Friday, October 29, 2010

No Such Grammatical Rule or No Such Rule in Grammar (Part 1 of 3)

Most of us have seen those humorous and cleverly reversed rules of grammar that float across the Internet. "Don't use no double negatives" is one. Another says, "I've told you a million times never to exaggerate."

In every such list I've read, one rule that gets passed around is not a rule: "A preposition is a word not to end a sentence with."

Although it's not a rule of grammar and appears in no reputable textbook, it's still a good rule. The reason isn't because it's a preposition but because prepositions are weak words. The same rule applies to most adverbs. Consider the difference between these two sentences. (1) He knocked over the box. (2) He knocked the box over. Both make sense, but box is stronger than over.

Let's go back to that supposed rule: A preposition is a word not to end a sentence with. What is the most important word in that sentence? Obviously, it's not with. The writer, of course, has to make that determination, but I opt for preposition, so I would say: Don't end your sentence with a preposition. Or I could write: A preposition is not a good word with which to end a sentence. That places emphasis on sentence. If I chose the word end for emphasis, I would have to say, somewhat awkwardly: A preposition is not the word to use for the sentence to end.

Don't avoid ending sentences with prepositions, not because of any rule.
Avoid ending sentences with prepositions because you want strong endings.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Software Programs for Writers

Occasionally someone asks me what software programs to buy to make them better writers. The question often implies that the askers want instantaneous success without effort.

Some programs show you a few shortcuts and a few people insist their writing improved after using a particular type of software. That’s probably true.

Writing is hard work and no matter which software or computer you use, you still have to do the work. Programs can help you with format (which isn’t difficult to learn) or catch your misspelled words (MS Word does that). For several years we’ve had software that will type the words we speak, but they don’t improve the quality of the words.

A few people still write everything in longhand and later type (or have someone else do it) and I know one still-selling writer who does everything on the typewriter and her daughter copies it onto the computer. There are three ways of getting the words out of the brain and on to some permanent form.

Despite that, we humans still need to engage our brains and focus on words. If you want to invest money in programs, do so. I’m not opposed to software programs; I don’t choose to invest money in things I don’t need.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Beyond the Amateur Look (Part 6 of 6)

If you send your manuscript through the mail, do it the correct way.

Inside the envelope, enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) and return postage. (Of course you will keep a copy of the manuscript on your computer and a safety copy on a CD, flash drive, external hard drive, or an off-site storage such as Carbonite.)

After that, you wait.

And you wait.

And wait.

Never call an editor unless you have permission. Their guidelines will tell you how long it normally takes. Give the editor at least one month beyond that time. If you haven't heard after five months, send a letter with SASE and say something like this:

On December 25, 2009, I sent you my article titled, "Beyond the Amateur Look." If you're still interested, please take whatever time you need. If you're not interested, please return my manuscript.

I've enclosed SASE for your convenience.

None of this information guarantees you'll get published. It does assure you that you'll look professional and editors will assume you're not a beginner. That's a good start, isn't it?

Conforming to professional standards is never wrong,
and it may help you get published.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Beyond the Amateur Look (Part 5 of 6)

"Can I send the manuscript as an attachment?" I hear that question frequently.

My answer: Unless you know the editor or the publishing house accepts email submissions, give them hard copy.

Here's the reason: Some editors don't want to read new submissions from the screen. They want the hard copy so they can read while eating lunch, riding the subway, or whenever they get free minutes—and there aren't many. If they have to pull your copy down on the screen, it ties them to their desk. If they have to print your manuscript, you've added to their daily load.

Assume that editors are overworked (and I don't know any who would say they're not). Make life easier for them.

Some editors and agents download manuscripts to the Kindle or Sony Reader. But stay with hard copy unless you know differently.

If you're not sure how to send a manuscript,

Friday, October 15, 2010

Beyond the Amateur Look (Part 4 of 6)

In the three previous blogs, I've focused on the manuscript look for articles or stories. If you're submitting a book-length manuscript, there are a few differences.

