Offworld Report

The Guide To Better Grammar: from the harrowed hand of GF Willmetts.

It’s been long-overdue for me to bring the various guidelines to the current SFC website. Much of below was written in 2012 but things like grammar never go away. Some of the opening points apply to general submissions.

The grammar aspect is something that shows you know the basic elements of writing well. In the paper publishing world, if they see a lot of grammar errors, they your sample is binned simply because it would be too much trouble to correct. You can get a lot of this from any decent book on grammar. Don’t assume you remember it all from school or purely by reading this piece you will get it right in one. Download and hardcopy and get each one right before moving onto the next one.

What I am focusing on below is more to do with common faults I regularly see, not only at SFC but elsewhere as well. In many respects, some of them are like the Emperor’s new clothes and some grammar common mistakes have become embedded because no one dares to say they are wrong. There’s a lot to digest but explanations need space and you rather know why you should be doing something than just being told.

    1. Headers And Layout. Here’s a good habit to get into with all submissions. For the Header, use Align Left for title, name and sometimes address. Try not fill more than 2 lines doing this. Most word processors do this in a smaller fainter font so there’s no need to make it bold or a distraction from the text. Number the pages at the top right and outside of the Header. Do NOT staple the pages together although a paper clip is perfectly acceptable to differentiate the chapters if necessary. The main text of the page should be double-lined if hard-copied. I would suggest you do this after you’ve completed your draft. The one exception for e-formats is not to double-line but that’s only in data-file not hardcopy. Do double check your pages are in the right order and you haven’t sent duplicates in the same envelope.
    2. Opening Paragraphs. Tabbing each paragraph or dialogue adds up a lot of waste space, try 2 spaces instead. Don’t think you’re conserving space by having nothing at the beginning of paras, it makes for a tougher hardcopy read. If you have your word processor’s settings to give double spaces at the end of a full stop for business work, adjust it to one space instead. The latest versions of Word can produce a double spacing on the page. ‘Ctrl’ and ‘A’ the entire text and turn it off using the ‘No Spacing’ command in the ‘Styles’ menu. It makes life a lot easier to write at draft level and you can always make a double line version when sending hardcopies to publishers of sample chapters. HTML will strip them away digitally but don’t break the habit.
    3. Speech Marks. This is more for our website but check publisher’s requirements. Use the singular speech marks ‘ ’ as opposed to “ ” – leave the latter for quotes. It’s also the British way and we’d like to be recognised as such on the Net. On a computer screen or hardcopy especially they look more authoritative and probably why UK book publishers like them. Over here, double speech marks are seen only in juvenile books. We might have no choice in accepting and sorting out American spelling differences, but the ditto marks will indicate where we’re sourced. Search&Replace is one of the handiest functions of the Word Processor. [As this industry is so crazy, if you’ve got a draft with American quote marks then do this change last and keep a copy in both formats.] Characters’ thoughts because they are non-verbal do not have speech marks! Since I wrote this pointer, publishers that sell to both UK and US markets tend to go for the US way as it’s the bigger market, NOT because it’s necessarily correct.
    4. Pace. If you want to create high tension and things that are moving in a hurry, shorten the length of your sentences. Have a run and then trying saying a long sentence. Doesn’t work, so you break it up even more. Writers who understand how to pace also know how to adjust the mood of the story. Boo! Did you see that coming? Frame the sentence to the events you’re depicting.
    5. Sentences come in all lengths and sizes but if you can’t complete them in a single easy breath, you might consider that they might just be a little on the long size. Always beware of over-loading them with too much information.
    6. Reporting events. It’s the cardinal sin of reporting what is going on rather than living the events along with the characters. If people want to read about events, then they get a newspaper. A writer can bring them up tight and personal and add emotional content. The reader needs to be involved in the situation if they are to care about your characters.
    7. Punctuation. Listen to the structure of a sentence for its rhythm and pace that can easily be recognised if you say your story aloud. Think of the comma as a mini-pause within a sentence. It isn’t there for you to take a breath as that’s only allowed at the full stop but to add gravity to the next part of the sentence. Commas also stop the words running into each other. This doesn’t mean that I read all my sample aloud. I’m more experienced than that, but once you get into the practice of doing this, you’ll be correcting as you read where it plainly doesn’t sound right.
