6 Quick Proofreading Tips

AND . . . . today is National Proofreading Day. I will celebrate by . . . proofreading! Today I am also reposting a blog I wrote last year on March 8.

What a busy week! We had National Grammar Day on March 4, and today, March 8, is National Proofreading Day. For someone like me who lives this stuff on a daily basis, it’s downright exciting!

The day is devoted to “mistake-free writing” and projecting “a professional image with well-written documents that are 100 percent accurate.” Started by Judy Beaver at The Office Pro, this day is designated because it was her mother’s birthday—and her mother loved to correct errors.

As I noted earlier this week in my post about National Grammar Day, I’m not a total grammar geek but I do care about the correct usage of our language, and I’ve made a living for many years honing this skill. Lots of times I still CMShave to look things up in a dictionary or my Chicago Manual of Style (the style manual for much of the book publishing industry). All manuscripts go through several phases of editing, and I’ve done them all. Generally, if I do one phase on a particular manuscript, I make sure that other people do the other two phases–there’s a different focus that has to take place at each phase.

Editing—I call this the 10,000-foot view. I look at the big picture. I’m reading the fiction story and checking the plot, the pacing and flow, the characterization. In a non-fiction manuscript, I’m seeing if the organization works and makes sense. Any changes I suggest at this point are on the macro level—moving chapter 3 to become chapter 1, for instance. Or looking for that loose end in the mystery that the writer forgot to tie up (“What happened to so-and-so?”). The author makes changes (or not) based on my suggestions, and then the manuscript goes to a copyeditor.

Copyediting—This is more like the 1,000-foot view. Now that the editor has put the manuscript in good shape, if I’m in this role, I’m reading closely for sentence construction—dangling modifiers, run-ons, and inconsistencies. I fact check. I query if something doesn’t make sense, if a transition is needed, if a character’s way of speaking doesn’t sound real based on how he or she has been described by the author (“Would he really say this in this way?”).

Proofreading—This is the 10-foot view. If I’m in this role, sometimes I’m working on a manuscript, but often at this phase I’m looking at a pdf of typeset pages—which means I have to check the table of contents to make sure the titles and page numbers are correct, I check all the folios and running heads, I check the look of each page—marking widows and orphans (those random one or two words at the top of a page, or the lone line at the bottom—these just look awkward). Then I read every word. Even a clean manuscript can have random errors show up when the document is flowed into the typesetting program (a hidden tab in a Word document can suddenly rear its ugly head and space words far apart when typeset).

I love it.

Proofreading is probably my favorite. It’s that red pen mentality. I’m looking for errors only because I want the book, the author, and the publisher to put their best foot (feet?) forward.

The three types of editing take different skills. In my Editing class, I give my students practice in all of these areas, telling them that they will probably find an affinity for one and not like the others so much. But I also tell those who want to become editors that they should hone their grammar and punctuation knowledge anyway, because the copyediting and proofreading jobs are often the entry level positions in publishing companies. From there, they can move up, since often editors and acquisitions editors are hired from within, from people who have been with the company and understand the ethos there.

proofreading

As I noted in my post earlier this week, proofreading skills are vitally important, especially on the job market. To have a clean paper, I suggest the following:

(1) Don’t trust the spell check program on your computer. (Judy has some tips on her blog about this.)

(2) If you’re not absolutely sure of the spelling of a word, don’t guess. Look it up. Dictionary.com is your best friend.

(3) Go back and read your letter, paper, email, memo, whatever, aloud slowly to yourself. This will help you notice if words are missing or if a sentence runs on and on. (It’s best to do this on hard copy. Trust me, you’ll see things differently than on screen. A friend of one of my students writes about that on his blog.)

(4) Then, read it again starting from the bottom paragraph backward, a paragraph at a time. This helps you get outside your own flow and see errors you might skip over otherwise.

(5) Electronically, go back and do a search for an open parenthesis (to make sure that you always have a matching close parenthesis), an open quotation mark (to make sure you always have the appropriate closing quotation mark and to make sure any inner quotation marks are single and that they are both there). And get rid of those double spaces between sentences!

(6) Be aware of your own weaknesses. If you know you tend to write run-on sentences, watch for that in particular. If you know that possessives always mess you up, do a search for apostrophes and check each one for correct usage.

This will clear up a good number of your errors. It never hurts, however, to have someone else look over an especially important document—like a cover letter or resume or manuscript submission.

Let’s put our best foot forward—both of them!

It’s National Grammar Day!

In honor of National Grammar Day, I am reposting my blog on this date from last year. Why? Because I’m busy grading papers for correct grammar–that’s why!

 

Today, March 4, is National Grammar Day.

