Saturday, February 2, 2008

How to get more obsessive about mechanics... and I don't mean the guys down at the local garage--

Alicia said:

As I said, I think I'm preaching to the choir here-- you all care about your presentation! However, on the off chance that the two writers Theresa encountered at that conference are reading, well, here goes:

If you have been of the mind that your terrific story trumps your mechanical insufficiency, and now, after reading my last post, you're rethinking that nonchalance, read on. Here are some tips on improving your mechanics:

a. Remember that a good craftsperson takes good care of the tools. It's odd to hear some writers talk as if language is the enemy of story, when language is the tool that helps to achieve story. Word choice, punctuation, grammar—these are all elements of your voice, and thus worth polishing. This is also a good reason not to just subcontract the editing and proofreading tasks before you submit. Not only do you want everything you publish in any format to reflect your best effort, you should also want to learn how to use the language conventions to expand the potential of your story. Voice, narrative approach, grammar, and even punctuation can all be manipulated for effect, if you know your craft and know your story. For example, let's say you want to make sentences read faster or slower. Well, if you know how to use punctuation conventionally, you can then experiment with the unconventional, like leaving off commas to create a flowing effect for a love scene, or using short sentences or fragments to add a staccato feel to an angry introspective passage. But keep in mind, if you never punctuate conventionally, the effect of deliberately unconventional punctuation will be minimized.

b. So rather than rail at editors (and teachers) who might appear "obsessed" with the mechanics (a student called me that last semester, and I replied, "Yeah, well, this obsessive controls the gradebook"), try to attain that obsession yourself. No, you don't want to obsess about every word you write, anymore than a baseball batter wants to obsess about every pitch. But the way to feel calm is to integrate the mechanics into your very being—that is, know them well enough that you don't have to think about punctuation and spelling as you write, because you're automatically (usually) going to make the right decisions.

c. But if you're thinking, "Good grief, if I haven't learned this in 40 years, I don't think I can learn it well enough that it becomes second nature." Okay. So go ahead and draft, and then, when you revise, teach yourself to watch for certain aspects in your sentences. Sit down with a friend who is good at this stuff, and rather than have her just correct your prose, have her show you where it's wrong and how to fix it. Note down your most common errors and, as you revise, watch for those. You might even keep the list taped to your computer monitor, and consult that as you revise. It won't be long until you are automatically checking if you've set off introductory phrases with a comma, and if every participial phrase modifies the right noun.

d. Read effectively. The next novel you open, don't just read for story. Notice how dialogue is handled, when paragraphs are broken, what tense the author uses in a flashback. Most (if not all) books by reputable publishers have been professionally edited, and will conform to the basic conventions. Jot down what you've learned. Then look for a book which breaks the rules (for example, William Faulkner created sentences that lasted for pages, and paragraphs which lasted for chapters), and consider the difference in effect—and don't forget, you can't "feel" the exception if you don't "feel" the convention first.

e. Use technology. Turn on the language-check tools in your word processor, but don't rely on them exclusively. Spell-check and grammar-check are not infallible; in fact, they have no brain and can't tell you when you've typed "hole" instead of "whole," as long as both are spelled right. However, those little red and green lines can help you find the more obvious mistakes so that you can concentrate on the less obvious ones. For example, I am a constant reviser, which means I'm often deleting and retyping. So I frequently end up with missing words or doubled words, both of which are usually flagged by the word processor. Just be careful to check the program's rationale and read the proposed alternative before clicking "fix". I remember a friend of mine had a hero named Jonah, and spell-check didn't recognize that as a word. Without thinking, she clicked "replace," and 400 instances of "Jonah," just like that, were replaced… with "Gonad." (Thank goodness for the "undo" button!)

Another technological aid for me is the thesaurus. Now I own seven print thesauruses (thesaurusi?), but I don't use them much since the word-processing dictionaries have improved, and the site has so many free language tools. I don't use the thesaurus to find exotic words, but rather to replace an "almost-there" word with a "just-right" word. For example, just above, I highlighted "use" because I'd already used it once (handy little word!), and hit "thesaurus." Up popped a list of different connotations of "use," and from there I chose the word that really did fit—"manipulate"-- check it out. :)

And we won't even mention Google as an aid to fact-checking and spelling. We won't mention it because I had the chance to invest in it when it was $100, and thought it was overpriced then… $500 a share ago. Not that I hold a grudge.

