Friday, December 28, 2012

Word Choices (Part 1 of 6)

Watch your nors.

I read these two sentences recently and both are incorrect.

1. Hilda didn't want his money nor his property. Bad word choice.

2. Neither John or Ralph planned to attend Samantha's wedding.

Think of neither and nor as a couple, because they don't like being separated. (And both words start with the letter n, to remind you.) If you invite one of them into your sentence, you want to include the other.

Neither and nor are two words 
that always appear together.

Friday, December 21, 2012

If Only

I'm amazed at the way careless writers use only. Too often it becomes a misplaced modifier. To place it correctly, you need to put only next to the part of the sentence you want to modify.

What's the difference between these two sentences?

"I only wanted your love."

"I wanted only your love."

The first means you have no other wants in life except to be loved by one person. You don't need food, clothes, money—not anything.

The second means you want one thing from the person to whom you talk: That is, "I don't want your money or your advice. Love is the one thing I desire from you."

Make sure you use only
to modify the correct words.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Who and That (Part 3 of 3)

To complicate this, use whose with people or objects because it's the plural possessive of who. However, English has no plural possessive for that.

1. Those students whose work is incomplete will fail the course.

2. Those streetlights whose rays shine into my bedroom prevent my sleeping soundly.

I use whose as the plural possessive 
of people and objects.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Who and That (Part 2 of 3)

In eighth-grade English, you probably learned a simple rule: If you refer to people or animals, use who; if you refer to objects, use that. Most people tend to use that constantly and rarely infuse a sentence with a who.

Today the distinction has largely vanished. This is one of those rules that many people don't know or don't care about. My wife, who is my proofreader, cares deeply about this distinction. (Did you notice the use of who?)

Who refers to people or animals; 
otherwise I use that.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

That and Which (Part 1 of 3)

Over the years, a number of rules have risen and died. One rule governs which and that, although most people don't know or ignore it.

Use that to begin a restrictive clause; use which for everything else.

So what's a restrictive clause? It's the part of a sentence we can't delete to convey the meaning we want.

1. Emails that carry a brief subject line get read more often.

The clause, that carry a brief subject line, is restrictive. If you deleted it, the sentence would read: Emails get read more often—and you've distorted the information. The difference seems obvious. The word that limits or confines (restricts) the type of emails to which we refer.

2. Loud voices, which we hear constantly, annoy us. If you remove which we hear constantly, the meaning of the sentence doesn't suffer.

The which clause adds information, 
but it's not vital to the meaning.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Conditional Sentences

We can write conditional sentences (usually beginning with if) two ways. If the clause starts the sentence, put a comma after the statement. In the previous sentence, I gave you the example.

You don't need a comma if you end the sentence with a conditional clause. This is the second method. Ending with the conditional clause seems not to cause problems.

If I begin a sentence with if
I'll put a comma after the end of the clause or phrase.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Four Invisible Verbs

When we write dialog, most of the time we want readers to focus on what the speakers say and not on how they say it. To keep the emphasis on the dialog itself, you can use four different verbs—I call them invisible—because they are so common, we hardly notice them. They are said, ask, answer, and reply.

Please read these two sentences aloud to get the full effect.

"I walked the entire sixteen blocks," Harlan blurted out.

"I walked the entire sixteen blocks," Harlan said.

Did you notice the emphasis? In the first sentence, "blurted out" grabs your attention and you become aware of how Harlan spoke. Nothing wrong if that's what you want readers to get.

In dialog, when I want the emphasis on what's said, 
I use one of the invisible words of attribution.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Apostrophes (Part 4 of 4)

(This post comes from Susan Titus Osborn.)

In contractions, an apostrophe normally replaces omitted letters.

* don't, can't, won't, shouldn't, wouldn't

* singin', 'tis, and rock 'n' roll

To avoid confusion, lowercase letters form the plural with an apostrophe and an s.

* x's and y's

In informal writing the first two digits of a particular year are often replaced by an apostrophe.

* the class of '62

Susan Titus Osborn is the director of the Christian Communicator Manuscript Critique Service. She has authored 30 books. You can reach her at,

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Apostrophes (Part 3 of 4)

(This post comes from Susan Titus Osborn.)

In compound nouns and noun phrases the final element usually takes the possessive form. If plural compounds pose a problem, use of.

* a cookbook's recipes

* my daughter-in-law's profession, but the professions of both my daughters-in-law

In proper names or where there is no clear possessive meaning, the apostrophe is omitted.

* Publishers Weekly, Western Alliance Writers Conference, Department of Veterans Affairs, a housewares sale

Possessives, such as hers, yours, and its, have no apostrophe.

* The dog scratched its fleas.

It's is the contraction for it is.

* It's going to rain today.

Susan Titus Osborn is the director of the Christian Communicator Manuscript Critique Service. She has authored 30 books. You can reach her at,

Friday, November 23, 2012

Apostrophes (Part 2 of 4)

(This post comes from Susan Titus Osborn.)

Exceptions to the rule of adding an apostrophe s for the possessive form are the possessives of ancient proper names ending in s. Examples: Moses' Law, Jesus' parables, Euripides' tragedies, Xerxes' armies. (The latest CMS now says we add the s after the apostrophe, but many publishers don't observe that rule.)

To avoid an awkward appearance, an apostrophe without an s may also be used for the possessive of singular words and names ending in an unpronounced s.

* Albert Camus' novels, Descartes' three dreams, Vaucouleurs' assistance to Joan of Arc.

Closely linked nouns are considered a single unit in forming the possessive when the entity possessed is the same for both. Only the second element takes the possessive form.

* my aunt and uncle's house.

When the entities are different, both nouns take the possessive form.

* my friends' and neighbors' children.

Susan Titus Osborn is the director of the Christian Communicator Manuscript Critique Service. She has authored 30 books. You can reach her at,

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Apostrophes (Part 1 of 4)

(This post comes from Susan Titus Osborn.)

The possessive of most singular nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe and an s. Except for a few irregular plurals that don't end in s, the possessive of plural nouns is formed by adding an apostrophe only.

* the horse's mouth, a bass's stripes, puppies' paws, children's literature.

This general rule covers most proper nouns, including names ending in s, x, or z, and both are singular and plural forms, as well as letters and numbers.

* Chicago's lakefront, Massachusetts's legislature, Burns's poems, Marx's theories, Berlioz's works, the Lincolns' marriage, FDR's legacy, 2003's heaviest storm.

When the singular form of the noun ending in s looks like the plural, and the plural form is the same as the singular, the possessive of both singular and plural is formed by adding only an apostrophe.

* politics' true meaning, economics' forerunners, this species' earliest record.

The same rule applies when the name of a place or an organization is the plural form ending in s, such as the United States, even though the entity is singular.

* the United States' role in world peace, Marvin Gardens' former curator, Greenwood Hills' last mayor.

Susan Titus Osborn is the director of the Christian Communicator Manuscript Critique Service. She has authored 30 books. You can reach her at,

Friday, November 16, 2012


(This post comes from Susan Titus Osborn.)

The em dash, a printer's term and often just called the dash, is the most commonly used of the dashes. No sentence should contain more than two dashes. A pair of em dashes sets off an amplifying or explanatory element. Commas, parentheses, or a colon may perform a similar function, but em dashes are often used for emphasis. Don't overuse them.

* The influence of three impressionist artists—Monet, Sisley, and Degas—is obvious in her beautiful portraits.

An em dash may separate a subject, or a series of subjects, from a pronoun that introduces the main clause.

* Broken promises, petty rivalries, and false rumors—such were the obstacles that kept her from advancing in the company.

An em dash, or a pair of em dashes, can indicate a sudden break in thought or an interruption in dialogue.

* Will he—can he—win the race?

* "I don't know what to say," I began softly. "I thought I might—"

Susan Titus Osborn is the director of the Christian Communicator Manuscript Critique Service. She has authored 30 books. You can reach her at,

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


(This post comes from Susan Titus Osborn.)