    8. Commas With Or And But. I tend to err on the side of no comma next to words like ‘and’, ‘or’ and ‘but’ because when there’s only one alternative commas are out of place. When you have a list of choices, yes, but the last one following an ‘and’ wouldn’t, so why should it have one if it’s the only choice? This doesn’t mean they never happen but remember point 7. The new comma with everything makes for bad pacing. Alas, the Americans call it the ‘Oxford Comma’ when they put a comma with everything but say the sentence aloud and if you want to appear as if you’re talking like Bill Shatner, think again.
    9. Semi-colons are the most misused punctuation mark. In articles, they are used for slight extensions to sentences where there’s a little more pertinent info to add. This shouldn’t happen in stories and especially not making sentences longer or even have more words than before the semi-colon. With each semi-colon, run through the list: Can the sentence work with a comma? Can the sentence be shorter or re-written? Remembering pace above, would it be appropriate as two sentences, assuming the first sentence is too long? Can the sentence be written differently?
    10. Scene Changes. It would pay to keep to the standardise scene change. Centre a line and tab 3 ‘*’ with a blank line each side. When it comes to e-material, HTML does funny things to text for streaming down the telephone anyway and a proper gap rather than missing a couple lines tends to work better. Don’t try to imitate what HTML does with e-books. It’s entirely out of our power and would take immense re-editing if your book ever went to a paper publisher. As much as possible, I tend to insist writers stick to standard formats.
    11. Spelling. Where do I start? Word processors are very good at a lot of things and will highlight words it regards as suspect. What they can’t do is recognise the difference between a word spelt correctly and whether it is used in the right context. Don’t rely on it to be correct and keep a decent paper dictionary to check your spellings. I tend to reply on a Chambers 20th Century Dictionary myself. It’s a big book but has most words, their variants and definitions and is the one most writers use. Being shown a correct spelling on-line is useful but unless you have a reasonable idea how to spell the word then you can get unstuck.
    12. Hyphenation and Compound Words. Hyphenated words are mostly compound words. The great problem with word processor spell-checkers is that they can’t distinguish between words spelt correctly and words that should have been hyphenated. There has to be a lot of common-sense applied to know the difference. If you don’t know, consult your dictionary. If in doubt or it looks like it can be misinterpreted then hyphenate.
    13. Trail-Offs. Whether it’s a pause within a sentence or a trail off at the end of a sentence, there is only a nominal 3 dots. As the three dots represent a physical 3 spaces, there wouldn’t be any spaces either side within a sentence neither. Think of jumping off a cliff, you don’t get much chance to say goo…
    14. Dialogue. There are no easy lessons with dialogue and it takes a practised ear to bring it alive on the page and to differentiate it between the characters so they don’t sound alike. Only practice and experience will sort out stilted dialogue. People do not speak in over-long sentences as they like to breathe. Always think of education, social graces and background when developing a character. Education maketh the voice. Listen to how people talk, look at how other writers deal with dialogue on TV shows or movies and especially in books and see what you can learn from it.
    15. Poor characterisation. This problem tends to stem from the above problem combined with not developing your writer’s voice sufficiently to know when it’s important to create a character voice which isn’t your own and different from the main text. When I do my own stories, my self-edit is to go through the story as each character and ensure that their voices are separate from each other. The main test for this is if you can carry on a conversation between two characters and can tell which is which purely from the dialogue. The quickest way to develop or improve your ‘writer’s voice’ is to do a series of short stories being very self-critical and trying out different angled aspects, like plot and characterisation to test them for strength and weaknesses.
    16. Emotional Content or Response. One of the easiest ways to sense a writer hasn’t gotten something working is to look at the emotional content of a story. If characters aren’t angered or saddened by events that’s happening to them then the reader will pick this up as not being right. No matter the genre, this is the key to the heart and interest of the reader. You need to instil passion/interest in your own characters so that the reader will feel likewise about them. There’s no easy answer to this because you need to dig deeper into yourself to draw out these emotions and feel the situation you’ve created along with your characters. As stories invariably have life-threatening situations, you’d expect the characters to have some sort of reaction than just walk through it as if it’s a Sunday picnic. Think of the emotional responses accordingly.
    17. Method Acting. In many respects, there’s a form of method acting in writing stories. As a writer, you are the eyes, ears and feelings of the reader. As such, you have to become the characters on the page. When I’m polishing my own stories, I tend to read through from each character’s perspective, making sure that they stay in character and are distinct from each other. After a while, a lot more of the groundwork is done at the first draft stage but it’s a good way to dimensionalise your characters.
