I like to compare writing to woodworking. Both have a technical side and a creative side. I know next to nothing about power tools and they scare me. Every time I help my husband by holding one end of a board while he runs it through his power saw, I have visions of amputations. Fingers, hands, entire arms—and it’s possible the thing could fall over and go after a leg, isn’t it? So while I can conceive of a great birdhouse or a functional table, I don’t know enough about the tools to make a decent version of either. Too many self-published writers conceive of a great story, but don’t know enough about the tools of writing—grammar, punctuation, spelling, sentence structure—to bring a professional version to life.
Now I understand that if a budding writer was lucky to make it through high school English with a C or D average, that writer isn’t likely to even know when he’s done something wrong. And you have to at least suspect it’s wrong before you can look up how to do it correctly. That’s where hiring an editor comes in. Self-publishing can be free, but if you have a pretty good idea you don’t know a conjunction from a hole in the ground, then set aside some money for an editor or find a friend/relative who aced English classes and is willing to do it for free.
I can’t stress this enough—spelling, punctuation and grammar are IMPORTANT! Nearly everyone ends up with one or two mistakes in their book—even traditionally published authors—because the human eye sees what it expects to see. But if you have mistakes on nearly every page, YOU ARE NOT A PROFESSIONAL! And when you’re not professional, you hurt us all. Self-published books are still looked down on by many readers, and considering some books that are out there, it’s understandable.
Another issue with too many of the self-published books I’ve read lately are missing words or words that need to be removed because the author made changes to the text. Most, if not all, of these can be caught by a careful reading. I catch a lot of my mistakes by reading my Word file, but after I upload my book to CreateSpace, I always order a paperback draft copy. When it comes, I sit down with an ink pen and a pack of Post-Its and read it carefully from cover to cover. I always find mistakes, no matter how many times I’ve looked at the digital file. For some reason, they’re easier to see on paper.
And you know what? I wouldn’t be surprised if there are still mistakes in there somewhere (and probably even in this blog post), because the eye sees what it expects to see. But I can say with confidence, there aren’t many. If and when a sharp reader finds one and points it out, I will thank that reader profusely, fix the error, and upload the corrected version. Because when it comes to writing a novel, there’s no such thing as being too perfect.
Alan Cooper’s Homonym List
Homonyms are words that sound alike, but mean very different things. Confusing these words are one of the more common mistakes I find in self-published books. This list is a good one to browse until the words become familiar to you, and when you decide to use one, look up its meaning first to be sure you’ve got the right (not “rite” or “write”) one.
Quick and Dirty Tips
No, this isn’t a site (not “sight” or “cite”) offering sexual advice. It’s a grammar site run by Mignon Fogarty, aka “Grammar Girl.” The ads that pop up when you first access the site are annoying, but the answers to grammar questions are clear and concise. You can even sign up for a newsletter of daily tips or a podcast. Sure, if your friends find out you listen to grammar podcasts, they might decide you’ve turned into a nerd, but what they don’t know…
The Punctuation Guide
Please, please, PLEASE, learn to use semi-colons correctly! And while you’re at it, brush up on comma usage. A misplaced or missing comma can change the meaning of a sentence entirely. If you’re into grammar cartoons as I am (I know—I should get a life!), there’s a great one that says “Let’s Eat, Grandma” and Let’s Eat Grandma.” The caption is “Commas Save Lives.” Yes, I think it’s funny and I know I’m pitiful!
If you’re really hard up for something to do on a Saturday night (not “knight”), check out the grammar quizzes on grammarbook.com. You can sign up for a newsletter, too. Pour yourself a stiff drink, unplug the phone, and party down! You’ll thank yourself in the morning when you realize you finally know when you should use a hyphen and when you should use an em dash.