Hyphens and dashes all have specific uses. They cannot be used interchangeably.

The hyphen separates compound words, either a compound noun or a compound adjective modifying a noun. If there is more than one phrasal adjective modifying a single noun, hyphenation becomes especially important.

* fuzzy-wuzzy bear, video-game-magazine dispute, state-inspected assistant-living facility, twenty-four hours, twenty-four-hour clock

The hyphen also separates numbers that are not inclusive, such as telephone numbers, Social Security numbers and ISBN numbers.

* Her telephone number is 501-324-7611.

Another use for the hyphen is to separate letters when the word is spelled out.

* Her name is Alayna, spelled a-l-a-y-n-a.

In URLs careful distinction needs to be made between a hyphen (-) a tilde (~), and an underline (_) .

If you want people to find your website or your e-mail address easily, don't use any of those three.

Susan Titus Osborn is the director of the Christian Communicator Manuscript Critique Service. She has authored 30 books. You can reach her at,

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Exclamation Point

(This post comes from Susan Titus Osborn.)

The exclamation point makes an emphatic statement, an outcry, or an ironic comment. Don't double punctuate! Two exclamation points are no stronger than one, and be careful to use exclamation points sparingly.

* Look out! 

A question that is really an exclamation usually ends with an exclamation point.

* How could you possibly do that to me!

Place an exclamation point inside quotation marks, parentheses, or brackets, only when it is part of the quoted or parenthetical matter.

* The woman exclaimed, "That car hit the tree!"

* Jenny kept repeating, "I could have died!" throughout the whole questioning.

Susan Titus Osborn is the director of the Christian Communicator Manuscript Critique Service. She has authored 30 books. You can reach her at,

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Question Mark

(This post comes from Susan Titus Osborn.)

Use the question mark to ask a direct question, to indicate an editorial doubt, and to express surprise. Never double punctuate. Don't use two question marks together or a question mark and an exclamation point.

* When will Taylor's car be ready?

* The world population is estimated to be 7.029 billion? by the United States Census Bureau. That is your answer?

Use a question mark within a sentence at the end of a direct question. If the question doesn't begin the sentence, the phrase that follows doesn't need to start with a capital letter.

* The question, how long is this meeting going to last? was on everyone's mind.

An indirect question never takes a question mark.

* He wondered if he should go home.

When a question within a sentence consists of a single word, such as who, when, how, or why, omit the question mark. Sometimes writers italicize the word.

* The question was no longer how but when.

A request disguised as a question doesn't require a question mark.

* Will the congregation please rise.

Susan Titus Osborn is the director of the Christian Communicator Manuscript Critique Service. She has authored 30 books. You can reach her at,

A note from Twila: Cec and I have a contract with Regal Books for I Believe in Heaven, which is scheduled for a spring 2013 release. We need the following types of stories:

1. First-person accounts of someone who died, went to heaven, and returned. (E.g., Don Piper or the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10.)

2. First-person, near-death stories (such as those who felt they saw themselves above the operating table during surgery, went through a tunnel and into bright light before being whisked back to their bodies).

3. Third-person stories of those who have been at the bedside of a dying person who saw angels or Jesus coming to take them to heaven. 

Visit for submission guidelines and details. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Use of the Colon

(This post comes from Susan Titus Osborn.)

Use a colon to introduce an item in a series of items to describe or amplify what went before the colon.

* Sarah's exercise program involves three objects: a stationary bicycle, an exercise ball, and two-pound weights.

The colon may be used instead of the period to introduce a series of related sentences.

* Karen was faced with a difficult choice: Should she tell her husband what happened to the car? Or should she remain silent and get it fixed herself?

Colons are also used in URLs, but no space precedes or follows a colon in this case.

Susan Titus Osborn is the director of the Christian Communicator Manuscript Critique Service. She has authored 30 books. You can reach her at,

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Use of Semicolons

(This post comes from Susan Titus Osborn.)

The semicolon is stronger than a comma but weaker than a period. However, it can assume either role, although its function is usually closer to that of a period. Use semicolons sparingly because their use often makes sentences too long and cumbersome.

The most common use of a semicolon is between two independent clauses that are not joined by a conjunction.

* The road was long; the road was dangerous.

A semicolon normally comes before adverbs such as then, however, thus, hence, indeed, besides, and therefore when used between two independent clauses.

* Richard is going to London; however, he doesn't have his reservations yet.

When a semicolon is called for at the end of material enclosed in parentheses or brackets, the semicolon follows the closing parenthesis or bracket.

* She placed her manuscript in an envelope (her final draft); then, with relief, she sealed the envelope.

Susan Titus Osborn is the director of the Christian Communicator Manuscript Critique Service. She has authored 30 books. You can reach her at,

Friday, October 26, 2012

Use of the Period

(This post comes from Susan Titus Osborn.)

A period marks the end of a sentence, followed by one space. (In typewriter days, we left two.) Sometimes we use a period at the end of an incomplete sentence.

* Completed sentence: The storm was almost upon us, so we needed to take shelter.

* Incomplete: Under a tree perhaps.

When an entire sentence is enclosed in parentheses or brackets, the period belongs inside the closing parenthesis or bracket. When a clause or a complete sentence is enclosed within another sentence, the period belongs outside.

* Sharon rewrote her manuscript over and over. (She never tired of editing.)

* She said she would never speak to him again [referring to her former boss].

No period follows chapter titles, subheadings, column headings in tables, dates, signatures, or addresses.

Susan Titus Osborn is the director of the Christian Communicator Manuscript Critique Service. She has authored 30 books. You can reach her at,

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Elusive Comma (Part 7 of 7)

(This post comes from Susan Titus Osborn.)

Look at places where you may omit the comma. A good rule is to let your ear be the guide. Read your sentences aloud. You'll naturally pause in those places that need a comma.

In a series whose elements are joined by conjunctions, you don't need a comma unless the elements are long and pauses are helpful.

* Is it by Beethoven or Brahms or Bach?

Of course it would not be wrong to say: Is it by Beethoven, Brahms, or Bach?

When elements in a series involve internal punctuation, or when they are long and complex, separate them by semicolons.

* The brown, fuzzy-wuzzy bear; the black and white panda bear; and the snowy-white, fat polar bear were all friends.

When an ampersand (&) is used instead of and as in company names, omit the serial comma.

Example: Dooey, Soakum & Howe.

Susan Titus Osborn is the director of the Christian Communicator Manuscript Critique Service. She has authored 30 books. You can reach her at,

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Elusive Comma (Part 6 of 7)

(This post comes from Susan Titus Osborn.)

Other Uses of the Comma

The comma denotes a slight pause. The effective use of the comma involves good judgment with ease of reading as the main goal.

A comma usually follows yes and no at the beginning of a sentence if you intend a slight pause. Likewise, a comma follows an exclamation oh or ah only if you intend a slight pause.

A comma follows names or words used in direct address as well as in informal correspondence.

* Friends, I'm here to tell you an important story.

* Dear Mary,

For clarity, separate two or more adjectives with commas if each modifies the noun alone.

* Kavic is a fantastic, faithful dog.

* It's going to be a long, hot summer.

Susan Titus Osborn is the director of the Christian Communicator Manuscript Critique Service. She has authored 30 books. You can reach her at,

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Elusive Comma (Part 5 of 7)

(This post comes from Susan Titus Osborn.)

Commas in Lists of Items

When listing three or more items, place a comma before the conjunction (such as and or but): Paper, pen, and writer. Some publishers omit the comma, but they won't fault you for not knowing their style.

The important thing is to be consistent, so the editor can match their style sheet to your manuscript.

If your list contains multiple words, it can be confusing if you don't add the second comma.

* His pets consisted of a long-haired cat, a short-haired dog, and a noisy parrot.

The exception to this rule concerns the name of businesses such as law firms which usually omit the last comma: Dewey, Sokum and Howe.

If the list of items includes commas, separate them with semicolons.