Are you celebrating? Well, are you?

I am celebrating by finding other celebrants–people I want to add to my tribe because they care about this stuff as much as I do.

I have to confess to being a bit of a grammar geek–although not nearly at the level of Mignon Fogarty aka Grammar Girl. I know some things, but I may not know why I know them or the rule behind them. That comes from thirty years of proofreading, following publisher style sheets, painstakingly reading typeset pages and marking pdfs until my eyes blur.

I love my red pen.

Redpen

You see, I value perfection. (Oh my, I sure hope there aren’t any errors in this post when I’m finished . . . ). I’ve started grad school to learn more about teaching writing and discovered in my theory classes, much to my chagrin, that teaching grammar works against creativity and that college instructors try to steer clear in favor of the big picture, the creativity, the thought processes. I believe all of that is vital, of course. What’s the point of writing if you can’t make a clear argument or create a document that flows? But I also believe that the best argument in the world will get ignored if the writing is fraught with errors. Why do I want to take the time to read your article and consider your opinion if you can’t take the time to make sure to spell correctly and use proper punctuation?

It matters.

So I love National Grammar Day. (It’s on March 4th because apparently that’s the only date that forms a sentence, “March forth.”) I love when I find others in my tribe who care as much as I do about grammar and punctuation and a well-written sentence (they won’t be dangling any modifers in front of me, no sir!).

For one of my classes, I did a little research project. I hypothesized that writing instructors need to teach their students to proofread. We help them a lot at the contextual and sentence level in their writing, but we probably say, “And be sure to proofread your paper before turning it in,” without explaining what proofreading really involves. I think we do them a disservice. There is indeed a place for focusing on perfection. (More about this on Friday, March 8, National Proofreading Day . . . oh my, busy week!)

Take, for example, business writing. I start filling in for the instructor of a Writing for Business class this week for the rest of the semester (the regular instructor is out for shoulder surgery and rehab). I’m reading the textbooks and finding constant statements about the importance of perfection. In fact, one book quotes a website that keeps a collection of “cover letters from hell“–cringe-worthy letters sent to them by folks hoping for a job, like the person who wrote that he/she was an English major good at grammar–and then misspelled it as “grammer.” The website then states,

Elements of Style

A word to the wise: An error-free letter is now so freakin’ rare that the minimal care required to send a letter with zero defects, combined with a few crisply written simple declarative sentences, will, alone, guarantee a respectful reading of a resume. Maybe even secure an interview. Doesn’t anybody read Strunk and White in school any more? If you haven’t, get a copy of The Elements of Style, so you can follow it all your days.

Exactly.

Now all those theorists have a point. Do your writing and don’t worry a bit about your grammar. Get your ideas down. Tell your story. Make your point. Do the best writing you can do.

But before you send the query letter, turn in that article, or send in that manuscript, do me a favor.

Make sure it’s perfect.

Now realize that if you have your own little stylistic “tics” (you want to Capitalize Certain Words for Emphasis, or do random italics), then just let your proofreader know. You can be “incorrect” if it’s part of your style. Create a style sheet that tells your proofreader this is how you want it–then he/she will make sure that you’re consistent, along with looking for any errors you may have missed.

As citizens of the literary world, let’s protect our craft, always doing our best to deliver the best quality.

And if you feel that your proofreading skills leave something to be desired, hire a professional proofreader (or get someone you trust who really knows the craft) to go over everything before you submit the story or mail the letter. Believe it or not, there are people who thrive on helping your writing be perfect. In fact, even if you are good at it, it’s difficult to proofread your own work. It’s that whole “seeing the forest for the trees” thing.

(One little additional note: I’m talking at the professional level here. Please don’t refuse to drop me a note for fear of making errors. I truly do want to keep my friends. My point is that when we’re doing professional writing, we need to be professionals. The rest of the time, my red pen is safely in the drawer.)

So celebrate National Grammar Day with me! Grammar is the toolbox of our trade. Let’s keep those tools sharp!

The Melody of Our Manuscripts

He always arrived in a rumpled brown suit and a wide, striped 1970s-style tie. He would bustle in the door of our apartment in Germany, run his stubby fingers through his mop of gray hair, say “guten Abend,” and sit down in the chair beside the piano bench.

And I duly took my place beside him on the bench.

We opened the book.

I had one piano book when I studied under Herr Mueller. Not a book for scales or a separate book to write in and draw the little notes on the staff and practice making the G-clef. I was way more advanced than that. I’d been taking piano since I could remember.

My piano book
My piano book

So when we arrived in Bonn, Germany, in my freshman year of high school, my parents set about finding a piano teacher.

