What I learned about writing while writing a novel

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For the past few years, I’ve been working on a manuscript–a coming-of-age novel that I’m quite proud of. This novel isn’t published (yet), but even if it never graces the shelves of the local bookshop, getting the manuscript into its current form has taught me a lot. If you’re in the process of writing a book, or if you’re considering starting, maybe this post will help.

Find what works for you and stick to it

It’s good to remind yourself that there’s no rush, that the manuscript will take as long as it takes. But don’t use that as an excuse to procrastinate. If, like me, you work full-time and/or have other commitments, writing every single day might not be possible. What worked best for me was setting a weekly word count goal of 5,000 words. This way, I didn’t beat myself up if I was too busy to write one day; I could get the words in later in the week. Yes, there were weeks when I didn’t meet my goal, but most of the time I met or even surpassed it.

I’ve heard of other writers who swear by writing 1,000 words every day–some who even wake up at 5 a.m. to ensure it’s done before they do anything else. I’ve heard of others who write on their lunch hour, writers who “binge write” on weekends, or others who write on their commute. The point is, you just have to find what works for you. That might take some trial and error. But when you find it, hold yourself accountable to meet your own goals.

It can be painful, but it can also feel incredible

I didn’t always feel like sitting down to write. Sometimes it took a while to get going, and I’d spend the first while staring at a blank screen. It could be extremely frustrating and discouraging. But that didn’t always happen. Some writing sessions were productive from the moment I opened my Word doc. And when that happened, I felt amazing for the rest of the day.

Maybe even better than that was when a session started off terribly, when I was convinced I was going to sit there for an hour doing nothing before I could give myself permission to call it day. And then, somehow, I’d get going and the story would take off. Remembering that feeling, reminding yourself of how good things can be–well, that can be very motivating when things aren’t going as well.

It’s not all about you

Yes, writing is a solitary act. And if you’re writing just to get something that’s inside you out onto a page, then, sure, it can be all about you. But if you’re hoping to publish, writing is where the solitude ends.

I was lucky enough to have a mentor throughout my writing process–a writer who had been through everything I was going through, who I could turn to with questions. I also had a great group of early readers who provided excellent feedback. The manuscript has become stronger because of them. All of this is before you start to build relationships with editors, publishers, agents, booksellers, and–eventually–your readers.

Writing isn’t for everyone. And for those of us who do write, it doesn’t mean you have to be published (or even want to be published). But whether you want to see your book on the shelves of bookstores or want to write for your eyes only, if you have any desire to write, I encourage you to do so. It’s a very rewarding experience. And when you do, I’d be interested to hear what you learned from the experience.

7 myths about working with words

dictionaries and language resource materials

Words, punctuation, grammar—these are a few of my favourite things. I’ve worked as a proofreader, writer, transcriber and editor, and, throughout my career, I’ve come across some misconceptions about what it takes to do this type of work. Here are seven myths about what it takes to be a professional word nerd.

Myth 1: You work best on your own.

This is true for a lot of word nerds for at least some of the time. But editors, writers and proofreaders really thrive when they have a network to turn to. We don’t always know the best way handle a situation, or maybe we’ve spent so much time on something and could use a fresh set of eyes on it. It can be helpful to get another opinion (or a few).

Myth 2: You feel strongly about the serial comma.

When you work with words, people often assume you feel passionately about the serial comma. But the value of this tiny mark has been blown out of proportion. What’s important is being consistent and clear with your communications, and this is possible whether or not you use the serial comma.

Working as an editor or writer means you will likely work with style guides maintained by someone other than yourself. You need to be flexible. You’ll probably use the serial comma for some work and you won’t for other work, and you’ll realize that either way is fine.

Myth 3: You are (or could be) a spelling bee champion.

You don’t need to know how to spell every word in the English language, but you definitely need to know to look them up. Yes, having a large vocabulary is helpful, but no matter how much you know, you should continue to consult your trusty dictionary. With this type of work, paranoia can be a good thing, because it’s when you get too confident that you start to miss stuff.

Myth 4: You won’t stand for people breaking language “rules.”