* The blank, white sheet of paper; the black, fine-line pen; and the ready, spirit-filled writer.

Susan Titus Osborn is the director of the Christian Communicator Manuscript Critique Service. She has authored 30 books. You can reach her at,

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Elusive Comma (Part 4 of 7)

(This post comes from Susan Titus Osborn.)

Commas in Phrases and Clauses

When a phrase comes before the main clause of a sentence, use a comma to separate them.

* Sitting in the back, the group cheered wildly.

* During the performance, the group cheered wildly.

We usually omit the comma after short, introductory phrases.

* On Tuesday Bill was absent from class.

When a phrase separates the subject and the verb, set it off with commas.

* Bill, after picking up his assignment, went home.

Commas set off interjections and other elements that break the continuity of thought.

* On the other hand, Bill may be right.

* Yes, Bill was right after all.

Susan Titus Osborn is the director of the Christian Communicator Manuscript Critique Service. She has authored 30 books. You can reach her at,

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Elusive Comma (Part 3 of 7)

(This post comes from Susan Titus Osborn.)

Using Commas in Dialogue

Commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks, whether single or double.

* "I want to go with you," he said.

* He said, "I want to go with you."

I constantly see errors regarding this rule in print. CMS says this is the traditional style, and was used well before the first edition of the manual in 1906.

Question marks and exclamation points go inside if they are part of the dialogue and outside if they are part of the entire sentence.

* Why did I keep in my head the words, "I'll never forget you"?

* Before he said good-bye, he asked, "Will I ever forget you?"

Susan Titus Osborn is the director of the Christian Communicator Manuscript Critique Service. She has authored 30 books. You can reach her at,

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Elusive Comma (Part 2 of 7)

(This post comes from Susan Titus Osborn.)

Let's look at some basic rules regarding commas:

Independent Clauses

Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause. (Independent clauses have a subject and a verb, and they can stand alone as a complete sentence.) In the two examples below, the clauses before and after the comma are independent.

* The situation looked hopeless, but there was one chance for success

* The situation looked hopeless, but I didn't believe it.

However, don't join independent clauses with a comma if they lack a conjunction. Join them with a semicolon, or cut them into separate sentences.

* The situation looked hopeless; there was one remaining chance for success.

* The situation looked hopeless. There was one remaining chance for success.

A common mistake made with the comma is to separate a dependent clause from an independent clause when they are joined with a conjunction.

* I was told the situation looked hopeless but didn't believe it.

Each clause must have a subject and a verb to need a comma before the conjunction.

Susan Titus Osborn is the director of the Christian Communicator Manuscript Critique Service. She has authored 30 books. You can reach her at,

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Elusive Comma (Part 1 of 7)

(This post comes from Susan Titus Osborn.)

The punctuation error that seems to occur most often in the manuscripts crossing my desk is misuse of the comma. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS or CMOS), The Associated Press Handbook, and most grammar books list different rules. Most publishers have their own style sheets, but they follow CMS, the standard in the book publishing industry. CMS is expensive so I suggest Strunk and White's The Elements of Style to help you with grammar, punctuation, and word usage. First copyrighted in 1935, that little 92-page book is packed with the basics.

Susan Titus Osborn is the director of the Christian Communicator Manuscript Critique Service. She has authored 30 books. You can reach her at,

Friday, September 28, 2012

Words from a Book Editor (Part 2 of 2)

(This post comes from Vicki Crumpton.)

Traditional publishing is highly schedule driven. We live by catalog cycles and when a book is contracted, we slot it in a catalog season for release.

Manuscript deadlines are based on the release date, and everything we do for a book from then on, whether editorial, marketing, sales, or publicity, is driven by the need to hit that release date.

I'm writing this in the summer of 2012, and we're titling books that will release the following summer. Once titles are set, the cover design starts. I’m editing books that will release a year from now.

Each October, our sales conference prepares our reps to sell the upcoming Summer list, and our key account reps start selling right after the sales conference. Why? The large accounts make their buying decisions that far in advance.

Air traffic control is a good analogy for the publishing process. Planes get slotted by air traffic control long before they reach their destination, so that when planes get close to O’Hare, all of them can land in an orderly fashion.

I'd love to have the opportunity to listen to the cockpit radio conversation. I've never heard a pilot say, "I have to fly over Dallas on my way to Chicago, so I'm going to be about five hours late. That won't mess up anybody, will it?"

Life does happen. The important thing is for authors to communicate with their editors as soon as they know there will be a problem with a deadline.

Vicki Crumpton, Executive Editor for Revell (a division of Baker Publishing Group), acquired a number of award finalists and winners, as well as several New York Times' bestsellers, including 90 Minutes in Heaven. She holds an M. Div. and Ph.D. from Southwestern.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Words from a Book Editor (Part 1 of 2)

(This post comes from Vicki Crumpton.)

When I receive a proposal, I evaluate far more than the manuscript. I look at platform, professionalism, marketing angles, other books in our list, and a host of other things before I even get to the manuscript or sample chapters.

When I start working on a contracted manuscript, I look at the technical things, such as grammar, style, punctuation, and word count. Amazingly, authors occasionally miss that by as much as 20,000 words. That always concerns me.

This is where publishing gets fun: I love it when a manuscript comes in far better than I dreamed it would be when we contracted it. I love it when I get so involved in reading that I forget that I need to work on the manuscript. I love it when authors hit home runs.

A good author-editor relationship is like most other good relationships. There’s a common interest. There’s good communication. There’s respect. It often goes beyond just work, though, because we share things that are happening in our lives. Over the course of my career, most of my authors would say they also count me as a friend, as I do them.

Vicki Crumpton, Executive Editor for Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, acquired a number of award finalists and winners, as well as several New York Times' bestsellers, including 90 Minutes in Heaven. She holds an M. Div. and Ph.D. from Southwestern.

Friday, September 21, 2012

A Note from Cec

For this series, I've received an immense number of responses--and I'm thankful to each of you for the effort you expended to write.

I've been heavily involved with my virtual assistant, Twila Belk, in finishing up a book for early 2013 release. It's taken us about three months longer than I had anticipated. We're almost finished.

One question sent was whether these blog entries would appear in book form. Yes (so I can get Twila to stop nagging) and it will probably go into print the first part of 2013. (We'll notify you.)

Today someone asked what blogs I read on writing. I skim a number of them, but haven't found one I particularly like. I own perhaps 200 books on writing. A couple of months ago I bought two books by Mignon Fogarty. She writes brief entries, so I carry her book with me on my trips to read in those odd moments.

But the truth is that I've been writing full time since 1984, and I've learned many, many lessons (and I'm still learning). I'm at the stage where I need reminders more than new information.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 21 of 21)

One more thing I need to do.

Good writers are never satisfied with their writing. They know they can improve even though they're not sure how. So they continue learning and reading about writing.

Each morning I spend about ten minutes online reading blogs for writers, trying to glean insight. Many of them are helpful. The more I grow as a writer, the more aware I become of good writing and weak writing.

I also read widely—far, far outside the fields in which I write. I promised myself and God that I would never stop learning. In that commitment I promised that I would read at least one book a week. (I'm about 10 years ahead of my proposed number.)

I want to be known as a growing writer. 
I can be known that way if I remain a learner. 
I promise myself not to stop learning.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 20 of 21)

Stop. Let go.

When I finished the eighteenth draft of my first article, I knew I couldn’t improve it. Today I could, but that was the best I could do then. An editor or someone else might make it better, or in another year I might have developed my skills enough to make it better. But not then.

To myself I said aloud, "This is the best I can do at this stage of my development." I still repeat those words before I send in a manuscript. It’s my way to let it go.

Someone told me, "I have to decide if I will release my imperfect manuscript or hold on to the perfect manuscript inside my head."

When I can say, 
"This is the best I can do at this stage of my development," 
I give myself permission to stop.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 19 of 21)

Write a good query.

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 ideas and I wouldn't accept any of them. My basic query idea applies whether you write to agents or editors.

