These days, it’s popular to think of oneself as a “Rule Breaker” … a “Rebel;” and, to some extent, that’s fun and exciting. Truthfully, where can we as writers hedge and when must the rules be doggedly followed in order to be accepted by the readership we’re trying to reach?
Grammar and Punctuation
I truly believe ALL rules of grammar and punctuation must be etched into our brains before any of the rules can be broken.
For example, there is no middle ground in knowing the difference between “your and you’re,” or “there, their, they’re,” and so many other homophones. Mess up with those, and you come across as grammar ignorant. If you don’t understand the differences, either learn them or look into another profession besides writing.
If you think you can rely on your spellchecker, you are sadly mistaken. It will let you down because guess what? Artificial Intelligence on your laptop and phone isn’t so smart after all. It has no idea in which way you are conveying meaning at any particular time.
You, as a writer, are responsible for knowing the rules of the language you are choosing to write in.
Do you fully understand the use of subject-verb agreement? Say yes, or jump into the nearest English textbooks NOW. Don’t embarrass yourself by not knowing grammar basics such as these.
Want to understand the simple comma in three easy rules? Here you go.
Study how to let your characters express themselves correctly in dialogue.
If you don’t know the difference in demonstrating how a character stutters versus stammers, find out!
Merely taking a chance with ellipses (one of the most misunderstood punctuation marks of all time) can be a disaster. Use them for a thought trailing off (a hesitation), a sharp right turn in one’s speech to another subject, or to signify a person is stammering out the words. “I . . . I don’t think we can sell the company, uh, at . . . at this time.”
Click here to read about the poor, abused ellipses of the world.
They are a good tool to use, but don’t overdo it. That’s my tendency, so I take them out after I’ve put them in. When? As I’m editing my own manuscript about 30-40 times before sending it to the professional editor! It’s what we do.
Being a writer is greatly about being a re-writer, but that’s for another time and another blog!
A hyphen defines stuttering, and no explanation is necessary after that. Here’s a scared woman talking to her tormentor: “Roy, if y-you let us g-go, we’ll never bother you a-a-gain,” she said. Don’t say she stuttered because the hyphens show that she is stuttering.
Proper Rules for Submitting a Manuscript or Story
I’ve seen fledglings ask other beginning writers what font they should use when submitting a manuscript to an agent or publisher. Really? First of all, read the SUBMISSION GUIDELINES very carefully. You will find, across the board, that when you submit a manuscript, you are to use 12-point Times Roman font, double-space the manuscript with one-inch margins all around on each page. Break that rule by trying to be artistic or cute, and your manuscript goes right into the trash can. It breaks down to approximately 250-words per page, and it’s WHAT THEY WANT. Do it. Don’t even entertain the idea of using something strangely “artful” or “creative” to represent you or your work. Don’t use colored backgrounds or fonts. Black on white. Read the rules.
In fact, create your manuscript or short story the proper way to begin with. Why not?
Spelling is a little more forgiving because the dictionary and our spellcheckers are better assistants in that area. How do you improve your spelling? I think seeing words written out again and again helps immensely, so READ a lot. It’s well known that to be a writer, you must be an avid reader. Why not consider your reading time part of your writer development? It all works hand in hand.
Hook your reader in the first line of the first paragraph of the first page of your novel or book. If you don’t do this, no one will read your novel, short
story, or book. Why should they? You want to get them to five chapters later before your novel really kicks in? Nope. People won’t do that anymore. Neither will agents or publishers or many editors. (Note how I just used a fragment instead of a full sentence? More on that below)
Continue to open each chapter with something of great interest. I learned how to do that by having a journalism background. How can you?
Study the opening lines of the classics. Moby Dick is one of the greatest and most simplistic. Google “best opening lines in literature” and see what comes up. Here’s one that can’t be ignored: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” (100 Years of Solitude)
You are told not to open chapters with dialogue. Okay, that’s a rule, right? I follow it until I break it . . . at least one or two times in a 275-300-page novel. I know the rule, so I am free to ignore it. Sometimes.