f. But if you happen to find yourself on Google, type in "grammar sites," and you'll get a few dozen great sites by people even more obsessive than I am. Some of them even have quizzes, and you can take them knowing that you won't actually be graded. :) You know, this stuff is really interesting! Really! So browse the sites. Consider how they justify a rule, and compare that with another site's rationale for the same rule. (Okay, you're thinking that I have too much spare time, aren't you?) I've often found most effective the sites designed for ESL (English as a Second Language) students because they go beneath the rule to find the underlying logic, so the students will then be able to compare this logic to their own language's rules.

g. Invest in grammar and language books that have fun with their subjects. Eats, Shoots, and Leaves (which co-blogger Theresa gave me!) is a comic portrayal of life as a grammar obsessive—you think I'm bad? This lady started the Royal Society for the Preservation of the Apostrophe! The Transitive Vampire does a good job of explaining the logic of English grammar. Crazy English explores some curious anomalies of English (for example, why do most words starting with sn- have to do with the nose?). I'm sure you can all contribute the titles of other fun grammar books which can help us enjoy and exploit the inventiveness of our language.

h. Take a grammar class. When writers ask me what course helped me most, I always say it was the advanced grammar class I took in grad school at Butler University. I learned so much about how sentences work, and I still use those techniques of sentence construction and combination. Some of us need more than just rules; we need to understand the reasons too, and there's nothing like a grammar course to relate the rules to the purposes of language. You can find courses like this in any university or community college, or take one for free or cheap on the web (just Google free grammar course), like and

i. No matter how you choose to expand your mechanical ability, keep in mind the purpose is to improve your writing ability. So apply the lessons you learn immediately in your own work. Say you just learned a comma rule. Apply it, get accustomed to it—then experiment with it. When would you want to leave that comma out? What would be the effect if you used a period instead?

j. English has an enormous vocabulary, with especial flexibility in verbs. Think of how many different version of "say" we have, or "walk". (See! Another fun thing to do with a thesaurus!) Try another experiment. While you're writing, whenever you find yourself using a common word with a lot of synonyms, pull up that thesaurus screen and try each synonym in your sentence. You might not use any of them—no reason to get ostentatiously fancy—but this will help you recognize the gradations of meaning from "say" to "mention" to "declare" to "demand". Experimenting with the thesaurus might help you write dialogue for different characters whose differing attitudes and education level will lead to different words for the same concept.

This is fun! Really! Enjoy yourself, and experiment, and discover the joy of language.


Anonymous said...

Great advice, Alicia, but it seems like I saw something like this recently somewhere... An emailed newsletter, perhaps? ;-)

Seriously, thanks for this!

Edittorrent said...

Yeah, I'm on vacation, so trying the double-duty option. :)


Anonymous said...

One point re the last point on 'say'. What is your view on using the simple : xxxx said
any of those lovely synonyms?


Edittorrent said...

Jan, This topic would probably make a great post. I prefer "character said" to almost any other dialogue tag, but there are times you have to use something else.

Great question!


Anonymous said...

In our crit group, we refer to those synonyms as 'WIOS' - Words Instead Of Said. The consensus seems to be to use them sparingly, only when they truly add something to the meaning of the sentence.

I've seen mixed messages on 'asked', though. Personally, I cringe when I see a question tagged with 'said' instead of 'asked'. Some say that 'asked' is as acceptable as 'said', but others lump it in with other WIOS. Maybe our esteemed editors can comment on that point when a post is made on it? ;-)

Edittorrent said...

Alicia says-- or rather, Alicia comments, or observes, or asserts...

I love words like that. :) I think that the English language wouldn't have so many synonyms for "say" if there weren't a good reason. I think there's a qualitative difference between "shouted" and "whispered"...

But only when that matters. I see some quote tags as substituting for the tone and expression of real conversation. But I guess I'd reserve the non-saids for when it matters; otherwise, it could get annoying.

She snorted.
She obfuscated.
She blubbered.
She ...

I was listening to an old,old mystery-- Ngaio Marsh-- an audiobook, and one common quote tag was "ejaculated". So I'd be walking along, or doing the treadmill at the gym, and the narrator would say in his wonderful English accent, "'I am a mere human,' Alleyn ejaculated."

And each time, I'd chortle like a pre-teener.
That is NOT the right quote tag.


Edittorrent said...

Note to erorom authors reading this comment thread: please do not get any bright ideas from Alicia's last post. We don't want manuscripts containing the line, "'I'm coming,' he ejaculated." Really, we don't!


Edittorrent said...

Alicia asserted, commented, observed, added,
However, this is proper, if a bit redundant. :) "I'm coming." He ejaculated.