Six Grammatical Mistakes That Can Turn Readers Off to Your Book—and How to Avoid Them
We have a bad habit of writing the way we speak—and most of the time our spoken grammar is incorrect. Do we want to write the same way? Not if we can help it. Writing the way you speak can make your text look foolish and clunky, and can turn readers off to your book before they’ve made their way through Chapter One. To avoid this fate, pay particular attention to the following mistakes:
One of the most common errors I find is the use of ‘and then.’ When you think about it, those two little words are a contradiction in terms.
Can you pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time?
Here, two actions are done (or attempted) simultaneously.
John yanked open the door, then ran through the corridor.
Here, however, sequence is important. There is no way John can run through the corridor while yanking open the door. He’d either go through the door, like a ghost, or knock himself out. ‘Then’ is used to show two actions performed in sequence.
2. ALL OF
This is another one of those terms that can appear to be contradicting.
John wanted all of the employees’ names added to the list.
All means every name. When sticking ‘of’ in there, you not only hint at only a portion (which contradicts ‘all’) you also create a useless prepositional phrase.
John wanted all the employees’ names added to the list.
This sentence may sound like it’s missing a word, but it’s actually the correct one.
By making it a habit to correct our everyday speech, we set a pattern to write proper grammar. Writing proper sentences will become automatic. We won’t have to stop and think about what’s right and acceptable, or what an editor will do to our work. Believe me, it’s no fun having a manuscript returned for fixing, and finding it heavily decorated with editor’s marks and comments.
3. WORD ABUSE
There are a few words we tend to overuse, or misuse. The word ‘that’ is one I would personally love to remove from the dictionary —permanently—or at the very least outlaw. I admit, there are times where it should be legitimately used, but other times…
He called the newspaper knowing that he would have to leave his name.
‘That’ is unnecessary in the sentence.
He called the newspaper knowing he would have to leave his name.
If you use the word often, try reading the sentence without it. Most of the time you’ll find it can be deleted.
‘As’ is another word which belongs in this category. For a two-letter word, it runs neck and neck with ‘that’ as being the most abused.
Harry set the table as Sally finished mashing the potatoes, then put them in a bowl.
This can be changed a couple ways:
Harry set the table while Sally finished mashing the potatoes.
Harry set the table. Sally finished mashing the potatoes, then put them in a bowl.
If you use ‘as’ too often to connect separate actions in your sentences, consider breaking up those sentences into smaller ones.
4. AND, THEN, BUT
These three words are conjunctions and were never meant to be used to start sentences. They connect parts of sentences, show additions, exceptions. The only time they’re used to start a sentence is when you want to emphasize a point. More often than not, a short sentence will do the trick.
Make copies of the report for the board meeting. Then you can take your break.
Take your break after you make the copies of the report for the board meeting.
Mary heard noises downstairs and picked up the phone to call for help. But it was too late. Someone cut the phone line.
Mary heard noises downstairs and picked up the phone to call for help. It was too late. Someone cut the phone line.
In this second example, you not only eliminate unnecessary conjunctives, but you build a little tension with the shorter sentences.
5. WEASEL WORDS
‘Just,’ ‘only,’ ‘simply,’ ‘barely,’ ‘very,’ are some of the words that can be done without. I know, many folks say, “If the words are in the dictionary, then I should be able to use them.” There’s also an expression that says, “Less is more.” By keeping your sentence structure straightforward, you don’t need a lot of words to get your point across. Weasels are sneaky little critters, little thieves; weasel words steal the gist of your thoughts.
You want your writing to be strong, make an impression. These words, used at the wrong time and in the wrong place, will make you appear noncommittal (and sometimes even whiny) as a writer.
He simply refused to obey orders.
Mary just wanted to be left alone.
If John had only known about the interview…
In each case the sentence loses something. If you think about it, weasel words make each sentence sound more like gossip than a statement of fact.
Fact: He refused to obey orders.
Decisive: Mary wanted to be left alone.
Choices: If John had known about the interview…
Like any other rule, this one also has its exceptions. The smart use for weasel words is when you want to build some tension into the scene. The trick is to know when to use it. Here’s an example.