You might hate seeing “they” used as a singular pronoun, or maybe you can’t stand comma splices, but you understand that how we use language evolves. Maybe you’re proud of knowing how to use “whom” properly, but you also realize the word is rarely used now. Keeping the reader in mind is more important than showing off.

Myth 5: You love detail.

It’s not necessary to love detail, but it’s necessary to notice detail. It’s something hardwired in our brains, and it doesn’t mean we actually like it. It can be a bit of a curse sometimes. We can pore over a small detail that maybe no one else will notice, but we do it because we can’t rely on “maybe” and because we strive to create the clearest writing possible.

Myth 6: You enjoy correcting people’s grammar, spelling, etc.

A good editor or proofreader isn’t going to correct friends during a casual conversation. Corrections are saved for written work and only when that’s what we’ve been asked to do professionally. Even then, we don’t like pointing out inconsistencies or errors. Our goal is to make the piece the best it can be.

Myth 7: You don’t make mistakes.

I’ve had co-workers, friends and relatives tell me they get nervous emailing me because they think I’ll judge them if the message contains errors. And, yes, if there are so many errors that I can’t understand what the email means, I am likely to notice. But we all make mistakes sometimes—even the best copy editors. So try to make the best written communications possible, but it doesn’t mean you have to be perfect yourself.

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma shows us English is a beautiful mess

What I read

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch

What it’s about

This book examines how the English-speaking world has arrived at an idea of what “correct” English looks like. Lynch demonstrates that we shouldn’t be so concerned about using English correctly but rather we should be concerned about using English appropriately. And what’s appropriate can change depending on circumstances.

As Lynch takes us through the history of modern English, he provides lots of fascinating information on key figures (Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, Peter Mark Roget, to name a few). Central to the book is the question of whether dictionaries should be prescriptive or descriptive, and Lynch explains the different views some of these key figures had regarding this.

How I got my hands on it

This Christmas I received some nice books and bookish gifts. This book was one of those gifts, and it was tucked neatly into my stocking. I can’t say for sure who it put it there, but I have a strong suspicion (Santa, of course).

A bit that I really liked

As much as I enjoyed reading about Johnson and the story of how this unlikely character created one of the most famous English dictionaries—I mean, I visited the house in London where he worked on A Dictionary of the English Language, so I’m a bit of a fan—the section on John Dryden stands out just a bit more for me. I’ve finally figured out who I can blame for this nonsense about not ending a sentence with a preposition and this BS about it being wrong to split an infinitive! Dryden was trying to make English follow the rules of Latin, but English isn’t Latin, guys.

Bonus bit: I got a real kick out of Lynch talking about people having issues with abbreviations in texts or social media. Don’t like it when people use “IMHO” or “obvs”? Well, then surely you must never say “AKA” or “fridge” or “exam” or “phone,” right? Thank you, Mr. Lynch, for pointing out this hypocrisy. It made me smile.

You’ll want to read it if…

You’ll probably like this book if you are any kind of word nerd. Proofreaders, editors, writers, people who read the dictionary for fun—you will love this book. But if you’re looking for a book that’s going to back up your rigid views on how the English language should work, you might not enjoy reading this. It will probably show you how silly you are being. I mean, I think it would be good for you to read it, but you might not want to.

Recommended refreshments

Any reading session is more enjoyable with snacks and drinks. For The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, I recommend consuming copious amounts of tea, and not just because tea and books always go well together. Rather, I suggest you drink this tea in honour of Samuel Johnson, as he was known to consume several cups a day. Imagine how many pots he must have gone through working on that dictionary! So, yes, tea is appropriate. And also maybe a bowl of alphabet soup?

 

A soft spot for the semicolon

I bought a pair of glasses last week, and my new frames have punctuation marks on them. Specifically, there is a colon on one side and a semicolon on the other. SAMSUNG I have a bit of a soft spot for the semicolon. It’s misunderstood. A lot of writers are afraid to use it. Other writers do use it but use it incorrectly, often placing a semicolon where a comma should be instead. Even the name “semicolon” makes it sound as if it is a lesser point of punctuation than the colon.