Here are two things you need to bear in mind:

* Keep the query brief.

* Make it a professional-looking business letter whether you use paper or email.

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." State your premise and let them make value judgments.

In the second paragraph tell them about yourself. Give them your background, education, experience, and 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.

My query letter is a business letter. 
It asks an editor to buy my product, 
and the editor probably knows the product better than I do.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 18 of 21)

Polish the article again.

You've edited once and you're finished.

I doubt it.

Keep editing and revising it until you know you can’t make it better.

Look for redundancies. Most writers tend to overwrite and to say the same thing three or four times with different words. In print, you need to say something only once (unless you're using it as a literary device). Therefore, when you polish, aim for brief articles and short chapters.

Today, articles run 800 to 1800 words and if you stay below 1200 words, you're probably about right. Chapters have also gotten shorter. For an example, look at the novels of James Patterson. None of his chapters takes up more than five pages. Each is one scene, and a decade ago editors would have combined several of them into a single chapter. Patterson caters to the byte-size generation and his books consistently hit the best-seller lists.

My writing may not hit the best-seller lists, 
but I can make it the best writing I'm capable of producing. 
And if it's my best, that's good enough—for now.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 17 of 21)

Polish your writing again.

I like to rewrite. Sound crazy? Not to me, because I enjoy finding ways to make my writing better. Below are some of the things I look for when I get into Serious Mode Editing.

I scrutinize for clichés, fuzzy thoughts, grammatical problems, poor word choice, and favorite words I've used too often. I ask myself: Have I written with a logical progression? Too many writers touch on a topic and four paragraphs later go back to the same point.

Another thing, I read the final sentence of a paragraph and the first of the next to see if I've made good transitions. If you read the two previous sentences, you'll see that by starting this paragraph with "another thing," I made a transition. You had no trouble following my thoughts.

I get rid of clutter, such as redundancies and laborious phrases. A good rule is that if I can think of a simpler word, I use it in place of a long word. We write to communicate, not to impress.

I check sentence length. When I get above 20 words in a sentence with no commas or semicolons, I've already strained the grasp of some.

I especially look for clichés. I'm weary of reading those overused phrases. At Christmas, for example, I must have read 50 ads that touted the perfect Christmas gift. Not only is nothing perfect, but the word has become meaningless.

I'll deal with clichés another time, but think of it this way: If it's an expression you've heard before, it's probably a cliché. Find a different-but-clear way to say it.

I will revise my manuscript. Then I'll do it again. 
There is no magic number of revisions, 
but it's always more than one.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 16 of 21)

Shorten those sentences.

Grumble if you like, but terse-and-clear is the mark of good writing. 

Whether or not you think a sentence is too short, in order to write well, it probably isn't too short at all.

Read that 22-word sentence again. You can cut words. Whether implies or not. At all is redundant and you can cut in order. I'd suggest you make the sentence read this way: If you think a sentence is too short, it probably isn't. Not only is the revision shorter, but it's clearer and more readily understood.

When I first started to write, the late Charlie Shedd taught, "Never make a sentence longer than 15 words." His words were a bit arbitrary, but in those days 50 words wasn't too long for a sentence. Yet I vigilantly limited my sentences so I didn't exceed than that number. After a time, however, I realized that 15 makes choppy writing.

Here's how I say it today: "Let your sentences average no more than 20 words." Good writing doesn't demand a word limit on a sentence. Take as long as you need to express a thought. Afterward, go back and ask if you can eliminate words or perhaps make a long sentence into two.

If you write succinctly and clearly, you're one rung higher on the good-writer ladder. You can figure out the antithesis of that statement. Antithesis is a good word, but it may be beyond the vocabulary of some readers. Why not say the opposite? That's another tip.

Good writers cut ruthlessly. 
I am becoming a good writer, so I cut ruthlessly.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 15 of 21)

Revise and polish your article.

Call it editing, revising, or polishing, it means you work on the article until it's the best you can do.

As I wrote earlier, I wrote 18 full drafts of my first article. After that, I revised each a few times. Perhaps 15 on the second article (I no longer remember). By then, I had gained knowledge on how to write. I continued working to improve.

I still write occasional articles and I go through the same steps, but I write fewer drafts. I rarely go beyond the third draft. Even on the third, it really is polishing and not editing.

Here are a few hints on polishing your work.

* Look for awkward or laborious sentences.

* Seek ways to cut unneeded words. Get rid of adjectives and adverbs that don't enhance the writing.

* Sharpen your focus (if needed).

* Look at the number of times you use the same word in your article. If you use a word 12 times, that's too many. Look at a thesaurus for synonyms (but don't use one unless you know what it means). 

My article is never good enough 
until it's good enough for me to say I can't improve it.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 14 of 21)

Slant your article.

You can write your article two different ways. The common method is to write an article and search for a magazine or ezine to publish it. That often works—but it's not efficient.

A better way is to slant the article to fit the needs of a particular publisher. That's called "knowing your markets."

For instance, I don’t like put-down jokes and I decided to write an article on the subject. I aimed it at parents so that they could set the example for their children.

I sent the article to a magazine and their guidelines stated that staff wrote 90 percent of their articles. I had studied the magazine enough to know my article fit their scope and style, so I sent it. Three weeks later an editor wrote to say she liked the article and that it was exactly the kind of material they wanted. (I felt affirmed by that comment.)

The problem was that they didn’t see how they could use it for at least a year. "This isn’t fair to you," she wrote, "so please feel free to sell it elsewhere. If you have not sold it within six months, please send it back and we’ll accept it for publication."

I didn't want to wait. I changed three sentences to focus on adults in general, gave it a new title, and sent it to a different magazine. They bought it and also paid more money than where I sent it first.

In my early days of writing I wouldn’t have known how to do that. Despite my changing the slant for a second magazine, the principles of writing articles still hold. I started my article with one basic thought, illustrated my point, told about the harm of put-down jokes, and offered suggestions on how to avoid that type of humor.

Slanting is part of the craft I learn. 
It's more work to slant my writing for a specific publication. 
It's also a sign of professionalism.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 13 of 21)

Two Qualities Every Article or Book Needs

I've previously mentioned the need for uniqueness. That is, what can you say that hasn't been said endlessly and probably better than you could?

One major method I used in my early days is what I call the yes-but concept. When I read what others say on a topic that I'm interested in, I mentally argue with them. I read their presentation and say, "Yes, that's true, but. . ." That is, I try to think of what the author isn't saying or I raise my own questions.

The second quality every article needs is universality. Whatever idea you have, you need to show readers how it applies to them. Your premise must be important enough for readers to say, "Yes, that's something I need to read."

If you want to talk about coping with an illness that only one person in 40 million people face, you'll have trouble marketing that idea. But you could write about the mental and physical anguish of coping with a debilitating illness and use your experience to illustrate your premise.

When I write for publication 
I remind myself of uniqueness and universality. 
My writing needs both.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 12 of 21)

Ignore the manuscript for a time.

Many writers feel exhilarated or relieved when they write the final word and want to get it to the editor or agent. Resist that urge. Look at it again critically. Does this sentence make sense? Did I explain it thoroughly? Did I over-explain?

After I close the file on a manuscript and leave it a few days, perhaps as long as a month, I've always improved it. I use the absolute always because I mean without exception.

When I return to the material, I read it with new insight because the material has been churning in my unconscious mind. (I intentionally put the previous sentence in the passive voice. I could have written: My unconscious mind churned the material, but the emphasis was on the action (churning) and not on the actor (my mind). This is an extra tip.

I write to get the story written; 
I rewrite to improve the quality.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 11 of 21)

Don't distract readers.

Let's look again at reading two magazines. As you focus on each article, here’s another question to ask: Is there anything that distracts me from a single focus? Less experienced writers tend to provide too much information and thus divert the power of the message.

Once you have a single-focused idea, you can state it in one sentence. Here are examples:

* If you’re considering adoption, here are seven things you need to know.