And they found Herr Mueller.

I wish I knew his whole story. He had been the pianist for the some big orchestra in the United States. Thus, in his younger days, he had played in large concert halls to crowds of appreciative symphony goers. I’m sure he’d worn a tux and, when he approached the piano bench, had deftly tossed the tails behind him. He had been applauded.

And now, he sat beside a high school girl who didn’t appreciate that she was learning piano from a genius.

I ache to think of it.

We practiced from this one book–a big red book filled with music from the great composers. The cover and spine and title page are all missing, so I can’t even give the title. But when I sit down at the piano thirty years later and open the book to page 44, I can still play Beethoven’s “Adagio ‘Moonlight’ Sonata.” I can still play parts of “Fur Elise” (page 48) from memory.

When we opened to a new song that came from an opera, Herr Muller told me the story and where, in the opera, this song appeared. He told me how to play Edward Grieg’s, “Anitra’s Dance” (from Peer Gynt) based on the action at that point in the story, and he could hum every melody from the entire opera.

I think of those days now. I remember how I’d hold my breath when he leaned in close to scribble on the piano page and his bad breath floated into my nostrils. I remember how his stubby fingers flew across the keys. I remember how he loved, loved, loved the piano.

Herr Mueller's fingering notes on my piano page
Herr Mueller’s fingering notes on my piano page

If I could just take lessons from him now. These thirty years later I would cherish every word. I’d have a notebook beside me where I would write down the context of every melody he assigned just as he told it to me.

And I’d just offer him a breath mint and be done with it.

I worked hard for him. I practiced hard. I loved the piano too, for a time, even accompanying my high school chorus for a few programs.

Herr Mueller, I wish I could thank you. I’m sure you’re long gone from this world, but I thank you for your love of the piano and great music. I’m sure that some of my love for great literature comes from hearing Herr Muller tell me the great stories of the operas with unmatched passion. And the fact that I could accompany my high school chorus as they sang Bob Dylan’s, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” was because I had pounded away at Bach and Verdi and Grieg and Tschaikowsky and Wagner.

The same is true for writers. We’re readers first for good reason. We read great literature (past and present) because it helps us with our craft. We read because we love love love the words on the pages–and we’re amazed when, like the music notes floating on the staffs, the words come together in a way that gives us goosebumps. We want to learn to make that happen in our own writing.

We’re creating a melody in our manuscripts.

I wish I had appreciated the privilege of studying under Herr Mueller. Likewise, I wish I had appreciated the time I spent reading the classics in my literature classes both in high school and college (this summer I’m rereading many of those classics that any self-respecting English major should be conversant about!).

Because now, I understand. Now I appreciate them.

Thank you, Herr Mueller.

Me at the piano with appreciative baby sister as my audience (ca. 1970).
Me at the piano with appreciative baby sister as my audience (ca. 1970).

“May” I Say Good-bye to Short Story Month?

May, Short Story Month, is almost over.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned in my blog about my love for the short story and my personal aesthetic that constantly leads me that direction. I asked for some ideas from readers about favorite short story writers and got some great advice (thank you!). L. Marie (my great friend who writes YA Fantasy) mentioned Flannery O’Connor, Poe (I’m reading him right now in my Romantics class), and the Grimms (and not the guy on the TV show). Cathy Day directed me to a post on her blog titled “Toolbox Stories” where she rounds up a terrific list of the stories she has in her writing toolbox.

toolbox

We all should have such a toolbox–those go-to stories that just do it for us. Maybe they inspire. Maybe they give us a new way to handle our plot line. Or maybe, as Cathy uses them, a specific story will help a writing student understand how to make his or her own story work better.

I’m working on my toolbox.

Some of my favorites? Ernest Hemingway (“Hills Like White Elephants”), Guy de Maupassant (“The String” is included in the anthology noted here, but my favorite will always be “The Necklace”), James Joyce (“Eveline”), William Falkner (“A Rose for Emily”), John Updike (“A&P”), John Steinbeck (“The Chrysanthemums”), and indeed Tobias Wolff’s amazing “Bullet in the Brain” . . . all included in On Writing Short Stories (Tom Bailey, editor). short stories

So as a roundup this week, I want to also thank The Missouri Review lit magazine which, this past month, has celebrated Short Story Month by writing a daily blog post about their favorite short stories. (If you want to start at May 1 and work your way through the posts, start here.) I’m intrigued by Angela Carter (Day 5), T. Corahessen Boyle (Day 9), Alice Munro (Day 22), and, of course, James Baldwin (Day 23).

There is so much to read, so much to learn. Some of my other favorite literary magazines have great short stories and essays that deserve further attention.

