Archive for the ‘Grammar’ Category

Whether writing or speaking, the words we use convey images to our audience.  The literal, dictionary definition of a particular word is its denotation; the implied meaning or perception associated with it is its connotation.  Selecting the right words for the thoughts we want to communicate requires knowing both their literal meaning and the emotional context surrounding them.

Many words have positive, negative, or neutral connotations that add color to their literal meanings. For example, calling someone a chef will generally imply more skill and prestige than saying they are a cook, even though both words denote a person whose job is preparing food to eat. Saying a woman’s hair looks nice can have a neutral, or perhaps negative, connotation even though the word “nice” is generally considered complimentary. Seeing the name of an inner-city gang scrawled across the wall of a building might make a gang member feel pride, but the same sight might incite anger or fear in other people in the community. Factors such as age, culture, education, and life experiences will affect how a person perceives certain words. 

Using words that connote more than their literal meaning can affect the tone and mood of what we write, and adds depth to both fiction and nonfiction by stimulating the reader’s imagination and invoking an emotional response.



What are some words you react to based on their connotation more than their denotation?  What type of words do you view as “neutral?”  Do you think about the meaning of the words you are using more when you are writing than when you are speaking?

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When I was in high school, our English teachers encouraged us to use lots of descriptive words in our writing. Adjectives and adverbs were our friends, making us sound educated and interesting. Flowery prose was admired, and many of my favorite stories spent more time describing the scenery than the action.

Times have changed.  

The type of writing I was taught is now considered “purple prose.” That means it’s writing that calls attention to itself by being excessive or exaggerated. The writing itself becomes the focus rather than what is written.

Though the excessive use of adjectives, adverbs, clichés, similes, metaphors, and alliteration is no longer in vogue, it doesn’t mean these literary devices shouldn’t ever be used. Sometimes they’re effective in clarifying what we mean, and they can add to characterization. They can be used to grab the reader’s attention or adjust the pacing of a story. In dialog, they add a sense of realism as real speech is generally full of description and clichés. The key is—don’t overdo it.

Today’s readers are less impressed with flowery writing than those of yore. Choose words that say what you mean and are appropriate for your target audience. An occasional adjective or adverb can spice up a sentence, but too much of a good thing can get old quick (like clichés). Limit your use of them to those that are essential to the image or thought you’re trying to convey.

So, how do we know which ones are essential? They’re the ones that make what we’re describing come alive for the reader, or clarify an important noun or verb. They’re the ones that, when missing, make the sentence feel incomplete or unclear.

For those of us who could use a refresher course, here are excellent references for understanding some important points of grammar.

Adjectives  http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/adjectives.htm 

Adverbs  http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/adverbs.htm  

Verbs  http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/verbs.htm  

Nouns  http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/nouns.htm

Another helpful site for grammar info is: Purdue OWL  http://owl.english.purdue.edu/   




Did your high school English teacher tell you adding lots of adjectives and adverbs made your writing more interesting? Do you use lots of them in your writing or deliberately limit them? What criteria do you use for determining whether words, phrases, or sentences are essential to what you’re writing?

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I’ve been looking forward to this day all week. It’s National Punctuation Day, which gives all us grammarians a reason to chat about little things like commas, periods, colons, and exclamation marks, without feeling like nerds.

Last year I celebrated by discussing commas. You can read that post by clicking here.

This year, I did a little research for tidbits of information on punctuation that you might find interesting. Here are my favorites: Did you know that the exclamation mark was originally the letter I placed above the letter O, representing the Latin word io, meaning exclamation of joy? Do you know how many punctuation marks are used in the English language? (14)

For those of you who write poetry, there’s a Haiku contest over at http://nationalpunctuationday.com/ to celebrate this year’s Punctuation Day. Entries must be submitted by September 30, 2010, so check it out today!

 See full size image


What’s your favorite punctuation mark—or least favorite?  Are you celebrating anything today? 



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After completing your rough draft and revising it until you’re satisfied with the basic structure and content, it’s time to start polishing it for submission.

At this stage you may want to get someone else’s input on your work. Some people have critique partners look over their manuscripts, but even readers who aren’t writers can offer useful insights into problems with clarity, pacing, characterization, or awkward sentences.

This is also the time to review your manuscript for:

1. Errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

Don’t rely on the spell check function of your word processor as it isn’t always right. Words that sound the same but are spelled differently (homophones) are easy to overlook when editing.

Make sure you’re following the appropriate style guide for the publisher you’re targeting. Agent Rachelle Gardner suggests making an Editorial Style Sheet to help keep track of pertinent details that an editor will want to know about your manuscript.