John had a death grip on the shrub growing out of the cliffside. One foot slipped and he tried desperately to gain a toehold once again. If only he could get a grasp on the cliff edge and pull himself up. He tipped his head a little to see how far he was from the top. Dirt rattled down and struck his face, forcing him to look away. It was now or never. Very carefully he reached up, stretching as much as he dared, without jeopardizing his position. His hands slid lightly upward over the dirt, loosening more of it, until he’d reached his limit. His fingertips just barely touched the top of the cliff, but left him nothing to grab onto. So close, and yet so far. He might as well be back at the bottom of the cliff. John screamed out his frustration.
While you can get a sense of just how tenuous his predicament is, the word ‘just’ shows how close he is to saving himself, yet not being able to. ‘If only’ shows him to believe the situation is nearly impossible.
This is the kind of situation where you want to build the tension and keep your reader following every word. These words bring your characters and readers so close to a solution, but maintain a sufficient distance to keep the story going. Use them sparingly, and see how much your writing can be improved.
From Marissa St. James’ Doing it Write: Putting the Final Polish on Your Manuscript, Copyright © 2006 PageTurner Editions, available at Amazon.com for Kindle, Barnes & Noble for Nook and iTunes for Mac-based devices. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Guest columnist Marissa St James writes sweet romance. Her books include Lady in Black and Other Tales of Paranormal Romance, The Legend and the Laird, Liberty’s Belle, and many others. Find them all and keep up with Marissa’s writings and doings at www.msjbookshelf.blogspot.com and www.marissastjames.blogspot.com.
A Book Addict's Vent
- 1: Stop asking me how much I spend on my book hauls.
- 2: Stop looking at my receipt--seriously?
- 3: Stop silently judging me because my cart is full.
- 4: What the hell does it matter to you whether I get to read all of my books or not?
- 5: I am a book collector, not a hoarder. There's a difference.
- 6: Yes, I am buying another book. Why do you care?
- 7: No, I don't watch TV a lot because I'd rather be reading. What's wrong with that?
- 8: It's cute that you think that just because I read faster than you, it means I don't fully appreciate books.
- 9: If you're at a bookstore with me, you should know what you're getting yourself into--so don't even TRY to rush me.
- 10: Young Adult books are about more than girls in dresses and vampires. Maybe you should pick one up some day and see for yourself.
- Hey fellow book addicts, do you have anything to vent about? It's Sunday, let go of your stress for the upcoming week!
Worth a Thousand Words: My Life with Tumblr
It may come as a surprise, but far too often authors—people who are supposedly very comfortable with words!—have days when they just don’t want to write at all.
It’s a common mistake writers make when they begin to think about social media, marketing, and all that other fun stuff: this idea that words are the be-all and end-all for them. They force themselves far too often to script tweet after tweet, Facebook post after Facebook post…until they just can’t write another line of original content, even if only to say “Look at my book!” Worse, they come to feel that because they’ve burnt out on writing tweets and posts and marketing copy, they have failed. They think about all the potential readers they have lost; markets they haven’t tapped; piles of beguiling words they should have written—because are they not supposed to be endless fonts of text? (Spoiler: no.)
Fortunately for you if you’re one of these writers, there are some great options for social networking that don’t require you to write a word. They are wordless yet powerful, simple yet evocative, easy yet poignant.
In short, Facebook and Twitter are not the only games in town when it comes to keeping yourself and your writing in the public eye.
I’m talking about using pictures rather than words. Using Flicker, Instagram, Pinterest or Tumblr to make your point, catch your Twitter followers’ imaginations, engage them emotionally in a way that leaves a favorable impression of you in their minds. An image-sharing tool like these can help you reach out to others, and save you a thousand words of writing, every day.
There are quite a few image-sharing venues out there—and while your mileage and social media needs may vary, in my experience they’ve basically boiled down to just one. Allow me: Flickr is ridiculously clunky and doesn’t share well with others—just spend a few minutes trying to either find an image or a keyword, or pass along a photo. Pain. In. The…youknowwhatImean. Instagram is fine and dandy for taking snapshots of your dinner, your dog, your kids, your whatever…but when it comes to sharing what you snap, or using images from other sources, it’s not exactly user-friendly.
This basically leaves us with two choices, if you want to save those thousands of words: Pinterest and Tumblr. I’ve tried both and the choice was extremely easy to make—it comes down to one thing: sex.
