Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

175 Proof

image courtesy of Mary K. Baird on
diluted-rumIn Britain in the 18th century, rum was “proved” by adding gunpowder and seeing if it would burn. If it didn’t burn, it meant it was watered down and didn’t have enough alcohol. 100% alcohol was considered 175 proof.
Are you watering down your stories and articles by not proofing carefully? Just as British sailors would reject a watered down rum payment, editors reject watered down writing.

Common mechanical problems that water down your writing:

  • Misspellings. Many of these can be fixed by simply running a word processor’s spell check; although spell check will not catch errors of the wrong word used.
  • Capitalization errors. Only names, proper nouns, and the first word in the sentence should be capitalized. Mom, Dad, etc. are capitalized when used as a name, but not when used as a label, such as “my mom.”
  • Missing words. If you leave out a, the sentence doesn’t make sense. Huh? Look what leaving out a four letter word did. You might figure out I meant, “If you leave out a word, the sentence doesn’t make sense,” but our readers shouldn’t have to guess at our meaning.
  • Misused apostrophes. “Joe’s” is possessive. It means we are referring to something Joe has: Joe’s shoes, Joe’s smile, Joe’s room. If you mean there are more than one Joe, there is no apostrophe for plural: “There are three Joes in my class.” Or “I love sloppy joes.” If the object is plural and possessive, the apostrophe usually goes after the s, for example: “writers’ workshop.” You’ll see apostrophes wrong on public signs, but we owe it to our readers to get it right.
  • Wrong word. These are usually homophones, or in other words, words that are pronounced the same, but are spelled differently and, more importantly, have different meanings. This site,, has a list of homophones–just click on the letters on the left to see the homophones that start with that letter. It’s overwhelming how many there are! But don’t panic! You don’t need to memorize them all. Instead here are the ones you must know:
    – to, too, two
    – they’re, there, their
    – your, you’re
    – its, it’s

Use grammar checker to help you find the others in your writing. And if you like, check out these resources to help you with some other common ones:

  • Missing Punctuation. Sometimes this is due to run-on sentences where there should be a conjunction or a semi-colon, but it’s amazing how many sentences are simply missing the period at the end. I also frequently see missing quote marks. Another problem I see is a missing comma inside dialogue when a person’s name is used. Right: “Mom, make him stop.” Wrong: “Mom make him stop.”
  • Extra spaces. Extra spaces often occur before or after quote marks, before other punctuation, between words, and even blank lines after paragraphs. We’ll talk later about how to catch extra spaces and blank lines yourself.

Help on catching these water-downers:
After you use spell check and grammar checker–make sure you understand why you are changing something in your text–try these:

  • One of the easiest ways to see errors in your own writing, is to change the font (style and size) and print it out. This moves words around and helps you actually read what is there instead of what you think is there.
  • Read your manuscript aloud. It’s amazing how much I catch in my own writing when I read it aloud. Especially if I have an audience!
  • For extra or missing spaces (broken lines and other oddness), print your piece the way you plan to submit it to your instructor or editor. Ignore the text itself and look at only the appearance. If something looks funny, check it out. You can also use the Find and Replace option in your word processor and search for space space and replace with space. You many need to run it several times to catch three or more spaces in a line.
  • Make sure your word processor has 0 in the “spacing after” paragraph box. You may need to select the entire document, then go into paragraphing to fix this. You can also change it in your default document, so any new documents won’t have this annoyance.

There’s more to proving yourself to an editor than these simple mechanics, but if these basics aren’t correct, an editor probably won’t even get to the content of your writing.

Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Attribution or Action?

photo courtesy of Mary R. Vogt
teens talkingIn a discussion of dialogue punctuation, someone recently asked me, “But where is the line drawn between an attribution and an action? For example: she laughed, she promised, she sighed, she groaned, etc. Are those treated as attributions or actions?”
Laughter, sighing, groaning are actions. We can’t laugh words. We sigh before or after we say a word(s). The more I think about it, groan is a tricky one. I can groan one word, “Mom!” or “Oh!,” but I couldn’t groan a whole sentence of words. I can simply groan. So another way to think about it, does the action stand alone or make sense without the words the character said? She laughed, groaned, sighed can stand alone. “She said” leaves us wanting to know what she said.
Promised is another tricky one. You make a promise and you state a promise. So when it is used with dialogue, I would consider it an attribution. Perhaps the simple rule would be if you can replace said with the verb without changing the meaning, it’s an attribution.
After reading my article on “Perfecting Dialogue Punctuation” on the Institute for Literature’s website, someone else asked, “What about when the dialogue is broken by an attribution? How do you punctuate it then?” It’s easiest to show with examples.
“Dad,” I said, “that was a lame joke.” Here the attribution interrupts the sentence at a natural pause. The punctuation is commas.
“Janie, that was so stupid,” he said. “I can’t believe you said that.” Here the attribution is at the end of one sentence before another begins. The punctuation is a comma at the end of the dialogue and a period at the end of the sentence.
Either way, you want your attribution at a natural place. You’ll probably hear where a good break is when you read it aloud.
What about interruptions to dialogue? That is usually indicated with an “em dash”–type in double dashes and your computer usually will convert.
“Stop kicking my seat, Jo–”
“I’m not!” Jonah said. “It’s Liam.”

This works with either dialogue that interrupts or with action.
“Mom, how come Willy gets to–OW!” Leslie grabbed her arm. “Hey, no punching!” She glared at her brother.
“Hey, let’s go to the movie and th–”
Katie put her hand over my mouth. “Shh, Mrs. Wilson’s coming.”

Pauses in the speaker’s dialogue are another issue. If he interrupts his own words or deliberately leaves something out, use an ellipses.
“I wanted to ask her, but . . .” He shrugged.
“Did you get problem six . . . omg, there he is!” Tanya clutched her shirt somewhere near her heart.
If in doubt about punctuating attributions or actions, you can always looks at dialogue in published books or short stories. A resource I like is the book Errors in English and Ways to Correct Them by Harry Shaw. My 25-year-old copy is so well-used it’s falling apart!
If you have more questions or comments, use the comment box.