I’ll do my best to bring my favorites to you, some interviews, and even some advice as I learn as well. I’m working on filling my toolbox.

Short story month may be over, but my work is just beginning. I have a lot of learning–and writing–to do.

What about you? How’s your writing coming this summer?

Wordsworth, Rockwell, and Leaping Hearts

I admit to falling in love again . . . I have rediscovered William Wordsworth. I love this poem titled “My heart leaps up when I behold“:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began,
So is it now I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old
Or let me die!
The child is father of the man:
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

I’m currently taking a summer intensive course on the Romantic writers (the last three classes in my English program are literature! Yay!). Here are just the books for the next four weeks (not to mention numerous links to other writing such as my dear Wordsworth above):

bedside books

It’s been many years since I read these books, several decades since my English major. It almost makes me want to cry with joy to be “forced” to reread some of the greatest literature of all time. I’m scribbling notes of books I simply must read again, books any self-respecting English Lit major should know (or at least remember). Add Moby Dick to the above pile. It’s been too long, Captain Ahab! We must meet again!

But I digress . . .

What I love about the poem by Wordsworth is that it correctly assesses how I feel about my writing. Asked in a class last semester to determine my personal “aesthetic,” I thought long and hard. What do I want to write about? Who am I as a writer? I’ve been an editor for so many years that my writing got neglected. When I came back to it, I had to rediscover myself.

I honestly don’t recall “who influenced me” beyond what I’m sure was just the love of words and books. I can’t remember specifics. One thing I do recall, however, is staring for hours at the paintings by Norman Rockwell in a big coffee table book my parents had. I loved his realism. I loved how he captured a story in a painting so realistic that it almost looked like a snapshot. Having a dad in the military, this is probably one of my favorites:

"The Homecoming" by Norman Rockwell (1945)
“The Homecoming” by Norman Rockwell (1945)

The young boy dashing down the stairs to meet the returning soldier might well have been my ten-year-old self greeting my dad on his return from Vietnam.

What I love is realism. Take a moment. Capture it. Paint it for the reader.

Like Wordsworth, I want to notice things, to always have my heart leap up when I encounter nature in its beauty or a moment in time that must be captured in writing.

I like the short form. Sarah Hollowell set me on to Short Story Month (May, if you didn’t know) and Cathy Day commented on that blog, describing a friend who used 750words.com to write 750-word stories. So that’s my challenge . . . to start using that site (where I’m already a hit-or-miss member) and capture the moments.

So what short story writers do you admire most–past or current? I want to add them to my list!

14 Good Reminders about This Writing Life

One thing about being a graduate student in my 50s is being able to step back into a world that I left behind three decades ago–a world where learning flows around you like the snowflakes that circled around my house this morning. Just circling, spinning, delighting me even though it is March and high time for them to be on their way.

But I digress.

The In Print Festival–A Rousing Success

Being part of the university community means getting to take advantage of learning experiences there for the taking! Ball State InPrint writersjust held its annual In Print Festival–a festival of first books. The writers who come to speak and read are newly published. Fresh off that first experience, they’re eager to go on the road and talk about writing and publishing. They visit in classes. They stand around and talk after the readings. They happily sign books. Sure, maybe other schools bring in the big guns, but I love the fact that BSU supports these folks. And if the two times I’ve attended are any indication, these authors have so much to offer. Coming from a variety of backgrounds with different journeys to that first publication, they are quite an encouragement to up-and-coming writers. The writers this year were Eugene Cross, Marcus Wicker, Elena Passarello, and Sarah Wells.

And 14 Things the Students Learned

Cathy asked the students in her literary citizenship class to blog about what they learned about writing and publishing from these In Print authors. I’ve been around publishing for 30 years, so I was excited to see what the 14 students in the class discovered. I thought some of their insights might be helpful to you, so here follow 14 interesting things they learned (with accompanying links to their blogs should you want to read more–and you should):

(1) John writes that he wants to open his reading horizons more–to read other people’s work that interests and intrigues him because that will inform his writing and help him find his niche. Good advice for us all.

(2) Michael discovered (beyond some great writing and revising tips) that the writing community is like a family. It is. What a great thing for a new literary citizen to discover!

(3) Jackson brilliantly included book titles in his blog as part of the copy and described his experience, “Their answers to questions showed me something vital: That Abyss between us and Published Writers is not so vast, is a matter of words.” Deep. And good to know. Before we’re published, that goal seems like the other side of a huge abyss. It’s not.

