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Writer's Boot Camp, Part 2: Word Warriorsby Megan Myers
If English is not your first language, bravo to you for aspiring to become an accomplished writer for English publications. That being said, you have an even tougher job ahead of you in the search for proper writing style. Most editors will not care one whit where you are from - they care about good writing.
There's a bathroom on the right
One of the main problems I see comes down to proper word choice. You know the person who always sings the wrong words to a popular song? (OK, maybe you are that person.) For a copy editor, correcting writing is often like being trapped inside a car with that person and radio is stuck on "All oldies, all the time." You know the singer would want to know the correct words if they knew what they were warbling was wrong, right?
Quite often this can be fixed with use of your dictionary (did you mean "diffuse" or "defuse"?), but for others one just needs to pay more attention. Also keep in mind that sometimes a very simple word can be used for (what you think is) a more "educated" choice. Eyes are not gleaming sky-colored orbs. They're eyes.
Of course, it can be much more difficult than simply grabbing the thesaurus to choose the correct word. I almost always have to drag out my style book to refresh my memory on whether I should be using "effect" or "affect". The Chicago Manual of Style has an incredibly useful section (5.202) just explaining how to use specific words (in fact, the entire fifth chapter is on word usage), and an even better resource is Garner's Modern American Usage, which has many, many more examples and sometimes in-your-face explanations about why you've been wrong all these years.
There are differences between already and all ready, altogether and all together, and allude, elude, and illude. Oh, and "alright" is all wrong—the term is "all right". It can be embarrassing to find out you've been switching explicit and implicit all these years, but just think about how much more embarrassing it would be if you had been published that way!
If you is happy and you know it . . .
A very common difficulty is verb and subject agreement. "I have two bananas," not "I has two bananas." Strunk and White list one of their rules as, "The number of the subject determines the number of the verb." Easy, right? Basically, if you're using a plural subject, you should be using the plural form of the verb. As always, there are exceptions: "everyone" is technically a word that refers to a plural of people, and yet the singular form of the verb should be used. Therefore, "Everyone thinks" and "We think".
I'm sorry to say that the only way I know how to fix this is to practice writing, have your grammar check turned on, or ask a friend for help. On this subject grammar books can be quite confusing, even for those who are native English speakers. Sadly, because of how many of us were taught grammar in school, even the best of writers can have trouble explaining just how English verb conjugation really works. So study where and what you can, and the rest, learn by example.
He says as he dried his hands.
Another issue is tense. Some writers like to whip back and forth between past and present (and even future!) tense, expecting the reader to have complete patience with it. There are exceptions, but for most purposes, stick to one tense. Describing the scenery in present tense but having all the action take place in past tense is confusing and just sloppy writing.
Often you'll see a past tense verb used with a present-tense "ing" verb soon after, such as He sneezed, holding the tissue up to his nose. We are meant to read this as though he sneezed and held the tissue up at the same time, not that there was a dramatic jump in the time-space continuum.
I before E except after C
Ahhh, spelling. Misspelling words can create many, many problems, from simply making more work for your editor, to having the entire meaning of your work changed because you missed a letter in a key word. Spell-check, spell-check, spell-check. And then actually read through what you've written to make sure it is how it was meant to be. Editors can tell when you've misspelled a word into oblivion, but it's much harder to tell if you are using the wrong word entirely. There are many ways to spell their, depending on if they're paying attention when writing.
Finally, if you're writing for a British publication, use British spellings. If you're writing for an American publication, use American spellings. Over here, it's color, not colour.
Think you're done?
So, you've run spell-check, grammar check, and you've actually even read it over yourself. Hold on there partner. You're not quite ready yet. There's this one step you need to do, a step that is quite often overlooked and yet probably one of the most important.
Print off your item and give it to someone else to read.
Sounds pretty "well, duh", doesn't it? However, by the looks of a lot of items I get in, this doesn't happen very often. And I'm willing to bet every teacher you've ever had will agree with me on that point. It's not enough for just you to read over your writing and comb it for errors. Giving it to someone unfamiliar with the topic or your style of writing brings a fresh perspective to the process and can really help you spot errors otherwise unnoticed. And you'll want to have those errors caught and fixed before you send your item out for publication, because even if you're lucky enough to have it accepted, chances are it will be edited beyond recognition once those feisty copy editors get their hands on it.
Don't get me wrong, copy editors love to find errors. Actually, we love to find them, point them out to others, and giggle about it behind the author's back. But in our heart of hearts, we'd still rather see excellent writing.
But that's not all!
Yes, you too can someday be a nitpicky grammatical fiend. Keep these books on hand, refer to them often, and soon people will be asking you for advice.
The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White
There are many more books available on grammar, copyediting, and writing in general, but the above books are what I consider essential. Remember, writing well is a skill that must be learned, but it's not an impossible feat.
You don't want those copy editors laughing at you, do you?
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