What is it about writing that captivates the reader? Simply put, good writing consists of good words that are put together in such a way that a new way of thinking is created. Good writing brings into being something that has not existed before, and that’s exciting. It’s creation. It’s power.
How do writers make sure their words hold the reader’s attention? By making their writing impeccable. By making sure that there are no distractions in the way of misspellings, typos, syntactical errors, punctuation errors or incomplete sentences. In other words, the writing must flow seamlessly.
Allow me to backtrack a bit. Once upon a time, before the publication of dictionaries, writing was more fluid, especially spelling. Authors exercised their right to arrange letters more or less the way they wanted, sometimes spelling a word several different ways on the same page. No one gasped. It was the way things were done. One can see a remnant of that freedom of expression in names. Consider how many different ways one can spell a name. For example, Sarah, Sara, Sera, Serrah. No one questions the right of parents to spell their child’s name any way they choose. At one time it was that way with all words.
But standardization came along, and as literacy increased so did rules. Not only for spelling, but for construction. Dictionaries came into being and printing presses literally carved words and phrases into irrevocable shapes. If one wished to be taken seriously, one spelled and punctuated one’s words according to the standard. (One wonders who were the arbiters of correctness, but that’s another story.) Not doing so indicated lack of education, which also meant lack of social prestige.
Which brings us to present day, replete with all manners of rules for how to say a thing. A quick search on the Internet revealed dozens of sites that help you abide by the rules, sites that parse the complexities of a sentence, sites that tell you how to shape your sentences so that they don’t distract the reader. Especially the agent/reader who peruses your manuscript with a critical eye.
So how do you, dear writer, make sure your prose is flawless? First, learn the most common mistakes in spelling and punctuation. Check out any number of web sites that tell you how to spot the most common errors; for example, apostrophe usage. When to use it’s instead of its? You’re instead of your?
Or how to spell homonyms correctly, words that sound the same but are spelled differently? Words such as then and than, sight and site, wright, rite and right? Not writing them correctly might mean the difference between a Pulitzer Prize and a pullet surprise. For that reason, avoid relying on spell check. It will never tell you that you ought to have written your instead of you’re, because both are correct spellings.
It’s annoying, but your brain automatically corrects a misspelling as your eye peruses the page, especially after you’ve read over your manuscript several times. This happens to everyone, amateur and professional alike, which means we all struggle with these limitations. So step back and take some time off before looking at your work again. Then look for one thing at a time. For example, go through your writing and look only for misspellings. Then go through it again and check just for punctuation. Go through it a third time to make sure your subjects and verbs agree. Check to make sure you’re not using a word too often. If so, keep your prose fresh by using a different word in your text.
Another trick for spotting mistakes is reading through your manuscript backward. This might work for shorter pieces, but I can't imagine reading a manuscript this way. However, if this doesn’t bother you, it just might be another editing tool in your arsenal.
Ideally, you should have someone go through your writing, someone who has not read your text before and can spot the errors your brain has altered into correctness. This might be a professional editor (whom you would have to pay), or your grammar nerd friend who can spot a split infinitive from the back of a running horse.
Finally, understand that even today the rule-oriented world of language is fluid. There is even disagreement among the various grammar and punctuation sites. Who, then, is the ultimate Grammar Guru?
Let me tell you a secret: There is no Ultimate Grammar Guru. Therefore, you need to choose a style and stick to it. If you’re submitting to a publisher, find out what style this publishing house uses and make sure your prose conforms to their standards. (If you’re submitting to a publisher in the UK, make sure your punctuation is outside your quotation marks and write labour instead of labor.)
Pay attention to the details. Just because you’ve written that last sentence and added “the end” to your manuscript doesn’t mean you’re finished. Take a break, and then follow up with that extra polishing that separates your flawless prose from those not-so-flawless manuscripts.
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