(4) Austin likes to write in all lower case (saves time I’m sure) and describes his opportunity to speak with Eugene Cross, having also crossed paths with him at AWP. His take? “that’s what this is all about, as far as i’m concerned. writing good stories, smiling big, and, every once in a while, covering the tab.” That’s also good advice.

books(5) Rachael described inspiration from Eugene Cross’s book because it is a collection of stories. That can make a book, too! That’s encouraging to those of us who write more short form.

(6) Sarah discovered that “if you’re always drawn to the same topic, stop fighting it.” Just start writing. Eugene didn’t want to write about his hometown of Erie, PA. But when he stopped fighting it and realized that Erie was what he knew . . . well . . . you know what happened. Elena never thought she’d be writing about the human voice . . . but as a theater major with a great speaking and singing voice . . . well . . . it was a natural.

(7) Marv was involved in advertising this festival and, as part of the invitation, reminded people that going to such festivals is important for being literary citizens. We all need to support one another. I know I’m glad I attended!

(8) Kiley learned to bust out the red pen. “Marcus Wicker said that revision is all about time, distance, and being ruthless with your work. I feel like revision is the broken hammer in my writing toolbox, so I soak up any tips on it like a sponge.” Ah, a woman after my own heart.

(9) Lenny was inspired by the night of readings and writes that it “was a breath of fresh air to see three young writers from three different sections of literature that I can keep on my radar and follow their careers as they grow as writers.” Good way to be a literary citizen, Lenny!

(10) Lindsey had some insightful advice for me as an editor: “Editors should not just edit but also write while they edit. Editors who forget to take the time to write their own work aren’t going to be able to relate to authors or keep up with their story-telling skills. In this world, we have to be able to wear multiple hats at once.” She’s so right. I spent too many years editing and not writing. I need to up my game. Thanks for the encouragement, Lindsey. Editors out there, take note!

(11) Jay is the media/video guy in our class. He’s on a different track and he offers us a new perspective. He helps us writers think beyond advertising by posters to this newfangled thing called video . . . he’s good! We would do well to think about promotion in new ways.

(12) Mo reminds us to read a lot–especially literary journals. Find the ones we like and then submit to them. That’s how we figure out where to submit.

(13) Kayla encourages us to not be afraid of rejection. “Without rejection there can be no progress. And if that one publishing company or literary magazine rejects you, they’re probably not right for you. Go back, edit, revise, reread, resubmit.” Words we all need to hear because we all face rejection.

(14) Stephanie mentions how contests can be a good way to get our work published. This was a new world for me–discovered since grad school. You can check out some of the lit mag contests here.

There you have it . . . 14 good reminders for all of us.

6 Quick Proofreading Tips

What a busy week! We had National Grammar Day on Monday, and today, March 8, is National Proofreading Day. For someone like me who lives this stuff on a daily basis, it’s downright exciting!

The day is devoted to “mistake-free writing” and projecting “a professional image with well-written documents that are 100 percent accurate.” Started by Judy Beaver at The Office Pro, this day is designated because it was her mother’s birthday—and her mother loved to correct errors.

As I noted on Monday, I’m not a total grammar geek but I do care about the correct usage of our language, and I’ve made a living for many years honing this skill. Lots of times I still CMShave to look things up in a dictionary or my Chicago Manual of Style (the style manual for much of the book publishing industry). All manuscripts go through several phases of editing, and I’ve done them all. Generally, if I do one phase on a particular manuscript, I make sure that other people do the other two phases–there’s a different focus that has to take place at each phase.

Editing—I call this the 10,000-foot view. I look at the big picture. I’m reading the fiction story and checking the plot, the pacing and flow, the characterization. In a non-fiction manuscript, I’m seeing if the organization works and makes sense. Any changes I suggest at this point are on the macro level—moving chapter 3 to become chapter 1, for instance. Or looking for that loose end in the mystery that the writer forgot to tie up (“What happened to so-and-so?”). The author makes changes (or not) based on my suggestions, and then the manuscript goes to a copyeditor.

Copyediting—This is more like the 1,000-foot view. Now that the editor has put the manuscript in good shape, if I’m in this role, I’m reading closely for sentence construction—dangling modifiers, run-ons, and inconsistencies. I fact check. I query if something doesn’t make sense, if a transition is needed, if a character’s way of speaking doesn’t sound real based on how he or she has been described by the author (“Would he really say this in this way?”).

Proofreading—This is the 10-foot view. If I’m in this role, sometimes I’m working on a manuscript, but often at this phase I’m looking at a pdf of typeset pages—which means I have to check the table of contents to make sure the titles and page numbers are correct, I check all the folios and running heads, I check the look of each page—marking widows and orphans (those random one or two words at the top of a page, or the lone line at the bottom—these just look awkward). Then I read every word. Even a clean manuscript can have random errors show up when the document is flowed into the typesetting program (a hidden tab in a Word document can suddenly rear its ugly head and space words far apart when typeset).

