Writing Tip #101

All together versus altogether. Here’s another one that stymies writers, but the rule is easy to remember. The word altogether is an adverb that means entirely or all told or in total. So when you’re unsure about whether you should use all together or altogether, just replace with entirely or all told or in total. If the sentence makes sense, then the correct word is altogether. If it doesn’t, use the two-word all together (which means all in one place).

Got it? Hmmm… What’s the correct answer for this sentence?

You should have five emails from me in your inbox ____________. (all together or altogether?)

So what do you think?

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Writing Tip #93

Passed versus Past. Lots of writers get passed and past confused, but there’s an easy way to remember the correct word choice: Identify whether the word in question is a verb in the past tense. If it is a verb, then you should use passed:

  • I passed the sign-up sheet to the person sitting next to me.
  • He passed by my house on the way home from work.

If the word is an adverb or an adjective or a preposition or a noun, then it’s past:

  • My mom doesn’t like to think about the past. (noun)
  • She was past president of The Rotary Club. (adjective)
  • The little girl threw the Frisbee past her mother. (adverb)
  • My house is located on the second block past the McDonald’s. (preposition)

Seems easy enough, right? How about these examples?

  • The young lady _______ an ominous-looking fellow on the street corner.
  • The young lady walked _______ an ominous-looking fellow on the street corner.

In the first sentence, the missing word is the verb, so we use passed. In the second, it is an adverb (the verb is walked), so we use past.

Got it? Or, rather, have you passed the test?

Writing Tip #87

Renown versus Renowned. Last week, I received a press release with the subject line: Dr. [So-and-So] — Renown Pediatrician and Author.

Eek!

I was hoping the error was simply the result of a hasty subject line writer, but unfortunately the mistake was repeated within the email itself, which landed the press release into the trash simply on principle (not principal).

The word renown is a noun. It means fame and cannot be used to modify another noun:

BABY GRAND is destined for worldwide renown. (Wouldn’t that be nice?)

The word renowned is an adjective. It means famous and, as we all know, adjectives can modify nouns:

BABY GRAND is destined to become a world-renowned novel. (I ask again, Wouldn’t that be nice?)

If you find that you just can’t seem to remember this, try using their meanings — fame and famous — as clues: The shorter word is the noun, while the longer word is the adjective.

What words do you often mix up?

Writing Tip #86

Dialogue, interrupted.  I love dialogue, and there’s lots of it in Baby Grand. Many times characters’ dialogue will be cut short for one reason or another. There are two types of punctuation you can use that will show the reader whether a character has lost his or her train of thought, or is perhaps reluctant to speak, or whether he or she, instead, has been interrupted.

If you use an ellipsis (…), the character’s dialogue has sort of trailed off. For example:

“I really like you, but marriage?” Samantha said. “I just don’t know…”

“Please think about it,” Eric pleaded.

Here, by using the ellipsis, the reader senses Samantha’s conflict, that her words have been interrupted by her own ambivalence.

On the other hand, if you use an em dash (–), it shows that a character’s dialogue has been interrupted by someone else. For example:

“I really like you, but marriage?” Samantha said. “I just don’t know–“

“Please think about it,” Eric pleaded.

Here, the reader senses Eric’s eagerness, or his desperation, how Samantha was unable to finish her sentence because Eric interrupted her.

Cool, right?

It’s interesting to note how readers can know so much more about a character based on the type of punctuation we choose as authors. As if authors need any more pressure on them…

Writing Tip #81

Got Oxford comma? Style is in the eye of the beholder. Just when I thought I had a firm grasp of spelling and punctuation, I started working with a London-based magazine that called into question all that I knew to be right and true.

As an American writer, I like my closing quotation marks outside my periods, my “organizations” spelled with a “z” and not an “s,” and my “percents” written as one word, not two. However, I had to make all kinds of concessions as I edited the UK pub, since, as one UK writer reminded me, I should stick to “using US style in US magazines and British style in British magazines.”

But style differences are not only found across the pond. When I submitted Baby Grand for copy editing, the American copy editor stuck in all the serial, or Oxford, commas that I tend to eschew and replaced all my spaced en dashes with em dashes firmly planted, space free, next to the neighboring words (apparently, my preference for spaced en dashes is quite British — go figure).

Style is not really etched in stone. It can be fluid, depending upon your audience. Therefore, as I continue to edit the UK pub, I will keep the magazine’s style guide next to my laptop to keep me from spelling “program” without an extra “m” and an “e” at the end (“programme”). And while I’ll probably continue to use spaced en dashes and leave out the Oxford commas as I write the early drafts of my next novel — since that’s the way I write comfortably — for my final draft, I will add those commas and do a “find and replace” on those en dashes and convert them to em dashes if that is what the American literary world wants.

I’ve always been a big proponent of proper grammar, and I think it’s important that we all strive for correctness. But sometimes there is no “correct,” just “preference.” And in those cases I think you should adhere to the rules of whatever audience you’re writing for. In the end, punctuation and spelling are just structure, guideposts that help readers navigate and understand your words. Your words are what REALLY matter.

Writing Tip #77

Avoid ‘there is/are’ sentence constructions. This week’s tip sort of goes hand-in-hand with last week’s, in which we discussed active/passive voice and that while it was permissible — fine, actually — to use passive voice from time to time, your writing, indeed, will be stronger by using sentences with active voice. Similarly, using “there is” or “there are” is also perfectly acceptable in a sentence, but only on occasion, if the sentence really calls for such a construction. Otherwise, sentences without “there is/are” are generally shorter and stronger. For example:

There is something fishy going on around here.

Something fishy is going on around here.

In the above case, the “there” is actually quite unnecessary and can be removed, creating a honed, more impactful statement. However, sometimes you may find that you want to stress the “there” of a situation:

There is the earring post I was looking for!

And that’s fine, as long as the construction is intentional. Just as my friend and colleague Susan Weiner tweeted to me in a discussion of last week’s tip, “Using passive voice should be an active choice,” so should your use of “there is/are.”

Writing Tip #76

Not every sentence you write has to be in active voice. Writers have been told time and time again that using active voice is vital to writing. And it is. A sentence with an “active voice” is basically a sentence in which the subject performs the action. Conversely, in sentences with passive voice, the subject is passive, or acted upon. For example:

Active voice: Jack threw the ball.

Passive voice: The ball was thrown by Jack.

Both sentences mean the same thing, but sentences with active voice are vivid and have energy, directness; they are less wordy and get their point across in a nice, tidy wallop.

However, that is not to say that every sentence of your novel has to be in active voice. I’m a believer that passive voice has a useful and necessary place. When I spot a sentence written in passive voice in my writing (or others’, if I’m editing), most of the time my tendency is to change it to active voice. But sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I like the way it sounds and think it works for what’s trying to be said. Sometimes I want to de-emphasize, or avoid completely, the agent performing the action.

Just like the first unbolded sentence of this blog post.

But you’ll find that too many of these sentences makes for dull, lifeless narratives, so be aware of how frequently you use passive voice. But do use it from time to time. Trust me, it’s okay.

What do you think? Do you check your writing for sentences written in active and passive voice?