Since semicolons aren’t the most commonly used punctuation mark, readers don’t see much of them. This creates a vicious cycle. I’ve heard that some publishers avoid the semicolon because the punctuation mark can be “distracting” to readers. I’m not sure I believe that, but even if it’s true, readers wouldn’t be distracted by the semicolon if they were more used to seeing it.

I love the semicolon for the sort of outsider persona I’ve imagined it having, but of course I also love it for what it actually does. The semicolon helps avoid confusion by separating listed items that contain commas. For example, “I’ll be going with Carl; Carl’s mother, Sheila; Jennifer; and Pat.” The semicolon tells the reader that Sheila is the name of Carl’s mother and not a separate person. The semicolon has been very helpful here—thank you, semicolon!—but this is not the only way to use this punctuation mark.

I like using a semicolon to connect two independent clauses; that’s my favourite way to use it. In the previous sentence, the two clauses would work fine as two sentences, separated by a period. But the semicolon ties them together so neatly. It offers a pause that’s just long enough—not too long, but not too short—that illustrates the link between the two statements. (Want more information about how to use the semicolon? Check out this post.)

A text can’t be read properly by concentrating only on the words. Just as music notation helps a musician understand how to play the notes, punctuation tells the reader how to read the words. So even though the semicolon might be my favourite punctuation mark, I love them all; they’re all equally important. But I’m happy to help give the semicolon a little more exposure.

Why we need to stop talking about the serial comma

I’ve avoided writing about the serial comma. I hear about it more than I’d like to, so I’ve tried to stay out of the conversation. But I’ve reached my limit. I need to say something: The serial comma doesn’t make your writing any better, and it doesn’t make it worse. If you’re either a strong advocate for it or a fervid critic of it, you’ve missed the point.

There. I said it. Now let me explain.

Choosing to use the serial comma, which is the comma that’s placed in front of “and” before the final item in a list (e.g. “blue, red, and green”), is a style preference. Some people use it; some people don’t. Stylistic decisions should be consistent, but they’re not right or wrong.

However, there are many writers and editors who give the serial comma more credit than it deserves. I’ve seen some people include their opinion on it in their Twitter bios, and I’ve read various blog posts, tweets and articles by defenders of the serial comma.

Recently, this tweet appeared multiple times in my Twitter feed. It includes a link to a page with the headline, “A Case for the Oxford Comma in One Screenshot” and displays a screenshot of a tweet from Sky News.

Image taken from slate.com (http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2013/12/10/oxford_comma_sky_news_tweet_suggests_that_obama_and_castro_have_set_a_date.html)

Image taken from slate.com (http://slate.me/1bBZXRu)

The assertion was that the tweet could be misinterpreted as saying presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro had set a wedding date. Inserting a serial comma before “and” would show that these are two separate items. This is true. But it’s not the only solution.

In any type of writing, it’s not the lack of a serial comma that creates the confusion; poor writing does. If the headlines listed in the above tweet were rearranged, there would be no misunderstanding.

Here’s another way to illustrate this. When writers explain why the serial comma is necessary, they often use this example: “I’d like to thank my parents, Bill Clinton and Oprah.” The problem here is that it’s unlikely the author’s parents are actually Bill Clinton and Oprah, as the sentence indicates.

Placing a comma after “Bill Clinton” is one way to fix this, but it’s not the only way. The author can also change the sentence: “I’d like to thank Bill Clinton, Oprah and my parents.” See? No serial comma and yet no confusion.

In fact, sometimes using the serial comma can make things unclear. Take, for example, the sentence “Tina went to dinner with a magician, John, and Mark.” Is the magician named John? Or has Tina gone to dinner with three people? If John is the magician, the author can change the sentence to something like “Tina went to dinner with John, who is a magician, and Mark.”

If John and the magician are different people, the author can remove the serial comma: “Tina went to dinner with a magician, John and Mark.” To keep the serial comma, an alternative is to rearrange the listed items: “Bill went to dinner with John, Ted, and a magician.”

The point is, there are options. In my career, I’ve been requested at various times to use the serial comma and not to use it, and I’ve never had any strong feelings either way, as long as the style was consistent.

It’s nice to see so many people care about punctuation, but don’t miss the point by getting into a frivolous argument. If you want to write better, stop caring about being for or against the serial comma and start caring more about communicating clearly.