I love it.

Proofreading is probably my favorite. It’s that red pen mentality. I’m looking for errors only because I want the book, the author, and the publisher to put their best foot (feet?) forward.

The three types of editing take different skills. In my Editing class, I give my students practice in all of these areas, telling them that they will probably find an affinity for one and not like the others so much. But I also tell those who want to become editors that they should hone their grammar and punctuation knowledge anyway, because the copyediting and proofreading jobs are often the entry level positions in publishing companies. From there, they can move up, since often editors and acquisitions editors are hired from within, from people who have been with the company and understand the ethos there.

proofreading

As I noted in my post earlier this week, proofreading skills are vitally important, especially on the job market. To have a clean paper, I suggest the following:

(1) Don’t trust the spell check program on your computer. (Judy has some tips on her blog about this.)

(2) If you’re not absolutely sure of the spelling of a word, don’t guess. Look it up. Dictionary.com is your best friend.

(3) Go back and read your letter, paper, email, memo, whatever, aloud slowly to yourself. This will help you notice if words are missing or if a sentence runs on and on. (It’s best to do this on hard copy. Trust me, you’ll see things differently than on screen. A friend of one of my students writes about that on his blog.)

(4) Then, read it again starting from the bottom paragraph backward, a paragraph at a time. This helps you get outside your own flow and see errors you might skip over otherwise.

(5) Electronically, go back and do a search for an open parenthesis (to make sure that you always have a matching close parenthesis), an open quotation mark (to make sure you always have a the appropriate closing quotation mark and to make sure any inner quotation marks are single and that they are both there). And get rid of those double spaces between sentences!

(6) Be aware of your own weaknesses. If you know you tend to write run-on sentences, watch for that in particular. If you know that possessives always mess you up, do a search for apostrophes and check each one for correct usage.

This will clear up a good number of your errors. It never hurts, however, to have someone else look over an especially important document—like a cover letter or resume or manuscript submission.

Let’s put our best foot forward—both of them!

It’s National Grammar Day!

Today, March 4, is National Grammar Day.

Are you celebrating? Well, are you?

I am celebrating by finding other celebrants–people I want to add to my tribe because they care about this stuff as much as I do.

I have to confess to being a bit of a grammar geek–although not nearly at the level of Mignon Fogarty aka Grammar Girl. I know some things, but I may not know why I know them or the rule behind them. That comes from thirty years of proofreading, following publisher style sheets, painstakingly reading typeset pages and marking pdfs until my eyes blur.

I love my red pen.

Redpen

You see, I value perfection. (Oh my, I sure hope there aren’t any errors in this post when I’m finished . . . ). I’ve started grad school to learn more about teaching writing and discovered in my theory classes, much to my chagrin, that teaching grammar works against creativity and that college instructors try to steer clear in favor of the big picture, the creativity, the thought processes. I believe all of that is vital, of course. What’s the point of writing if you can’t make a clear argument or create a document that flows? But I also believe that the best argument in the world will get ignored if the writing is fraught with errors. Why do I want to take the time to read your article and consider your opinion if you can’t take the time to make sure to spell correctly and use proper punctuation?

It matters.

So I love National Grammar Day. (It’s on March 4th because apparently that’s the only date that forms a sentence, “March forth.”) I love when I find others in my tribe who care as much as I do about grammar and punctuation and a well-written sentence (they won’t be dangling any modifers in front of me, no sir!).

For one of my classes, I did a little research project. I hypothesized that writing instructors need to teach their students to proofread. We help them a lot at the contextual and sentence level in their writing, but we probably say, “And be sure to proofread your paper before turning it in,” without explaining what proofreading really involves. I think we do them a disservice. There is indeed a place for focusing on perfection. (More about this on Friday, March 8, National Proofreading Day . . . oh my, busy week!)

Take, for example, business writing. I start filling in for the instructor of a Writing for Business class this week for the rest of the semester (the regular instructor is out for shoulder surgery and rehab). I’m reading the textbooks and finding constant statements about the importance of perfection. In fact, one book quotes a website that keeps a collection of “cover letters from hell“–cringe-worthy letters sent to them by folks hoping for a job, like the person who wrote that he/she was an English major good at grammar–and then misspelled it as “grammer.” The website then states,

Elements of Style

A word to the wise: An error-free letter is now so freakin’ rare that the minimal care required to send a letter with zero defects, combined with a few crisply written simple declarative sentences, will, alone, guarantee a respectful reading of a resume. Maybe even secure an interview. Doesn’t anybody read Strunk and White in school any more? If you haven’t, get a copy of The Elements of Style, so you can follow it all your days.