1. Use a cover sheet and write your title and by-line half-way down the page. Follow that with the genre, such as: Historical Fiction of 80,000 words; Autobiography of 70,000 words. Most editors and agents tell you to put in the number of words. If you do, round them off. Don't write 78, 349 words but "about 80,000 words." It's an approximation and by the time your manuscript has been accepted and edited, it may run only 70,000 or 85,000.

I don't list the number of words. My reasoning is that if the publisher wants only 50,000 and you have 85,000, that's a good reason to reject you. Or if you have 90,000 words and they want only 50,000. If they turn you down, let it be for a different reason.

2. At the bottom of the cover page, centered or at the far left, list your name, address, phone number, and email address. It would look like this:

Cecil Murphey
Street Address
Email address
Phone number

3. On the next page, start one-third of the way down the page for the first chapter or introduction. Every chapter begins a third of the way down the page. Don't renumber for each chapter.

4. Always address the manuscript to the editor you want to receive your material. Don't send to "Fiction Editor." If you don't know the person's name, go online to the publisher's site or phone the company and ask, "Who is your fiction editor?" Make certain you spell the name correctly and get the proper gender of the editor.

Looking professional
is one important aspect of being professional.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Beyond the Amateur Look (Part 3 of 6)

When you write an article or short story, there is an established protocol. It's been the standard for many years.

1. In the upper left corner of the first page, single space on separate lines, place your name, address, phone number, and email address. (I'm amazed at the people who don't show editors how to contact them.)

2. Across from your name, in the upper right, give an estimated word count, rounded off to the nearest 50. To write 937 words is not an estimate, but 950 is.

3. On the next line, put the rights you want to sell. This will usually be first rights. (First rights mean that after they have published it once, it's yours to resell.)

4. Once you've put in your information at the top of the page, go down about 1/3 of the page and center the title. (I usually begin at 3.8" or 4" but the exact number isn't important.) That empty space between your personal information and the title of the article is space reserved for the editor. Don't put anything in that space.

5. After you've centered your title, hit "Enter" and start typing. (You don't need to put "by. . . " because it's at the top of the page and your name is in your header on every subsequent page.

6. When you get to the end, just stop. You don't need anything like -30- or "The End." When editors see no more words, they'll assume that you've finished.

It takes little effort to look professional.
But it does take effort.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Special Announcement

Note from Twila:

If you’d like to get to know Cec in a better way (other than just as the man who calls himself Curmudgeon and gives you tips and advice about writing), I invite you to listen to the Cec and Me radio show on Tuesday nights at 7 p.m. CT/8 p.m. ET at Toginet.

The show is billed as a delightful, thoughtful, serious, and not so serious call-in show with Cec Murphey and Twila Belk (the Me part). We offer a blend of fun and a variety of topics, including tough issues such as cancer, caregiving, and sexual abuse, as well as lighter topics such as writing and Christmas miracles. At times we’ll feature special guests who’ve been impacted by Cec in some way, people who in turn impact others: authors, speakers, pastors, ministry leaders, and maybe even a man who spent 90 minutes in heaven.

We’d love to have you listen and join in the dialogue. We encourage you to call in with questions and comments at 877-864-4869. Each week we’ll give away a few books. All shows are archived and available on the Cec and Me website or through iTunes.

For more info, visit

Friday, October 8, 2010

Beyond the Amateur Look (Part 2 of 6)

If you've published you probably know this information, but I want to stress the basics.

1. Double-space all manuscripts and leave a one-inch margin on all sides of the page. (This is automatic on most computers.) Don't insert extra blank lines between paragraphs.

2. Use a header on every page. On the left, the header contains your last name, slant or colon, and your title. Put the page number on the right. (I put my header in 9-point font so that it becomes less distracting.)
It's not wrong, but I suggest you avoid putting the header on the first page. It's simple to do. On your tool bar, go to Insert. On the pull-down menu you'll see Page Numbers. Delete the checkmark that says to start on page 1.

3. Indent every paragraph half an inch. (Set your tab key. In Word, you need to hit the space bar 10 times to get half an inch.) Always use 12-point fonts. Many prefer non-serif fonts such as Arial. Don't use italics, or difficult-to-read fonts. Times New Roman (TNR) is the most common. If the publisher's guidelines don't tell you which font, TNR is a safe font.

