Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Grammar, Spelling, and Style: My Thoughts

You see, I've been editing a friend's story for the past week. His novel (if you can call it that; it's ridiculously short, at 102 pages. Of course, it IS single-spaced *grumble*) is a typical fantasy type; magic, sword fights, unusual creatures. While that's not my genre unless it's remarkably well done, I figured that it couldn't hurt to help him out.

Now. It's not bad, per se. It's just... not good, either. At first I was editing as I read, but it was too annoying. So I did a first read-through, and am now going through for the editing stuff.

Doing this has gotten me thinking that maybe I could become a professional editor. After all, I took two Advanced Placement English classes in high school and got a 4 and 5 on the exams. Those are the two highest scores you can get, for those who don't know. In my final one, the teacher told me that I had an aptitude for examining literature, and for writing of course. Plus, I love to read, and to edit other people's work.

I've got another person asking me to edit his novel once he's done with it, and I agreed.

I figured that as I'm going to be doing this for quite a few people most likely, I'd give a brief synopsis of what I'd be looking for and what I'd be "fixing".

Let's start with grammar. It is my firm belief that a good writer knows the rules of grammar, and not just the basic ones. You have to know them if you wish to use them effectively. Nothing is more distracting than an error in grammar that is obviously unintentional. A fragment can be effective if used correctly, but all too often I see fragments that cannot possibly be used for effect.

Furthermore, I have a few pet peeves. Subject-pronoun agreement is a huge one. Sam is taller than she, not Sam is taller than her. Over and under use of commas is also irritating. And, if you don't know how to use a semicolon, please don't try to. It just makes you look like you're trying to be pretentious. And, for the love of God, do NOT use "since" as a synonym for "because" unless it's a character speaking. In the actual prose, it is incorrect. I do not care that people have started accepting it. It's wrong. Since is a passage of time.

Spelling is more cut and dry than anything else in the writing world. There are correct ways to spell things, and there are wrong ways. Of course, there are still variations. I'm sure you've all noticed that I use the British/Australian spellings of certain words, such as favourite and colour. This is because I find them more aesthetically pleasing. I'm a touch OCD, and having a balanced number of letters makes my eyes happy.

Does this mean that I'll tell someone who's written color instead of colour that they're wrong? No. It'll just jar me out of the story for a second.

Let's move on to style, which is perhaps the most finicky aspect of the writing world. Style is what defines a writer's voice, what makes them different from the million other writers out there. This does not mean that everything is acceptable if you head it as a "stylistic choice".

After all, it is a stylistic choice to write in passive voice. But no one wants to read a book that has 7 out of 10 sentences in passive voice. It's simply not dynamic enough to hold interest. In a similar way, using "to be" verbs in every sentence also grows tiresome. Those would be is and was, dear readers.

Take a look at this sentence:

The girl was running through the forest, tripping over roots and crashing through foliage.

Now, that's not a bad sentence. But now take a look at this one:

The girl sprinted through the forest, tripping over roots and crashing through foliage.

Isn't that more dynamic and interesting? You can use "to be" verbs in your prose, but try to use them sparingly. Sometimes they're unavoidable, after all.

Something writers get told all the time is to move quickly. You don't want a slow story and lose the reader's attention, right? Right. However, there is such a thing as moving too quickly. When that happens, the reader loses the connection with the characters. You're sacrificing character development to keep the plot moving, and that is never a good plan. Even if you're not a character-driven writer (such as Tolkien), you want to keep your readers connected. If there is no connection to the character, most readers will put the book away.

Awkward sentences can hardly be passed off as a stylistic choice, although I've known people who have tried to argue. It's usually the writer of the awkward sentence, surprise surprise. Most often, they disagree that the sentence is awkward. Personally, I don't see how you can not tell. Even with my own prose, I can tell when something is forced and feels awkward.

Writing the way you talk is also a problem. Now, if the story is first person, go right ahead. For third person, however, you simply cannot. Unless you speak the way you write, you cannot write the way you talk. It's too informal, to put it simply. On this blog I write the way I talk, because it is meant to be that way. For my stories, however, there is a distinct difference. Don't believe me? Go here. Read my short story.

UPDATED: Another thing: contractions. In certain stories, it's fine to have contractions within prose. In others, you should avoid them. Fantasy, historical fiction, science-fiction, and literary fiction should really just not have them. Once again, with first person, it's usually fine. Depending on the voice of the narrator for any other story, it can be fine. As a general rule though, I say avoid them.

Now, I'm not sure how I'm going to approach this friend with all of my criticism. He thinks his writing is excellent, which is always annoying. He even said that if there's no "real" reason for the criticism, he will ignore it. If I can't give a definitive reason as to why a sentence is awkward and why he should change it, he won't. That's frustrating.Yes, it is his novel, he can write it how he wishes and does not have to heed anything I say. He can argue that it's just my personal preference.

However. I read a variety of styles. In that last AP English class, we read tons of books that were written in very different ways. And I enjoyed all of them. I can usually tell when something is intentional, and when it's just that you don't know how to write. Or to put it less harshly, when you haven't written or read enough to tell when something is... not wrong, but just awkward.

That's all I've got for today, my dears. Sorry for not posting for so long :)