* People see the patient, but the caregiver becomes invisible.

* I didn't want to forgive Betty, but Betty forgave me.

If I can't reduce an article, scene, or chapter 
into one statement, 
I probably haven't focused.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 10 of 21)

How do I write the first draft?

My answer is simple: Go wild. Don't censor yourself. Vomit on the page. Let it flow. Remind yourself you can always go back and delete. You'll certainly be able to go back and improve.

If your first draft contains paragraphs that don't fit the topic, delete them. However, you may have stumbled on to the idea for a follow-up article.

Write the draft and don't worry about grammar or style. No one has to see the draft but you. You may be one of those logical, analytical writers who thinks sequentially. Let it flow. If you're the other kind and your mind jumps around and you end up with a first draft of 5,000 words and you need only 1/5 of the material, that's all right. Don't censor yourself.

The too-many words writer needs to learn to cut, cut, cut. I call that the fat writer. By contrast, I call myself a skinny writer (I am thin, but that's not the reason).

As a skinny writer, even when I let it flow, my first draft reads more like an outline than a full article, but I've written my concepts and major thoughts. If you're a skinny writer, you'll have to add details or information to bring readers into your way of thinking.

When I write my first draft, I vomit on the page. 
I will go back later and clean up the mess.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 9 of 21)

Two ways to outline your article:

Here are two methods, both of which provide a helpful formula. I'm not a formula-type writer, but both methods have proven beneficial to many.

#1Train Method: (Visualize the old-fashioned freight train with the snowplow, locomotive, boxcars, and caboose.)

1. Snowplow or Cowcatcher: You grab attention, carry readers into the article with a quote, anecdote, or question to rouse curiosity and keep them reading.

2. Locomotive: Write the theme or purpose that sets the direction and establishes your focus. It's a concise statement of your viewpoint.

3. Boxcars: They carry the evidence that supports your premise. This is the heart or substance of the article and you arrange it in logical sequence.

4. Caboose: You end the article so that readers feel they are at the end and you didn't merely stop.

#2 Guideposts Method: This is the basic formula used by Guideposts magazine for their articles.

1. Hey! You grab attention.

2. You! This is the theme or reason the article is important to readers.

3. See! You show your viewpoint or purpose. This is the body of the article.

4. So? This is your conclusion. You haven't finished until you show readers the relevance of the article to their lives.

Because I want to learn, 
I seriously ponder the two formulas.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 8 of 21)

Focus your article.

Before you write, plan where you’re going. If you start with a single concept or idea, you decide on a beginning or introduction and bring in evidence to support your point.

If you have a distinct focus—a single idea—that's where you start. I strongly recommend a written outline. It helps you know where you start and becomes like a map to get you to the end.

Once you know you have the material structured, begin with an illustration or a statement that points readers in the direction the next six pages will take. The story can be either negative or positive—its purpose is to bring out the problem you want to resolve in the article. (This holds true with fiction: You start with someone having a problem.)

Ask yourself questions. Answer them in logical order so that each fact or incident naturally leads to the next.

For example (and those two words are a logical transition from the previous paragraph), you want to write about learning to forgive. The most obvious way is to set up the problem and it can be done in a few words or two paragraphs.
I can't remember when I began to detest Maynard. Was it in grade school when he played his stupid jokes on me? Was it the time he stole two dollars from my wallet? Or was it when he started dating Gina because he knew I liked her?
Now I have the problem—the obvious next thing is to resolve the issue. I don't like Maynard, but I need to get those angry, bad feelings out of life and forgive him. How do I forgive?

Move from setup to the logical steps you followed to forgive. Or you can point out that all of us have times we need to learn to forgive. You tell them the five things (or seven or three) they need to do. Use your story with Maynard to illustrate the steps.

I focus on a problem or situation 
and then show how to arrive at a solution.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 7 of 21)

Gather your material.

Once you know what you want to write and you've decided on one idea for the chapter or article, gather the material. That's called doing research.

Learn everything you can to make your manuscript complete and include all essential information.

If it's a personal-experience, search your memory and ask others who were involved. If it's historical or factual material (even if you write fiction) read widely. Find the one or two best sources—preferably the original sources quoted by others.

Always learn more about a topic than you plan to use. Years ago I wrote a scene in a novel that included a woman's visit to a field of pyrethrum, a natural pesticide. By the time I finished my research, I could have easily written 5,000 words on the topic. In the novel, I wrote one paragraph and used 93 words. That's all I needed for the story.

When you research carefully, you provide accurate information. Keep records. Footnote your writing if needed. If you use on-line sources, verify the information before you quote.

Decide on the anecdotes and illustrations you want to use. Think of those word pictures as windows. If you have only narrative statements, it's like a building with only walls. If you illustrate with research, you create windows for your readers. You enable readers to see inside the structure and they understand your statements.

I work hard as a writer 
so I can make it easy for readers.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 6 of 21)

How do I move from idea to polished manuscript?

1. You start with an idea—one about which you're passionate. Don't try to write an article just because you think it will sell. You need enthusiasm to stay with it.

2. Decide if there is an audience large enough for your article.

3. Do the research. We all work differently, but be sure you know your topic. If it's a personal-experience piece, be as clear on the facts as possible. Ask others who were involved. Research means you gather information and you also figure out illustrations or anecdotes to make your ideas significant.

4. Start building your ideas around a theme. Everything in your piece needs to point to your central idea. I usually write my concept for articles and for books. It helps me stay focused. For instance, a couple of years ago I worked on something about accountability. Here's my premise:

To whom are you accountable?

Most people answer with one word: Nobody.

Everything in that piece had to keep going back to that statement. I had to show readers they needed someone—a friend, a mentor, or a therapist. That led me to state the benefits of relating to someone else.

5. Write a draft. (See the next blog for more on that.)

6. Leave the draft for as long as you can—a day or possibly two weeks. I find a week is usually enough for me to get my mind off the topic—which is the idea.

7. Let the unconscious work. That's part of leaving the draft. Try not to think consciously of its strengths or weaknesses.

8. After a time lapse, edit ruthlessly. Take out every weak word and look for anything that doesn't flow with the topic.

9. You might need to edit more than once. I edited my first article 18 times before I sent it out. (I also sold it to the first magazine to which I sent it.)

10. Send it off. Get it off your desk.

11. Think of a new idea. It's even better if you can think of some other aspect of the topic on which you've written. If you can, you build your credentials and those isolated articles become the basis for your book. If not a book, you become an authority on your topic through magazines and ezines.

I work systematically and faithfully 
because I want to publish.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 5 of 21)

How do I write a good article?

Start with passion. Find a topic that excites you. Let's try something simple. Suppose you want readers to manage their time better. Thousands of articles and books have come out on the topic during the past 30 years, so you want to say something that's different.

What unique insight do you have? You could write a personal-experience article on your winning over procrastination and gaining control. You could write a how-to article (which is the most commonly written type). Go back to passion. What grabs you about the topic?

How about starting with something like the Myers-Briggs Personality Types Inventory? It says that you have a preference for meeting deadlines (a J in their inventory) or you're a P and you don't get close to meeting deadlines without pressure.

Is the passion stirring? Do the ideas flow? Stay with the manuscript. Ponder the concept. If the J personalities don't need the time-management tips, what do you have to offer the P personalities without inducing guilt?

As you ponder the idea you will do research. What have others said on the topic? At least Google the topic of time management and that can help you learn what's been written on the topic.

If I can write an article infused with passion, I know there is an audience for my ideas.

I begin an article with a passionate concept. 
That's the best place to start.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 4 of 21)

What is a good article?

Let’s start with a definition. An article is a short piece that focuses on one idea; a chapter is a short piece that focuses on one idea. In the chapter of a novel, several things may happen but the chapter has a single purpose and stays with it. It's just as true with a chapter of a nonfiction book in which you may explain five ways to avoid a heart attack. All five methods stay with the same theme.

