Chip MacGregor

July 2, 2007

What drives you crazy?


Back from soggy Scotland (just missed the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport by a few hours) and hoping to get caught up. Jennifer wrote to ask, "As an agent and a reader, are there writing errors that drive you crazy?"

Yes! Of course! Here’s one! Novelists who use exclamation points as though the period key didn’t work! I hate this! Really!!!

Here’s "another" one: The "author" who feels a "need" to put emphasized words in "quotes," since they apparently think it makes them look more "official." This is particularly tiresome when a "funny" author decides to put his "punchlines" in quotations. (Does anybody remember the episode of Friends where Joey kept putting "finger quotes" around certain "words," even though he didn’t understand how to do it?) Here’s an "idea" — cut the quotation marks in your "epic."

And a third (related) item: People who use an open parenthesis but no close parenthesis. (For example, this kind.

Fourth is the serial comma. Drives me crazy. The rule for using commas is that there should be ONE LESS COMMA THAN THE ITEMS IN YOUR LIST. So if you list five things, you’d use four commas. An example: "Farnsworth visited Scotland, Wales, England, Ireland, and Djibouti." Note that there are five countries and four commas — one less than the list. Writers often drop the last comma, in an apparent attempt to make "Ireland and Djibouti" one country. (Similar to Trinidad and Tobaggo, if you’re into geography jokes.) Makes no sense at all.

Fifth is the adverbial ending "ly," which some authors insert regularly in an attemptly to sound scholarly. Note that this paragraph doesn’t start with the word "fifthly." From a strict editorial perspective, "fifth" is an adverb. To add  "ly" to the end is to adverbialize an adverb. Why write "firstly" when it is clearer to write "first"? (Besides, if it’s a long list, can you really defend "thirteenthly"?)

Sixthly, :o) I hate jumbled numbers in an outline. I have a nonfiction proposal on my desk right now that contains an overview that could simply be numbered 1 through 12. Or "first" through "twelfth." Instead, this number-impaired author begins with "first," follows that with "two" and "third," then offers a 4, which he later refers to (I’m not joking) as "D." Huh? Make all your numbered lists consistent. And try not to insert one numbered list into another numbered list…it drives editors insane.

Seventh: Figure out the difference between "your" and "you’re" before writing you’re book. :o) Ditto for "its" and "it’s." (True story: I once had an editor try to convince me that there is no such word as "its," claiming that every instance should use the contracted form "it’s." I felt it was my duty to slug her on the spot.)

Eighth in my hit parade of writing errors is the overuse of the spell-checker. It wont pickup every thin. Ewe can knot rely on it soul-y. (An alternative? Learn to spell.)

A ninth issue: Print out a hard copy of your proposal and look it over before sending it along. Sometimes obvious errors appear that you didn’t catch on your screen. For example, the spacing can get all screwed up and appear totally different in print than it does electronically. Or things you’ve pasted in might print in a different font. If you’re one of those who insist on using five different fonts on your cover page, check with somebody who knows what they’re doing — I sometimes get queasy when attacked by waves of font. Look over a hard copy before sending it. Oh, and if every paragraph starts with the same word, you need to go back and do some revising. (Unless the first word of every paragraph is "I," in which case you need to be slapped, then go back and change it.)

Finally, remember that Maxwell Perkins once said that "style" is nothing more than one author’s decision to misuse the rules of grammar.  A good editor will let you misuse it in order to help you create voice (any reading of William Faulkner is evidence of this). But that same editor will notice when you’ve crossed over from "having style" to "sounding like a moron." So for goodness’ sake, get help. And listen to your editor.

If you’re interested in this topic, let me suggest you pick up a copy of Karen Gordon’s Transitive Vampire and Well Tempered Sentence, as well as Patricia O’Connor’s Woe Is I. Of course, you can also find much helpful information in the more popular Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. All these authors have a sense of humor in talking about "the rules."

To end, let me offer a quote from W. Somerset Maugham: "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."


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