4. Here's a giveaway of the tyro status: nonprofessionals insert the copyright symbol on the first page and some do it on every page. Editors know (even if writers don't) that the material is under common-law copyright when the piece is in a finished form. Using the symbol is a not-so-subtle way to say to editors, "I'm afraid you'll steal this so this is my warning."

Make your manuscript look professional
so editors can treat you like a professional.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Beyond the Amateur Look (Part 1 of 6)

Unless you have established a relationship with an editor, you won't send a manuscript without permission.

"We look for a reason to reject manuscripts," an editor-friend said.

I understood what she meant. Editors are overwhelmed and their staffs are smaller these days. More people now try to write, and many of them send multiple submissions for the same article. Instead of getting 300 manuscripts a month as book publishers might have 20 years ago, those same publishers receive 300 a week.

Good editors easily eliminate a high percentage of the manuscripts without reading a word. They need only to look at the layout. "Amateurs won't take time to learn to submit a manuscript properly," another editor complained.

Most publishers provide guidelines on their website. Despite that, a large number of articles and books come to publishers that show the writers haven't looked at the guidelines. Think of it this way: If you send in a manuscript that deviates from the standard look, it's enough to cause an editor to blink. The blink causes the editor to put the pages in the reject basket.

I want to offer a few guidelines to help you get your manuscript read. This will avoid the initial rejection and the editors might actually buy what you've submitted. The guidelines are easy to follow and simple to learn.

Do everything you can to prejudice editors in your favor
by making your manuscript look professional.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Cec Answers Questions Raised

Twila's note: Babushka asked a couple questions after reading a blog entry from several months ago. Here's a bonus post from Cec with his answers.


Babushka raised a question about my statement that my book “will release this month.” I probably could have found a better way to phrase it, but I tried to avoid the use of the passive voice (will be released). But either way, her first question remains: released from what?

In writing, clarity is my major concern. Would anyone misunderstand the intent of my statement? Isn’t it obvious that this month people can buy my book because it will be for sale? It may not be the usual way of saying it (and it’s not), but is it less clear than “will be released?” Neither phrase names nor qualifies the releaser.

The second question is whether “will be released” is a cliché. Probably. We can’t totally eliminate overused expressions from our writing, but we can avoid those that obscure the meaning. My argument against clichés isn’t only that they’ve been overused, but they tend to be generic and meaningless. If we make clarity a primary focus, we’ll delete most of the hackneyed expressions.

One more thought. Good writing isn’t about following strict rules but writing clearly. I say to avoid clichés and I like to avoid passive voice. But there are occasions when they are useful. For instance, above I used the passive voice when I wrote, “they’ve been overused.” I could have said, “…isn’t only that we overuse them…” but I deliberately chose to use the passive voice and probably no one stumbled over it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Query Letter

You can find a plethora of books and articles on how to write a query letter. I suggest you avoid them. I've read some of those supposedly can't-fail queries and I wouldn't accept any of them.

Two rules you need to bear in mind: 1. Keep it simple. 2. Keep it brief.
My basic query idea applies whether you write to agents or editors.

I suggest you write one paragraph that gives them your idea for a book or an article. Call it the elevator pitch, précis statement, or concept (the term I use). Don't give them a sales pitch such as, "This book will revolutionize the way people eat cereal."

In the second paragraph tell them about yourself. Give them your background, education, experience, your work or profession—anything that shows your credentials to write the article or book.

Your next paragraph reads: May I send you my article? If it's a book, you ask to send your book proposal. If you have completed your manuscript, you write: May I send you my proposal or my completed manuscript?

Query letters are simple sales pitches. Make no claims for what your article or book will do. Just tell them what it is.

A query letter is a business letter.
It asks an editor to buy your product.
And the editor probably knows the product better than you do.


A note from Twila: Would you like to spend some time with Cec on a cruise to Mexico? Check out the Sailing Toward Success Christian Writer's Cruise. Cec is the keynote speaker and one of the instructors. The cruise dates are February 27-March 6. If you choose to go, please send me a postcard so I can share in your experience. Because I'm such a faithful, hardworking (and humble) employee, I'll stay behind to keep the empire running. But that's okay--anything for Cec. :-)