I really enjoyed editing the imaginative and awesome stories of some sixty grade eight students, but sometimes the grammatical errors got in the way of the storytelling. So I thought I’d create a quick primer on some of the errors to look out for.
- When you’re referring to the point of view of a character, you don’t need instances of, ‘ he looked’, ‘he saw’, ‘he spotted’. It’s often unnecessary because the reader knows it’s written from the protagonist’s perspective. If you cut it, it can tighten the writing.
- When you have dialogue followed by a dialogue tag like ‘he said, or he replied’ use a comma and not a period after the dialogue. When it’s not a dialogue tag, so something like ‘she smiled’ or ‘he nodded’ then use a period.
- When speaking directly to someone and using their name, put a comma before (unless it starts the sentence) and after it.
- You need to indent new paragraphs, no space between each. Each instance of a new speaker requires a new paragraph and an indent.
- Generally you don’t need adverbs. Ideally what the character says or does, tells us how it should be read. I say ‘generally’ because adverbs can work very well, but usually that is a stylistic choice of the author, not due to using a weak verb.
- Passive construction. Try to edit your work to use active verbs as much as possible. Any instance of ‘was’ or ‘were’ might be a chance but it’s more complicated than that and eliminating all instances of the verb ‘to be’ is not the solution. Active voice is where the subject does the action. Passive voice is where the subject is acted upon. I.e. You wrote a story. (Active) Vs. The story was written by you . (Passive). Note how active is often shorter and more specific.
- When you have two full sentences that are part of the same thought, you can join them with a semicolon. Use semicolons to link two complete sentences. If what follows is not a complete sentence, then use a comma to join them.
- Comma use can be confusing. When you have a conjunction like ‘and’ or ‘but’ you usually put the comma in front of it but, in some instances, like this one (see what I did there?) the comma goes after the ‘and’ or ‘but’. This occurs when there’s a phrase that comes after that requires commas.
- Head hopping is moving from the perspective of one character to another without a transition. It can be jarring and confusing for the reader. By adding a blank line, the reader knows that the writer is changing something (eg, time or perspective). Shifting perspectives can be done without a break, but it takes practice and is difficult to do well.
- Parts of the plot need to force other elements in the plot to occur. If there’s nothing linking elements of the plot then it won’t make sense. In a story, one thing should lead to another.
- Don’t switch verb tenses without good reason (except in the case of dialogue). Stick to the same tense unless you have a flash back. There were a lot of inconsistent tenses. The tense would shift within sentences.
- “Punctuation is usually inside quotation marks.”
- ‘I’ is always capitalized.
- ‘… to sluggishly walk.’ This is an example of a split infinitive. The infinitive ‘to walk’ is split by the word ‘sluggishly’. You might not need the word sluggishly (you could say that he slogged, trudged, etc), but if you do want to keep it, move the adverb to after ‘walk’.
- You can use italics instead of quotation marks to show a thought.
- You lie down on the sofa (no direct object), but you lay the book down on the table (the book is the direct object).
- You don’t need ‘up’ or ‘down’ when you write things like ‘he stood’ or ‘she sat’ because it’s implied.
- You want to avoid multiple ways of saying people’s names because it confuses the reader. It’s called ‘elegant variation’.
One final point that isn’t grammar related, I saw a lot of amnesia stories. You know. “Where am I? How did I get here? Who am I?” Amnesia stories are difficult to pull off. The key is that the reason for the character not knowing has to pay off in the end for the reader. I.e. you need to have a reason not to know where they are or how they got there. It has to be important to the story. If it’s not, the reader will feel let down and basically assume that the author couldn’t come up with anything themselves.
Unfortunately, I’m not a pro editor and hopefully I’m not instilling poor habits in you. When in doubt, go for clarity and specificity. If your writing isn’t clear then the reader won’t be able to immerse themselves in the fictive dream of your story. It will also make it harder for you to get a job! Or pass high school!
Categories: Writing Tips