Exactly.

Now all those theorists have a point. Do your writing and don’t worry a bit about your grammar. Get your ideas down. Tell your story. Make your point. Do the best writing you can do.

But before you send the query letter, turn in that article, or send in that manuscript, do me a favor.

Make sure it’s perfect.

Now realize that if you have your own little stylistic “tics” (you want to Capitalize Certain Words for Emphasis, or do random italics), then just let your proofreader know. You can be “incorrect” if it’s part of your style. Create a style sheet that tells your proofreader this is how you want it–then he/she will make sure that you’re consistent, along with looking for any errors you may have missed.

As citizens of the literary world, let’s protect our craft, always doing our best to deliver the best quality.

And if you feel that your proofreading skills leave something to be desired, hire a professional proofreader (or get someone you trust who really knows the craft) to go over everything before you submit the story or mail the letter. Believe it or not, there are people who thrive on helping your writing be perfect. In fact, even if you are good at it, it’s difficult to proofread your own work. It’s that whole “seeing the forest for the trees” thing.

(One little additional note: I’m talking at the professional level here. Please don’t refuse to drop me a note for fear of making errors. I truly do want to keep my friends. My point is that when we’re doing professional writing, we need to be professionals. The rest of the time, my red pen is safely in the drawer.)

So celebrate National Grammar Day with me! Grammar is the toolbox of our trade. Let’s keep those tools sharp!

Writers Write, Right?

So as writers, we’re supposed to write, right? I have to admit that I need to think of writing as my job; I need to schedule time to do it. Some days it’s difficult; often it’s just plain hard work. Sometimes it’s rewarding; other times I melt into a puddle of frustration at my inability to say what I want to say.

Ever been there?

What do you do to stay disciplined and keep writing–even when it’s tough?

I’ve been an editor for a long time and have done my share of helping other people’s work sound better. Then I started graduate school at Ball State University, a full thirty years after finishing my undergrad at Houghton College and after a long career in publishing. The writing classes took what felt like dried-up creativity and infused it with new life. I could write again–for myself. I could read some of the best writers, study their techniques, and try them out. I could listen to peer reviews and learn how to make my writing better.

It’s been stupendous.

And I realized that I needed to go about the business of being a writer–which means writing.

Right?

Yes indeedy.Calendar

In my class with Dr. Deborah Mix, we discussed how to keep writing. She gave us five key points:

(1) Decide on a writing commitment and post it where you can see it.

(2) Set a word goal.

(3) Set aside time every day to write.

(4) Be creative in how you motivate and reward yourself.

(5) When that distracted feeling comes, realize that at that very moment your brain is working hard. If you don’t yield to the distraction, you may experience a breakthrough.

So I jumped into the proverbial pool. I’ve taken on my job of writing with renewed energy and enthusiasm. One of my favorite sites is 750words.com–a simple site that gives me a nice blank page and counts my words for me, congratulating me when I get to the magic 750. It sends me a reminder by email every day, “You should write your 750 words” and it gives me a little hashtag on a calendar to track my monthly progress.

In any case, set a goal and then keep track of your progress.

Need writing prompts? Check out these rolling prompts at Writers Digest when you need some inspiration.

Need help with not being distracted? Download this program called Freedom. It blocks your access to the Internet for a set amount of time. You will literally be unable to check email or Facebook or the latest news during the time you’ve set aside to write.

Great idea, eh? What will they think of next?

As citizens of the literary world, we should join our fellow writers in our commitment to write, write, write because, well, it’s what we do.

How to Write a LotNeed more motivation? Pick up this little book, How to Write a Lot, by Dr. Paul J. Silvia (American Psychological Association, 2007). He encourages us not to find the time to write but to allot the time to write, treating our writing time as sacred. And, as a busy professional, he understands that writing can involve more than just writing. Perhaps you have to do some research, or review page proofs, or read the book you’re reviewing. Do it during your writing time because “writing is more than typing words. Any action that is instrumental in completing a writing project counts as writing” (19). He especially takes to task those writers who don’t write because they’re waiting for inspiration. “Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend to them than inspiration” (27). His help with setting goals and charting progress is invaluable.

It’s an odd task we’ve set ourselves, this thing called writing. We do it because we love it. We do it because we take joy in the look of words on the page and the sounds of words as they bump up against one another. We love to see what happens to the characters in our story.

So what keeps you writing?