Many writers don't understand that simple premise: Focus on one idea.

Here’s an easy way to see how this works. Pick out two magazines. (I suggest you avoid ezines. Many of them are badly written and poorly edited.) Read three articles in each magazine.

As you read, ask yourself: What is the one point the author makes? The title should help. If it’s a how-to article called "Three Ways to Lose Weight," that points the direction. If it’s something such as "The Day Dad Cried," everything in that piece needs to point to a single, poignant event with no distracting information about where Dad lived when he was fifteen (unless it’s relevant) or the fact that he went to school with Brad Pitt's mother's younger brother.

Open a novel at the beginning of any chapter and the principle works. If you look at books from 100 years ago, they often had a table of contents for fiction that told readers what they were about to read in each chapter.

When I complete an article or chapter, 
I will have focused on one idea.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 3 of 21)

"I'm a fiction writer. I don't do articles."

That may be your problem. If you want to work on short stories, that may be the way to learn the craft, but the market is limited.

Why not start with articles? Even novelists need to know how to construct a chapter—that is, the serious writers realize they need to do more than just write anything that flows through their minds.

Part of learning the craft of writing is to learn the basics. My wife's cardiologist didn't start with his specialty. He studied all the required courses for being an MD. After that, he moved into cardiology.

I want to learn to write.
I'm serious enough to start with the foundational principles.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 2 of 21)

Here are more reasons for starting with articles.

Too many writers want to start with a book without proving themselves as writers first. This is a proven strategy for rejection. Writing isn't something we perfect overnight. It takes hard work and dedication.

Geoff Colvin's research for Talent Is Overrated urges "deliberate practice—a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain."[1]

His research refers to the ten-year rule which states that talented performers don't become great "without at least ten years of very hard preparation, and goes on to add, ". . . authors produce their greatest work only after twenty or more years of devoted effort . . . ."[2]

Think of them as your apprenticeship. You write and sell articles to learn the craft and to understand the business.

More than 100 of my articles hit print before I started a book. I look back at those experiences as my invaluable apprenticeship. I had to find writing time in the middle of my busy work world and I proved I could do it and meet deadlines. In my diligence to publish, I convinced myself that writing was what I truly wanted to do.

Too many writers don't want to put in the grunt work of learning the rules and applying them. Once I started writing books, however, I knew what I was doing. No matter how well we think we can write, none of us comes into publishing fully developed. We need to master techniques and skills.

Another reason for articles first is that you work for shorter periods of time and get feedback faster. It's easier to handle a rejected article on which you spent three weeks than on a book that took you two years to write and it never sold.

If I first write shorter pieces, 
my first book will be superior to what I could have done earlier. 


[1] Talented Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin (NY: New York, Penguin Group, 2008) p. 63

[2] Op.cit. p. 62.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Writing Articles (Part 1 of 21)

Is it necessary to write articles first?

I won't say you can't get a book published without going the article route; I would say that writing articles makes it easier when you're ready to sell your book.

Here are the advantages:

* You prove that you can start and complete a writing project.

* You prove that you have publishing experience.

* Articles help you gain credibility in the marketplace.

* You can show that you have the skills for a magazine piece.

* You show you can write a specific length to fit the magazines.

* You can handle editing by a professional and rewrite if requested.

* You gain writing credentials.

* Your publishing credits show that you have begun to establish name recognition.

If your book is nonfiction, you could write the chapters and sell them as articles. (Sell only first or one-time rights.) You'll reshape them some for a book later, but the bulk of the research and writing will be done.

I don't have to write articles first, 
but it's an excellent way to break into publishing.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Historical Present Tense

It's all right to use the historical present tense.

We also call it the historical present, narrative present, or dramatic present. It means we use the present tense to narrate or tell past events. We use the historical present to make past events seem more dramatic.

* In The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad is walking across the cracked, water-starved fields after his release from prison.

* In the classic film, Casablanca, Elsa asks Sam to play "As Time Goes By." At first he refuses.

Either example could have been written in simple past tense. This is your choice as the writer. "In The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad walked across. . .”

I may choose the historical present tense 
if it makes a past event more dramatic.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Using the Ellipsis and Brackets (Part 2 of 2)

Think of brackets [ ] as clarifiers. You use them in two ways. First, you substitute words and put them within the brackets to make clear to readers what you mean and that you modified the original statement.

* "Although my favorite author [Edgar Allan Poe], is best known for his dark poems and short stories," Marnie wrote in her report. The original sentence began "Although my favorite author, he is . . ."

* "Then [Jesus] told them a story: "A rich man had a fertile farm that produced fine crops . . ." (Luke 12:16, New Living Translation). The translation reads, "Then he told . . ."

Second, you point out a linguistic irregularity, spelling error, or grammatical mistake you want to correct when you quote. When you change a quotation you follow the irregularity with the Latin sic in brackets to indicate the questionable words. Sic means "intentionally so written," and grammarians have used it for more than 150 years.

* "None of the students [sic] in my class complained," the teacher wrote to the school board. Her original sentence began: None of the twenty-seven, multi-cultural children and seven teens in my class . . .

* "I don't want anything [sic] except justice," the old man wrote in pencil on lined paper. He wrote, "I don't want nothing," and the brackets corrected his grammar.

I use brackets to clarify meanings. 
They are not substitutes for parentheses.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Using the Ellipsis and Brackets (Part 1 of 2)

The ellipsis has two functions. First, it's used in quoted material to shorten the material. You indicate that you have deleted words you consider unimportant for the point you wish to make.

We used to write the ellipsis using three periods without spaces, but the industry trend is to put a space before each period.

You use a four-period ellipsis at the end of a sentence. The ellipsis is still three periods and the fourth is the end of the sentence. Think of it as a period following an ellipsis.

* Butler's report stated, "We will run out of . . . fossil fuels in thirty-five more years."

* "Even when I walk through the darkest valley . . . you are close beside me" (Psalm 23:4, New Living Translation).

* "Comfort the discouraged . . . . Be patient with everyone." (1 Thessalonians 5:14 Common English Bible). The fourth period is to show the end of the sentence.

The second use of the ellipsis, as shown below, is to indicate a pause or hesitation.

* What I mean to say . . . is I don't want to think about it.

* His father was . . . let's say not kind . . . but he worked hard.

Because I know the rule about ellipses, 
I use them properly.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Was That Meant Parenthetically? (Part 3 of 3)

Besides parentheses, we also use commas to set up parenthetical statements, transitional expressions, and mild interjections.

* His research indicates, surprisingly, that caffeine has healthy qualities.

* He tells his story chronologically, except the account of his accident.

* A severe frost, quite early for August, wiped out the tomato crop.

Here is where the intention of the writer makes the difference. In the examples above, I could have substituted dashes if I wanted to stress the interruptive elements. I decided that I didn't want to put the emphasis on the parenthetical expressions. The first sentence could have read: His research indicates—surprisingly—that caffeine has healthy qualities.

Parenthetical expressions, set off by commas, 
are "asides," and add interesting-but-not vital information.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Was That Meant Parenthetically? (Part 2 of 3)

The dash has deposed the parenthetical expression, although they are not the same. The dash signals an added or interrupting thought. The parenthesis (with interesting information) contains less important information while the dash emphasizes the addition.

* Martin finally arrived—disheveled and drunk.

* During her entire life—99 years—Anna never tasted alcohol or ate pork.

* His autobiography—if you choose to glorify it with that word—came out in print in 2011.

* The White Sox have a good chance to win the pennant—if they can beat the Orioles.

The dash seems to have become the most overused mark of punctuation. Use it sparingly and it's effective; use it too often and it makes the writing trite or overwritten.

Consider this example of overuse: After we looked for poor Mitsie—for at least an hour—we found her—shivering in the rain. We carried her into the house—really the back porch—and wrapped her in a thick, woolen blanket—an older one that we could throw away.