2. Smooth transitions between paragraphs and scenes.

Make sure your point of view changes are clearly indicated.

Try to have a cliffhanger or unanswered question at the end of each chapter to entice people to keep reading.

3. Correct format and headers.

Using the proper manuscript format is essential to make your writing look professional. In the absence of specific guidelines, use a standard format: double spacing for hard copies, 1 inch margins, black Courier or Times New Roman 12 point font, headers with last name, title, and page number. Don’t forget a cover page. (See my post on manuscript formatting.)

Each manuscript will have special needs. There are many resources available on line and in books to help you figure out what’s best for yours. Many people also pay free-lance editors, or book doctors, to help them get their work ready to submit. If you decide to hire an editor, be sure to check their background and references before entering into a contract with them.


What are the final steps you take to prepare your manuscript for submission to an agent or editor? Do you have any tips to share about revising or polishing a manuscript? What type of feedback do you ask for from friends, family, or critique partners?

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I most desperately desire to make my fiction and nonfiction writing the very best it can possibly be, and I would always work very hard to eliminate unnecessary words and make very sure I didn’t overuse any words, or at least not very many. I also will follow all the rules of grammar and won’t have any run on sentences, and especially I will try to never use too many of those pesky old adverbs and adjectives that many people frequently talked about.


That paragraph is true, but it’s also an example of poor writing. It’s filled with grammar errors, run on sentences, tense changes, repetitive words, and adjectives and adverbs that don’t add to the meaning of the words they modify.

No matter how great an idea may be, if the writing is full of errors and unnecessary words, readers will struggle with it—or quit reading. (Of course, our writing can also be grammatically correct but not be well written.) Good grammar provides a strong foundation for any type of writing.

Personally, I never enjoyed learning the rules of grammar. I dislike writing about them, too. They are important, however, so here are two sites to help you:


Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab is one of the best sources for writing help. It covers grammar, style, mechanics, and much more.


The Guide to Grammar and Writing covers a wide range of topics, such as the writing process, structure, grammar, transitions, and punctuation.


Where do you look when you need help with the technical aspects of writing? Are there other sites or books that you recommend? What are some of the grammar issues that give you the most trouble?

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Last night I spent 4 hours online picking out a medicine cabinet, lights, and faucets for our bathtub and sinks for the remodelers to install next week. Since my husband fell asleep before I made my final selections, I thoughtfully printed off copies of the spec sheets and photos of my first and second choices in case he wanted some real input in the decision. (He never cares, but he likes to be consulted.)

I stapled together the ones that were meant as a group so there would be no confusion, totaled up the prices, including tax, and double-checked everything to make sure my presentation would be professional and my preference would be obvious. That’s when things fell apart.

What I failed to notice in my 4 hour analysis of bathroom fixtures was that even though both my first and second choice were available on the 22nd—which I interpreted as meaning they were in stock since yesterday was the 22nd —it said 3/22/10, not 2/22/10. That one little number difference meant I could wait a month and hope the installers would still be available, or I could pick out a third choice.

To relate this to writing, therefore keeping this post from being a whiny rant, I’d like to stress the importance of timeframes in a story. Just as the bathroom remodeling could not be done the way I envisioned it within the time our contractor had allowed, our stories will not be believable if the plot couldn’t happen within the period the story spans. (If you’ve ever watched the show 24, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Sorry you 24 fans—I used to be one of you.)

I noticed this problem in my own novel when I realized the protagonist’s dog grew from a tiny puppy to a hulking 70-pounder within 3 months. No, he wasn’t on steroids; I forgot his age and what type of dog he was and made him fit the story needs.

Readers are smart. They catch things writers miss. Maybe it’s because we “know” what’s happening, so we overlook the inconsistencies, but errors in the timeframe will ruin the flow of a story. Take time to figure out the timeline and make sure the scenes are in order. Having Christmas dinner and then a scene with Christmas Eve is fine if you intend it as a flashback, but if it’s just an oversight, your story will lose credibility. (No, I didn’t do that. There were a few other scenes out of order though.)

Timeframes must also be considered when selecting the proper tense to use. Present, past, and future tenses are pretty easy to understand, but can still confuse the reader when shifts in the tense are made improperly. Due to the complexity of many stories, you may also need to use progressive or perfect tenses. They can be a bit tricky, and are hard to explain, so rather than go into detail myself, here’s an excellent site that will clarify how to handle shifts in tense within a story:

http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/601/08/  Verb Tense Consistency


Here’s a site that talks about adhering to believable time lines, and other important things writers need to understand. It’s pretty deep, but has lots of gems to think about:



How do you keep track of the timelines in your stories? What other types of inconsistencies annoy you as a reader? Do you know of any quick-growing dogs that I could give my protagonist?