    18. Do NOT Say. The strongest thing that a reader will remember about a character comes from demonstrating something that they’re good at than just to say that’s what they do. If a character is greedy then it’s easy to demonstrate cos it comes out in their attitude as they tend to be self-serving in practically everything. Do NOT Say should be engraved in your memory. The real skill of the writer is looping it into the context of the story as part of the plot.
    19. Avoid Repeating Scenes. If you go into so much detail on every unimportant or irrevalent event, the story is never going to move on. Part of the trick of storytelling is that it doesn’t and can’t totally mimic life and is something even I had to come to terms with. Let’s take a typical terrestrial scene that has appeared countless times in books, TV and movies. Two cops are called to a crime scene, maybe one in a series of murders. In our reality, you’d expect them to discuss the case in the car, maybe to any high-ranking officer on arrival and amongst themselves examining the victim. By the third time, the reader is going to be fed up and if not lose interest in the story isn’t going to pay attention. You can make your point with the first time and can shorten the rest unless it brings out new information. As a writer, you have to examine the situation and decide which of the three is the most important and downgrade the others. I often find it a lot easier to comment on the boring bits in passing and expand where it really counts. It keeps the story sharper.
    20. Descriptive Detail. This is one thing where experience does actually count when judging to say something about what is going on. Think of this scene as an example. You have a character walking along a street and suddenly a safe slips out of a window and likely to squash him or her. Someone across the street calls out. You can’t describe the scenery in such a situation because apart from the fact the event is happening in a matter of seconds, it would lose…er…the impact. Problems like this are a matter of staging and working out the best place to disclose background information.
    21. Contemporary Terminology. Stories tend to be period piece of sorts, one has to adjust what they say to the time period. With the past, it’s the lack of technology that one has to be aware of. With the future, not only do you have to consider upgrades but will people do things as they are today.
    22. Either or Neither. This is the biggest bugbear I see people get these two terms muddled a lot mostly cos they write as they hear them not as they are written. Apply this logic: ‘Either’ and ‘or’ means one of two choices. ‘Neither’ and ‘nor’ means no choice at all. Make sure you use the right word.
    23. Consecutive Repeating Words. Ending a sentence and starting the next sentence with the same word will always highlight a poor writer. Editing wise, it’s often easier to cut the spare and merge into a single sentence. When it involves someone’s name, a simple ‘He’ or ‘Her’ is just as effective, especially as you’ve already established whom you’re referring to.
    24. Multiple Years. This is something that only came up in…er…recent years. A lot of people write 1970’s but it isn’t a contraction so why should it need an apostrophe? Therefore, it should actually be written 1970s or any other decade you’re referring to.
  •    25. Why no double Ss. I blame the Americans for getting this one wrong. If there is a multiple for an already existing word ending in an ‘s’, it doesn’t actually require a second ‘s’ after the apostrophe using British English. Think about what happens when you uncontract something.
  •    26. Titles looking like kidnap messages using capped and non-capped words. This isn’t something you see in the textbooks but I wish what we do was adopted and used capped words if only because it prevents problems when titles contain ‘and’, which often means people read part of the title as part of the sentence or even gloss over it completely. This is also why all full titles are singularly dittoed marked so they stand out better than italics, which also doesn’t also transcribe well between fonts. So you won’t see titles like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but ‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory’ in SFC. It stops titles looking like a ransom note and easier to read on-line.As I said in the introduction, it does no harm to occasionally wade through a couple books on grammar occasionally to remind yourself of the basic rules. Once the right habits are developed, you can focus on other areas that need attention.I hope you come away from this article a little more enlightened than when you started it. If your writing quality improves then you know you’re doing the right thing. You might even show me the results.

Finally, novel-writing is very much a marathon of anything up to 18 months to complete. For a writer to do this, it requires developing the stamina to complete it. To build up such a confidence, it makes sense to start off with short stories then move up to novelette size before the big one. This way allows you to experiment and develop your writer’s voice so the quality of your writing matches your ideas. Those who just jump in with little practice are also the ones who don’t always succeed.

– only as far as the text is concerned. You’re free to use the information.

Good luck

GF Willmetts

July 2019


Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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