emphasise that: I was lucky. And then, in high school, I learned more about English grammar by learning French and German than I had ever learned in an English class. Since then, my work as an editor has required the study of grammar, and frequent revision, although I don’t consider myself to be an expert—a term I reserve for the few editors I know who studied Latin and for whom the parsing of a sentence was a primary school exercise as familiar as reciting the times table.

So that’s the context for my posts on grammar. For greater authority than mine, there are any number of tomes available, though I confess to a fondness for one that is delightfully quirky and satisfyingly gothic: Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: the ultimate handbook of grammar for the innocent, the eager, and the doomed.

And so on to today’s quick tutorial: the singular subject in plural disguise.

 ~~~

Being able to identify the subject of a sentence is important, because the verb needs to agree in number with the subject—that is, a singular subject takes a singular verb; a plural subject takes a plural verb.

The girl is eating ice-cream. (singular subject = The girl; singular verb = is eating; object = ice-cream)

The girls are eating ice-cream. (plural subject = The girls; plural verb = are eating; object = ice-cream)

But the subjects above are simple subjects, and subjects are not always simple. They can come carrying baggage in the form of modifiers. Take a look at the following sentences. In each of these, the subject (including all of its modifying baggage) is highlighted in blue:

The girl wearing slippers and pyjamas is eating ice-cream.

The girl who told us about the snakes is eating ice-cream.

The girl, whose brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles, is eating ice-cream.

The girl with the friends who are helping themselves to the salad bar is eating ice-cream.

The girl wearing slippers and pyjamas, whose brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and whose friends are helping themselves to the salad bar is eating ice-cream.

The girl who has been watching her brothers scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and her friends helping themselves to the salad bar is still eating ice-cream and, frankly, is tired of it.

As you can see, these are complex subjects with many modifiers (words that tell us something about the subject), but the base element of the subject is The girl. She’s the one eating the ice-cream. She’s the singular subject taking the singular verb. In terms of the sentence, all these other words, all these other people, are subordinate to her, performing the following modifying roles:

The girl wearing slippers and pyjamas is eating ice-cream.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one wearing slippers and pyjamas

The girl who told us about the snakes is eating ice-cream.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one who told us about the snakes

The girl, whose brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles, is eating ice-cream.
gives us incidental (non-defining) information about the girl: her brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles

The girl with the friends who are helping themselves to the salad bar is eating ice-cream.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one with the friends who are helping themselves to the salad bar

The girl wearing slippers and pyjamas, whose brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and whose friends are helping themselves to the salad bar, is eating ice-cream.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one wearing slippers and pyjamas; and gives us incidental (non-defining) information about the girl: her brothers have all been scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles, and her friends are helping themselves to the salad bar

The girl who has been watching her brothers scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and her friends helping themselves to the salad bar is still eating ice-cream and, frankly, is tired of it.
defines which girl is eating the ice-cream: the one watching her brothers scoffing cheeseburgers, onion rings and potato wedges with cheese and pickles and her friends helping themselves to the salad bar

The girl is the subject of the action. Power to the girl!

29 Comments

Filed under Tips for writers

Quick tutorials: what is an en-rule?

iStock_000018482964XSmallIn this new occasional feature, Tips for writers, I’m going to be covering a range of topics drawn from my experience as a book editor and teacher.

First up is a quick tutorial on the use of a punctuation mark, the en-rule—rather a dry subject, I’m sure you’ll agree, but it’s one of those things writers often ask me to explain. So here we go…

~~~

There are four types of dash available to writers: hyphens, en-rules, em-rules and 2-em rules. Most people are familiar with hyphens; fewer with the others. Here I’m focusing on the en-rule, but first let’s see what the four look like:

–  hyphen (as in light-hearted, co-worker, south-west)

–  en-rule (as in June–July, pages 6–10, mother–child relationship, Perth–Sydney flight)

—  em-rule (as in There are two main ingredients—lemon and garlic—in that sauce.)

——  2-em rule (as in He started to shout, ‘You’re a crazy——,’ but the gunshot felled him.)

Conventional uses of the en-rule

The en-rule dash often expresses a from/to or between/and relationship, joining:

  • spans of time, distance, figures (i.e. June–July indicates from June to July; pages 6–10 indicates from page 6 to page 10)
  • two entities that retain their separateness (i.e. mother–child relationship indicates a relationship between mother and child; Perth–Sydney flight indicates a flight between Perth and Sydney)

Don’t make the common error of mixing an en-rule with one part of a from/to or between/and pair:

  • not  from June–July (should be from June to July or just July–July)
  • not between Perth–Sydney (should be between Perth and Sydney or just Perth–Sydney)

Other uses of the en-rule

The en-rule is used instead of a hyphen with prefixes when the prefix is attached to more than one word. Compare non-speaking part and non–English speaking part:

  • the hyphen is correct in non-speaking part (the prefix non is attached to one word, speaking)
  • the en-rule is correct in non–English speaking part (the prefix non is attached to two words, English and speaking)

The same reasoning applies to compound adjectives preceding a noun. Compare war-related wound and World War II–related wound:

  • the hyphen is correct in war-related wound (it’s joining war and related)
  • the en-rule is correct in World War II–related wound (it’s joining World War II and related)

New use of the en-rule

In recent years, some publishers have adopted as their house style (particularly for fiction) the used of unspaced en-rules where em-rules have traditionally been used. To use the example given earlier, instead of the conventional use of em-rules in:

  • There are two main ingredients—lemon and garlic—in that sauce.

we have:

  • There are two main ingredients – lemon and garlic – in that sauce.

This is a matter of style rather than correctness, provided it’s used consistently, athough I confess to disliking the flimsy little en-rule being roped in to do this kind of double duty. Give me a typographically muscular unspaced em-rule any day! (Honestly, it takes a nerdish soul to write that sentence.)

0701636475There are other issues involved in the use of en-rules, but this quick tutorial covers the most common and I hope some of you find it helpful. If you need more information, I always recommend the Style manual for authors, editors and printers (6th edition, John Wiley & Sons Australia, 2002), to which this quick tutorial, as well as my knowledge generally on the nuts and bolts of writing, is indebted. This edition of the Style manual might be an old source now but it’s still considered to be a standard text in the Australian publishing context, as were all the editions that came before it.

Happy writing!

17 Comments

Filed under Editing, Tips for writers