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Spelling and Grammar

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Dec. 1st, 2006 | 11:09 am
mood: rejuvenatedRested

Dear Dragon:

I love to tell stories, but spelling and grammar aren’t my strong points. Is it possible to become a writer without mastering the mysteries of the semicolon? Should I hire an editor? How can I work around this problem?

Stuck and Whiteout

Dear Petitioner-with-the-almost-familiar name:

Dark Muses don’t spell all that well either-although if you breathe a word of how much I rely on my spellchecker I’ll haunt your nightmares. Grammar’s a strange thing: some people seem to have a feel for it and others don’t. Studying books like The Elements of Style (You’re CERTAIN you aren’t related to Strunk and White?) can help to a degree.

Beware online spelling and grammar checkers- There not too grate at spotting sum errs. The previous sentence, for example, checks out perfectly. This doesn’t. A human with a good ear for such things is better. Capture a few for yourself.

Being a naturally selfish and greedy sort of being, I’m hesitant to pay others to work with my words. I’d rather let editors pay me. The ability to tell a story matters more than mechanical errors, as long as they aren’t drastic or frequent enough to be distracting.

If you’re fortunate enough to have any of the following, I find that the best tools for spotting common mechanical faults are friends, educated minions, or a good writer’s group.

And read! The best way to absorb that elusive feel for the written word is to devour as many words as possible.

Dear Saw,

Is it possible to become a carpenter without mastering, well, saws? Or a cook without mastering spices? Probably not.

That said, there are many fine points that even the most professional of writers might need to look up on occassion. Spelling is practice. Any Dragon in the lair can tell you, I did not used to be the Spelling Queen. I wasn't happy with this situation, but the Wizard of WordPerfect(tm) helped me greatly. You see, spell-check helps those who help themselves. Check out the sentence below:

Eye c their r sum problems with yore program.

A computer spell-check program will go right through that without stopping. But if you need to spell histocompatibility (it's a long story) a computerized spell-check can totally save the day. Assuming, of course, that you get something approximately close to the correct spelling to begin with. Now, the point is, you pay attention to the correct spellings the computer suggests, and use them. I now have coworkers call me all the time to ask how to spell things.

On the other claw, this dragon believes that computerized grammar checks are for the birds.

There are rules to good grammar, and they can be memorized. I learned them early on at dragon school. Why some people remember these rules and never forget them and others cannot is a mystery better left to the Elder Gods, who are better left in their crypts. I would recommend a good style manual, such as those who are so close to your name, or the Little, Brown Handbook. Webster's Dictionary also has some basic grammar and punctuation rules in the collegiate edition.

Under no circumstances should you pay anyone to "edit" your opus for you. If you are yourself uncertain of the rules of grammar, you have only their word for it that they have done so correctly.

Of course, if you find yourself ripped off by a professional editing service, my advice is to first contact SFWA's Writer Beware, then curse them (um, that would be the crooked editor, not the lovely folks at Writer Beware) and all their progeny unto the seventh generation.

As you know, Stuck, writers aren’t exactly paid well.

This is really a question of economy. For most short stories, the amount you will get paid for them will not cover the hiring of an editor. A novel might, but you would need to pay the editor/book doctor...before you ever had any assurance of a sale. It's a chancy investment. Remember, money is supposed to flow toward the writer.

So what are the alternatives?

1)Did you even read what the other dragons recommended? As far as grammar guides go, I'm particularly fond of The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style.

2)Find a critiquing group. Critters comes to mind, but there are others. People there will slice and dice your grammar in an effort to help you become a better writer...and you don't pay them anything save your own critiques in return. On-Line Workshops

3)Find a buddy who will do the old manuscript swap with you (preferably one who has a good grasp of grammar).

4)Study the writing of authors you like.

As a last note, you can find lots of interesting takes on writing and grammar rules in the internet. I particularly like Cherryh's Writerisms and Other Sins. Make certain you read the rule at the very bottom!

Dear Stuck:
Many new wrtieres think that whatevr you put down in on the paper is there to stay, but it aint so. Let me try that again. Create your story, work out the details of the plot, the characters and the world. Then come back and look at it with an editor's eye. Look up words you are unsure of in a dictionary. Listen to the way sentences sound. Have a friend read it over.

I would also recommend getting a book on common grammar errors and common spelling errors. Find out what catches you every time, and make a little poster of reminders next to your desk. Computer programs will catch typos most of the time, but we shouldn't rely on them totally. Also, read well and widely.

The more you read, the more you can see how other writers put sentences together, until it becomes ingrained. Or is that engrained? No.


Namaste Stuck little Lotus,

I would remember the words of my old master,

"You must NOT compare yourself to the best, grasshopper; look at where you were when you first started writing and see how far you have progressed."

The most important thing is that you are improving. Pay attention to how others use the semicolon and if you cannot master it now then don't use it. Everyone grows differently little Lotus and as long as you study and work hard, your work will blossom.


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