The Art of the Book Review

I just got off the phone with my friend, L. Marie, who recently created a blog, “Thoughts about writing and life.” I’m thrilled that she’s blogging! We chatted about Literary Citizenship and how she needs this online presence in order to impress the agents where she’s currently shopping her young adult fantasy book. She has an MFA and is a terrific writer—but she realized that she needed to get online and join the literary world. I talked to her all about what we’re doing in our class; we talked through WordPress and how to add hyperlinks and tags. She’s on a roll now!

She’s also an avid reader, so I encouraged her to do reviews of books (her current blog is a movie review that ties into her writing). And wouldn’t you know it, our Lit Cit class is talking about that very topic this week. Book reviews are extremely important–especially book reviews by book lovers and writers who understand the craft.

That’s you.Reading 2

Indeed, Robin Becker at Penn State has an entire class on book reviewing because “my own experience had led me to book reviewing. Years ago, just as my first book entered production, I asked a more experienced poet how to get my book reviewed. She replied, ‘Review other people’s work. That way, you participate in the conversation.'”

As citizens of the literary world, we should participate in the conversation about books by reviewing books and helping along other authors who are just getting started.

Sure, review the latest Stephen King if you want, but it will be a great help to another fledgling writer if you discover and love his or her book and write a well-crafted review. Post it on your blog, sell it to a magazine where it might fit, offer it to a newspaper in the town where the author will be doing a reading. Follow up with an interview and do the same thing.

But maybe, like me, you wonder how to craft a good book review. Well, here’s some help.

I’m new to this, so I come to the topic eager to learn. Our class website featured an interview with David Walton, author and prolific book reviewer, who offered his advice on writing book reviews. So I am passing along what I’m learning to you.

I love the pie chart included there; further detail about each category on that pie chart is here so that you understand what plot synopsis (35%), critical analysis (25%), showing off (20%), providing context (10%), and quoting from the text (10%) mean in the context of a book review.

Reading 1I also discovered that there is a lot of conversation happening in the literary world regarding book reviews. I think I’ve stayed away because I thought: (a) I’m not high profile enough to write in the New York Times book review column, (b) I don’t know how to write a review, and (c) I don’t even want to comment on Amazon because isn’t that just people who either like or dislike the author or the topic and really write nothing about the quality of the book? (Charles Baxter calls this “Owl Criticism”: I don’t like owls; this book is about owls; I don’t like this book.) Indeed, many publishers are vetting their book reviewers to make sure they’re legit.

Well meanwhile, over at Amazon, there’s been plenty of conversation about fake reviews, with Amazon actually pulling down many suspect ones. (For help in writing one of those short Amazon reviews, check out this post.)

So what does that mean for those of us just getting started?

First, read the book.

Second, understand the craft and study the book well enough to be able to see what the writer is doing as a writer.

Charles Baxter’s “Owl Criticism” post puts it this way, “A reviewer is entitled to any opinion at all, but he or she earns that opinion based on a description and a judicious citation of evidence. . . . Is it too much to ask of a reviewer that he should know what he’s talking about?” He goes on:

The marks of a trustworthy review, therefore, have a kind of doubleness: the reviewer manages to assert somehow that the book under discussion is of some importance for one reason or another; and second, a good review provides a formal description of the book’s properties, so that you could reconstruct it from the reviewer’s sketch of it. This description is not the same as a plot summary, although a plot summary may figure into it. What a formal description does is to show what a book is about in relation to the form in which the subject matter has been shaped or located. In order to write such a review, let’s say of a novel, you have to have a basic idea of how novels are constructed; you have to have the technical knowledge that allows you to stand back from the book and to say how a book is put together. By these criteria, quite a few book reviews are worthless.

Los Angeles Times book critic, David Ulin, discusses the importance of well-crafted reviews:

Criticism matters — not because of how many people read it, or whether they agree or disagree with it, but because it is a way of engaging with literature. . . .

Books can stir this range of emotions also, which is why the act of criticism can be so hard. It’s not just about opinion but engagement, the sense of hope, of anticipation with which we come to a book, and the ideas, the feelings, with which we walk away from it, even, or especially, if they are not what we expect.

For me, this is how I know I’m doing my job: not by whether I like a book or don’t (whatever that means), but by what I learn. When I’m reading and writing well, books open up before me; often, they turn my preconceptions around. They make me think — not just about the flow of this text, but also about the flow of all texts: the different texts by this particular author, the different texts that I have read. I have, in other words, to confront myself, to figure out what I think, and then like all writers, to follow that line to its logical conclusion, for good or for ill.

For us writers, it’s a part of our craft to learn to write a good book review. It’s an art form. It keeps us reading. It allows us to learn from one another. It connects us in this literary world. It allows us to share good books with one another.

It helps us be good literary citizens.