Here’s a rule I break continually: Write each sentence in full with a subject, verb, blah blah blah. No fragments. I mostly do that, but I often don’t (see above Note). Why? 1) Because not doing it can sometimes serve a purpose of readability, and 2) Because people don’t speak like that in natural dialogue. Dialogue should be real and not read like an English textbook.
This is a case of either following Strunk & White’s Elements of Style or following Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk & Bite, a classic and funny guide to a bold and radiant language style and an all-out favorite of mine. I suggest you keep both of these stylebooks in your home office for reference sake.
Everything is fundamentally simple when you have the correct information. It’s up to writers to immerse themselves in the correct way to write and not depend on a formula or upon asking other newbies in a timeline how to do it.
If you want to write, you will. If you want to write beyond an elementary school level, you will learn the basic rules of the writing world. Writing is a talent and craft. Both need nurturing. Of course, the “craft” part must be diligently learned and practiced. Remember, if it were easy, everyone would do it.
Are you up to being the best writer you can be?
As usual, I love to hear from you!
Jodi Lea Stewart is the author of a contemporary trilogy set in the Navajo Nation and two historical adventure-mysteries. More are on the way!
Trouble sneaks in one Oklahoma afternoon in 1934 like an oily twister. A beloved neighbor is murdered, and a single piece of evidence sends the sheriff to arrest a black man Biddy, a sharecropper’s daughter, knows is innocent. Hauntingly terrifying sounds seeping from the woods lead Biddy into even deeper mysteries and despair and finally into the shocking truths of that fateful summer.
“Beyond the humor and entertaining antics of the main character, Biddy Woodson, BLACKBERRY ROAD has depth and meaning as it explores stirring universal themes that we expect in great literature” ~ D.B. Jackson, acclaimed Historical and Western author
BLACKBERRY ROAD is engaging, entertaining, and a book that is sure to linger with you . . . the trip is well worth the time ~ Cyrus Webb, Host of ConversationsLIVE, president of Conversations Radio Network, tv show host, author, and publicist
AN ADVENTURE-MYSTERY TRILOGY YOU DON’T WANT TO MISS! SILKI, THE GIRL OF MANY SCARVES trilogy has no age limits.
COMING IN SEPTEMBER:
THE ACCIDENTAL ROAD
A teen and her mother escaping an abusive husband tumble into the epicenter of crime peddlers invading Arizona and Nevada in the 1950s. Stranded hundreds of miles from their planned destination of Las Vegas, they land in a dusty town full of ghosts and tales, treachery and corruption. Avoiding disaster is tricky, especially as it leads Kat into a fevered quest for things as simple as home and trust. Danger lurks everywhere, leading her to wonder if she and her mother really did take The Accidental Road of life, or if it’s the exact right road to all they ever hoped for.
Jodi Lea Stewart was born in Texas to an “Okie” mom and a Texan dad. Her younger years were spent in Texas and Oklahoma; hence, she knows all about biscuits and gravy, blackberry picking, chiggers, and snipe hunting. At the age of eight, she moved to a large cattle ranch in the White Mountains of Arizona. Later, she left her studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson to move to San Francisco, where she learned about peace, love, and exactly what she DIDN’T want to do with her life. Since then, Jodi graduated summa cum laude with a BS in Business Management, raised three children, worked as an electro-mechanical drafter, penned humor columns for a college periodical, wrote regional Western articles, and served as managing editor of a Fortune 500 corporate newsletter. She currently resides in Arizona with her husband, her delightful 90+year-old mother, a crazy Standard poodle named Jazz, a rescue cat, and numerous gigantic, bossy houseplants.
For laughs . . .
If I had stopped “borrowing” licensed photos,
I would be Pharaoh’s favorite son.