The dash interrupts a thought 
for emphasis. I'll use it carefully.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Was That Meant Parenthetically? (Part 1 of 3)

The parenthesis has largely disappeared from informal, commercial writing. Remember that parentheses always come in pairs—before and after the punctuated material. They include explanations, digressions, and examples that, although helpful or interesting, aren't essential for the meaning of the sentence.

* The theater tickets (ranging in price from three dollars to twelve) will go on sale Friday.

* Edna is a troublesome guest because she's allergic to all my favorite snacks (like chocolate, popcorn, and potato chips) and complains because I don't like what she prefers to eat.

The dash (composed of two typed hyphens) has become a strong punctuation mark with most commercial writers and has largely replaced the parenthesis.

If you delete the parenthetical expressions, the sentences make sense and still convey the information you want. 

I use parentheses to include information 
that isn't vital for the intended meaning.

Friday, June 8, 2012

More Writing Tips (Part 5 of 5)

When writing a series, go from the lesser to the greater. We do this to build the significance of the statements.

* For the next hour, Merlin paced the room, screamed with impatience, and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. The order is ridiculous, so we start with the lesser action which is probably shifting his weight, and we end with a scream.

* He disliked peppers, loathed celery, and tolerated peas. If you think of the emotional level, tolerated seems the most benign, followed by disliked.

When I write a series of actions 
I begin with the lesser and move to the greater.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

More Writing Tips (Part 4 of 5)

Use chronological order. You need to arrange a series of events according to the time they occurred, beginning with the earliest events. Bette Davis won the Oscar in 1938 for her role in Jezebel and in 1935 for her performance in Dangerous. Common sense says to start with 1935.

* He snacked at 3:00 in the afternoon, 9:00 in the morning, midnight, and at odd hours before dawn. Start with 9:00, which is the earliest.

* He stared at his childhood pictures, showing him when he was a year old, nine months old, sixteen, and seven. The way to correct this one is probably obvious.

When I list time events, 
I put them in chronological order, 
beginning with the earliest date.

Friday, June 1, 2012

More Writing Tips (Part 3 of 5)

Avoid faulty parallelism.

This means that when you put words in a series, they need to match (or parallel) the grammatical structure.

Marlene ate chili, chicken, peas, and sliced her bananas. The last item, sliced her bananas, isn't parallel.

You can correct it this way: Marlene ate chili, chicken, peas, and bananas. Or you could write, Marlene ate chili, chicken, and peas. After that, she sliced her bananas.

When I write a series of words, 
each word will match the grammatical structure.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

More Writing Tips (Part 2 of 5)

Avoid the run-on, run-together, or fused sentence.

Although similar to the comma splice, these independent statements have no commas and thus they run together without any punctuation to indicate where the first ends and the second begins. Here's an example: The great white shark eats humans research shows that most sharks spit them back out. What is humans research? I'd insert a period or a semicolon after humans. Or add a conjunction: . . . eats humans, although research.

* Edgar Allan Poe is one of America's foremost poets he died in poverty. If you insert a comma and a conjunction, you've made the statement easily understood.

Careful writers avoid run-on or fused sentences 
by adding commas or conjunctions.

Friday, May 25, 2012

More Writing Tips (Part 1 of 5)

Get rid of the comma splice.

The term, comma splice, means that writers join (splice together) two complete thoughts that have no connection. Here is an example: Most of my classmates drink coffee, and caffeine keeps me awake. We know coffee contains caffeine, but there is no connection between the two statements.

* Windows are open to the warm morning air, the air conditioning units are off. To make good sense, you connect them to each other with more than a comma: Windows are open to the warm morning air, because the air conditioning units are off. Because joins the two thoughts.

* Most unindustrialized nations have high birth rates, most of their citizens are young. This would work if we wrote, Most unindustrialized nations have high birth rates and therefore, most of their citizens are young.

Careful writers avoid joining two unconnected thoughts 
with only a comma.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Capitalization Rules for Writers (Part 8 of 8)

(Kathy Ide wrote this eight-part series.)

Religious Terms
The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style has a comprehensive list of what religious terms should be capitalized. Here are a few examples:

* Bible and Scripture are capitalized, but biblical and scriptural are not. Similarly, capitalize the Almighty but not almighty God.

* Lowercase the apostles, the apostle Paul, Paul the apostle, and apostolic, but capitalize Paul’s title Apostle to the Gentiles and John’s the Beloved Apostle.

* Only capitalize the word Bible in phrases like “Bible study” and “vacation Bible school.”

* Noah’s ark and the ark of the covenant are lowercased.

* Lowercase baby in “the baby Jesus” and child in “the Christ child.”

* Lowercase body in “the body of Christ,” whether referring to the church or Jesus’ physical form.

Kathy Ide is a published author, ghostwriter, and freelance editor. She speaks at writers’ conferences, teaches online writing and editing courses, and mentors new writers. She’s the founder and coordinator of The Christian PEN: Proofreaders and Editors Network ( and the Christian Editor Network ( Learn more at

Friday, May 18, 2012

Capitalization Rules for Writers (Part 7 of 8)

(Kathy Ide wrote this eight-part series.)

Small Caps
Earlier editions of the industry-standard guidelines suggested using small caps in certain instances, but the latest editions recommend not using them at all.

A.M. and P.M.
Instead of small-capped a.m. and p.m., use lowercase with periods (a.m. and p.m.).

B.C. and A.D.
Instead of small caps with periods (B.C. and A.D.), use full caps without periods (BC and AD).

NOTE: AD is placed before the date; BC after. Examples:
* 3000 BC
* AD 62

Abbreviations for Scripture Translations
Instead of using small caps for abbreviations of Scripture translations (KJV, NASB, etc.), use full caps (NIV, NKJV).

Kathy Ide is a published author, ghostwriter, and freelance editor. She speaks at writers’ conferences, teaches online writing and editing courses, and mentors new writers. She’s the founder and coordinator of The Christian PEN: Proofreaders and Editors Network ( and the Christian Editor Network ( Learn more at

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Capitalization Rules for Writers (Part 6 of 8)

(Kathy Ide wrote this eight-part series.)

Titles and Headings

Titles of books, chapters, songs, poems, etc. (as well as headings and subheadings) should follow these capitalization guidelines.

* the first and last words of the title
* the first word following a colon or a dash
* all nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs
* subordinate conjunctions (when, if, as, so, that)

* articles (a, an, the)
* prepositions (through, up, down, on, etc.)
* coordinate conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, for)
* the words to and as

Here are some examples:

* Four Theories concerning the Gospel according to Matthew

* Looking Up Directions, Writing Them Down, and Typing Them Out 
(Note: up, down, and out are used as adverbs here, not prepositions)

* Talking on Your Cell Phone in a Writers’ Conference Workshop

For hyphenated compounds in titles:

* Capitalize the first word in the compound phrase.

* Capitalize all other words except articles (a, an, the), prepositions (in, on, over, up, down, through), or coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, for). Example: Hard-and-Fast Rules for Writers

* If the first part of the word is a prefix that could not stand alone (anti, pre, etc.), lowercase the second part of the word (unless it is a proper name). Example: A Non-Christian’s Guide to Post-resurrection Philosophies

* Capitalize the second part of a spelled-out number or fraction. Examples: (1) Heather’s Twenty-First Chapter (2) A Two-Thirds Majority

Kathy Ide is a published author, ghostwriter, and freelance editor. She speaks at writers’ conferences, teaches online writing and editing courses, and mentors new writers. She’s the founder and coordinator of The Christian PEN: Proofreaders and Editors Network ( and the Christian Editor Network ( Learn more at

Friday, May 11, 2012

Capitalization Rules for Writers (Part 5 of 8)

(Kathy Ide wrote this eight-part series.)

Regional Terms

Regional terms that are considered proper names should be capitalized. Adjectives and nouns are not. Here are some examples of capitalized terms:

* Central America

* the Continent (Europe)

* the East/North/South/West

* Eastern/Northern/Southern/Western Hemisphere

* Eastern culture

* Middle East(ern)

* the Midwest (US)

* North/South Pole

* the Orient

* an Oriental

* the Pole

* the Northwest/Southwest

* West Coast (US)

* Western world

Northern and Southern California are capitalized, but this does not extend to other US states.