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Agents and editors have distinct preferences as to the type of stories they are willing to accept, so determining what category your story fits into will help you figure out where to submit it.

Commercial Fiction

This type of story appeals to a wide audience, has a distinct plot, and its characters actively pursue a goal or overcome a challenge. These stories are primarily read for entertainment. There are many categories of commercial fiction, classified by genre and sub-genres. Each genre has basic elements that readers expect to see in the stories. Some commercial fiction may appeal to more than one type of audience, and can be considered mainstream.

Literary Fiction

These stories focus more on internal conflict than external events, the plot is less obvious, and there is an emphasis on artistic prose rather than the more straightforward storytelling seen in commercial fiction. There is usually extensive development of the characters, with a slower pace, and less emphasis on what happens and more on the character’s reaction to what happens.

Here’s an interesting explanation by Agent Nathan Bransford on the difference between commercial fiction and literary fiction:  http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2007/02/what-makes-literary-fiction-literary.html

Robert J. Sawyer, a science fiction author, also gives a clear explanation of these categories: http://www.sfwriter.com/2008/02/literary-vs-commercial-fiction.html

Edit December 11, 2009:  

Some books cross the line between commercial and literary fiction.  See my post on upmarket fiction for more information.


Do you have a preference for reading one type of story? Do stories you write tend to fit more in the literary or commercial category?

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Some terms are important for writers to understand, but difficult to distinguish. Here are some that are related, but refer to different aspects of a story.

Plot: the sequence of events in a work of fiction.

Plot refers to how the events in a story are related, and how the characters are affected by them. Eventually the events result in a change in the character’s outlook or circumstances, and the conflicts encountered along the way are resolved.

Theme: the main point of a work of literature.

This is sometimes confused with the plot. Both are essential elements, but a theme refers to the idea or concept behind the story rather than the actions that occur. Most stories have more than one theme involved, such as love, greed, and jealousy, and themes can often be expressed as a conflict between two concepts or ideas—for example, good vs. evil.

High Concept: an idea that is so compelling that it will appeal to a large group of people based solely on a pitch of a few words or a couple of sentences.

The appeal of a “high concept” story is in its premise. It should be something people can relate to, but must feel like a new idea. Often it is a story line that’s been told before, but has a twist or hook that gives it a strong commercial appeal. Simply being unique doesn’t qualify; some things are unique but wouldn’t interest a large audience.

When agents ask what a story is about, they are probably hoping to hear the “high concept” pitch. If your story fits their idea of high concept, it may increase your chances of gaining representation and eventual publication.


EDIT AUGUST 8, 2011: Agent Rachelle Gardner shares her view of high concept on her blog today.


What stories would you classify as “high concept?” If you are a writer, can you describe your story’s main theme and plot in a few sentences?

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Being a word nerd, I love it when I run across a word I don’t recognize. Being slightly obsessive, I also have to look it up. I use a wonderful, free tool for that called WordWeb, which gives me a handy icon at the bottom of my screen for quick reference. I can double-click on any word, click the WordWeb icon, and immediately find its meaning, synonyms, the words appearing before and after it in the dictionary, and other useful information.

CNET has more details about WordWeb, if you’re interested, and the program is also available to download there. (There is another version of it that you can buy, but I’ve never used it.)

Go to: http://download.cnet.com/WordWeb/3000-2279_4-10003201.html

or http://wordweb.info/free/


Sometimes, though, a dictionary definition doesn’t give the whole picture of what a word or phrase means. The idea behind it may be harder to understand, or may be open to interpretation. Tomorrow I’ll go over a few of those words, and discuss how they apply to writers.


What is your favorite dictionary/ thesaurus site? Do you still use a printed dictionary/thesaurus?

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In honor of today being the 6th National Punctuation Day, I’m dedicating today’s post to commas. This little symbol has a big job, and it is frequently abused. Here are some of the rules:

1. Use them to set off introductory elements.

2. Use them to connect 2 independent clauses.

3. Use them to break a sentence down into manageable sections.

4. Use them when necessary to prevent confusion or misreading.

5. Use them to separate 3 or more words, phrases, or clauses in a series.

6. Use them to set off quoted material within a sentence.

7. Use them to set off geographical names.

8. Use them to show a distinct pause.


There are more rules regarding commas, but some of them are too complex to list without going into explanations and examples. To be honest, I’m not sure I even understand what some of them are talking about. (I’ve been out of school a very long time.)

If you want to know more, take a look at these helpful sites:





Do you know the rules, look them up when necessary, or just place commas where they sound good to you? What’s your favorite punctuation mark? Which punctuation symbol gives you the most trouble?

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