Here are some examples of lowercased terms:

* central Europe

* eastern, easterner

* eastern seaboard (US)

* the equator

* northern Africa

* oriental culture

* polar regions

* the south of France

Topographical Names

Names of mountains, rivers, oceans, and islands are capitalized. When a generic term is used descriptively rather than as part of the name, or if it is used alone, it is lowercased. Examples:

* the California desert

* the Hudson River valley

* the Hawaiian Islands

* the island of Hawaii

* the Kansas prairie

* the valley of the Mississippi

Capitalize the generic term when it applies to two or more names preceding it. For example:

* “… the Illinois and the Chicago Rivers.”

Kathy Ide is a published author, ghostwriter, and freelance editor. She speaks at writers’ conferences, teaches online writing and editing courses, and mentors new writers. She’s the founder and coordinator of The Christian PEN: Proofreaders and Editors Network ( and the Christian Editor Network ( Learn more at

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Capitalization Rules for Writers (Part 4 of 8)

(Kathy Ide wrote this eight-part series.)

Pronouns for God

Today, most book publishers, even religious ones, prefer that pronouns referring to God or Jesus be lowercased. Several Bible versions lowercase pronouns for deity, including most of the newer translations. Therefore, capitalizing such pronouns can make a book seem old-fashioned and may give modern readers a sense that the book is irrelevant to their daily lives.

Some authors resist this trend, feeling that capitalization of deity pronouns shows respect for God. But in the English language, capitalization is mainly used to distinguish specific things from general things. We capitalize both God and Satan, Gandhi and Hitler, because they are all proper names, not because we respect them.

In general, capitalize pronouns for deity if:

* you want your book to have a deliberately old-fashioned tone,

* you quote extensively from a Bible version that capitalizes deity pronouns, or

* you’re writing for a publisher who currently uses the capitalized style.

If you have a strong preference that differs from the publisher’s, ask if they’ll allow it. Be prepared to decide whether this is going to be a deal-breaker for you. 

Whichever style you choose, make sure you are consistent throughout the manuscript.

NOTE: If you capitalize pronouns for deity, do not capitalize who, whom, or whose. But do capitalize You, Your, Yours, Me, My, and Mine.

Kathy Ide is a published author, ghostwriter, and freelance editor. She speaks at writers’ conferences, teaches online writing and editing courses, and mentors new writers. She’s the founder and coordinator of The Christian PEN: Proofreaders and Editors Network ( and the Christian Editor Network ( Learn more at

Friday, May 4, 2012

Capitalization Rules for Writers (Part 3 of 8)

(Kathy Ide wrote this eight-part series.)

Academic Subjects, Courses, and Degrees

Academic subjects are lowercased unless they form part of a department name or an official course name. Examples:

* I majored in contemporary literature.

* I pursued graduate studies in philosophy of science.

Official names of courses are capitalized. Example:

* I registered for Basic Manuscript Editing.

Degrees listed on a résumé, business card, diploma, directory, etc. are capitalized. But in running text, names of degrees should be lowercased. Examples:

* a master’s degree

* a bachelor’s degree

* master of business administration

Kathy Ide is a published author, ghostwriter, and freelance editor. She speaks at writers’ conferences, teaches online writing and editing courses, and mentors new writers. She’s the founder and coordinator of The Christian PEN: Proofreaders and Editors Network ( and the Christian Editor Network ( Learn more at

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Capitalization Rules for Writers (Part 2 of 8)

(Kathy Ide wrote this eight-part series.)

Professional Titles

Civil, military, religious, academic, government, and professional titles are capitalized when they immediately precede a personal name and are thus part of the name. Titles are lowercased when following a name or used in place of a name. Examples:

* President Washington; the president General Patton; the general

* Cardinal Richelieu; the cardinal Professor Jones; the professor

* Governor Johnson; the governor John Kerry, senator from Massachusetts

In promotional or ceremonial contexts (such as a list of donors or corporate officers), titles are capitalized even when following a name. Example:

* Cristina Lopez, Manager of International Sales

A title used in place of a personal name is capitalized in such contexts as a toast or formal introduction, or when used in direct address. Examples:

* Ladies and Gentlemen, the Prime Minister.

* But Captain, that man’s a stowaway.

* Hello, Mr. President.

* What’s the prognosis, Doctor?

Terms of Respect

Honorific titles should be capitalized. But general terms of respect are not. Examples:

* His/Her/Your Majesty

* His/Her/Your Excellency

* His/Her/Your Honor

* my lord, my lady

* sir, ma’am

Kathy Ide is a published author, ghostwriter, and freelance editor. She speaks at writers’ conferences, teaches online writing and editing courses, and mentors new writers. She’s the founder and coordinator of The Christian PEN: Proofreaders and Editors Network ( and the Christian Editor Network ( Learn more at

Friday, April 27, 2012

Capitalization Rules for Writers (Part 1 of 8)

(Kathy Ide wrote this eight-part series.)

Family Relationships

“Kinship names” (father, brother, aunt, cousin, etc.) should be lowercased when used generically or when preceded by a modifier. Examples:

* my dad

* the youngest mother in the group

* her aunt Shelly

When used in place of the name, kinship names are to be capitalized. Examples:

* I know that Mother’s middle name is Janice.

* Does Aunt Becky have a book signing on Saturday?

* Will her Uncle Ed be at the birthday party?

* Hey, Dad, are we going fishing today?

Terms of Endearment

Terms of affection—aka “pet names” (honey, dear, sweetheart)—are lowercased … although some book publishers (mainly publishers of romance novels) have a house preference of capitalizing them.

Kathy Ide is a published author, ghostwriter, and freelance editor. She speaks at writers’ conferences, teaches online writing and editing courses, and mentors new writers. She’s the founder and coordinator of The Christian PEN: Proofreaders and Editors Network ( and the Christian Editor Network ( Learn more at

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Common Problems (Part 50 of 50)

Watch those fragments. A sentence must have a subject or a verb and it must be able to stand alone as a complete thought. After I waited for Tom contains a subject and a verb, but it's not a complete thought.

Careful use of fragments can add meaning and power to your writing. For example: I was absolutely happy. For now. Those last two words are a fragment but they raise a question or produce doubt. The fragment is also closely connected to the full sentence it follows.

In the following paragraph, notice the fragments, and yet they make sense:
They missed the people from whom they had fled. They missed the sight, the sound, even the smell of Africans. The sing-song chanting of workers in the fields. The tangy smell of wood smoke in the early evening.
The fragment also works well (when used cautiously) in action scenes.
In what follows Jason is running his first marathon: He pushed past the first group of runners and was only a dozen yards behind the two leaders. He pushed forward. Too fast. He had to control his pace to win the race. Easy. Easy now. Sneak up behind them.
I used fragments. The first is Too fast. I could have written: It was too fast or he moved too quickly. But the purpose is to make readers feel as if they're running with Jason and are inside him. The same for Easy. Easy now. Sneak up behind them.

It's all right to use sentence fragments occasionally 
—as long as the meaning is clear.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Common Problems (Part 49 of 50)

Watch those adverb endings. The –ly form of adverbs has changed. In English grammar, we classify words by their function and not by their spelling. Smile can be a noun or a verb as it is in this odd sentence: She smiled at his smile.

Until recent years we wrote firstly but modern, informal usage settles for first. First, he finished his task and then he ate. (Tells us when he ate.) Scholarly writing still holds to the adding of the –ly. For the rest of us, Importantly has become important. Most important, he did his job well. If we don't delete the ending, the writing sounds stilted or pompous.

* First, I want your attention, and second, I want you to smile when I pause. In the past we would have written firstly and secondly.

* Most important, listen to your mother.

Modern usage tends to strip away the –ly on adverbs.