Let’s face it, when you’re an author of erotica and erotic romance, you are dealing with—in one way or another—characters having sex. Like lots of erotica authors, I’ve learned to (sigh) deal with platforms like Facebook that will wish you into the cornfield for showing—or in some cases even talking about—something as threatening as a nipple. We deal with Facebook because we have to. But an open-minded image-sharing social media venue is a bit like Twitter: the more the merrier.
Pinterest doesn’t like sex…at all. I used to have a Pinterest account but then I began to get messages, here and there to start, but then tons: each one about a posted image of mine that was removed due to the dreaded Terms of Service. A few were obvious, but then the images they were yanking became and more innocent. Bye-bye Pinterest.
Tumblr isn’t perfect—far from it—but even after being purchased by the search engine deity Yahoo, I can count on the fingers of one hand the times it has caused me any kind of headache. Mostly they will reject anything that really pushes a button—think of the deadly erotica sins, but with pictures, and you know what I mean (hate speech, rape, bestiality, incest, underage, pee or poo, etc).
In a nutshell, Tumblr is easy, fun, and—best of all—a rather effective social media tool that also neatly and simply integrates into Twitter and Facebook…and, no, I do not own stock.
The way it works couldn’t be less complicated: you can create any number of Tumblrs—think folders—(even with an “age appropriate” warning if you want), and then design them with any one of a huge number of themes. From your master dashboard you can see—and tweak —all the separate Tumblrs you’ve created. The themes are a blast, and the interface takes very little skill to navigate.
As for what Tumblrs you should create…well, that’s up to you. Like food? Make a nice edibles Tumblr (and they have an app that lets you to take shots of your meals if that’s what you’re into). Like history? Create a vintage photo site. Love sex? Well, it’s pretty obvious about what you can do with that.
Where do you get your pictures? You can certainly take them yourself or upload them from your various devices, but where Tumblr becomes a real social media machine is in reposting. Once you create your account just look for other Tumblrs by interests or keywords and then hit that little follow button. Then, when you look at your dashboard, you’ll see a nice stream of pictures that you can like, share, or repost to your own various Tumblr incarnations. Plus, the more people you follow, the more people will follow you.
Just to give you an idea, I started—rather lazily—my dozen or so Tumblrs four or so years ago and now my main one, Rude Mechanicals, has close to 4,000 followers. You can imagine the reach you could have if you really put some work into it.
And if you want to see how far that reach extends, you can go back and look at your posts to see how many times they’ve been liked or reposted. It’s harder to tell when it’s a reposted picture but it can also be very heartwarming to see that, for instance, when you post about a good review or a new book announcement, dozens of people liked your news or, even better, shared it with their own vast audience.
What’s also fun about Tumblr is the auto-forward feature. It’s not perfect, as there are some periodic glitches, but all in all it works rather well. When you set up your separate Tumblrs you can then select an option where—if you choose—you can also send any image to Twitter or to Facebook.
That increases the number of people your image will potentially reach. It can even go to a Facebook page you’ve created. Neat!
One trick I use is to click the handy “like” button to create an inventory of images and then—once or twice a day—go back into my list of likes to repost them to my appropriate sites…with or without Twitter or Facebook reposting as I see fit. Tumblrs also feature RSS, which means you can subscribe to one of them through an aggregator like Feedly.
What’s also neat about Tumblr is its flexibility: you can post images (duh) but you can also embed video (from YouTube or wherever) and post text, quotations, links, chat streams, and audio.
Let your eyes do the walking and let the images they find do the talking. Image-sharing tools like Tumblr are a super easy way to fulfill your need for social media presence without having to write anything.
M.Christian has become an acknowledged master of erotica, with more than 400 stories, 10 novels (including The Very Bloody Marys, Brushes and The Painted Doll). Nearly a dozen collections of his own work (Technorotica, In Control, Lambda nominee Dirty Words, The Bachelor Machine), more than two dozen anthologies (Best S/M Erotica series, My Love for All That is Bizarre: Sherlock Holmes Erotica, The Burning Pen, and with Maxim Jakubowksi The Mammoth Book of Tales from the Road). His work is regularly selected for Best American Erotica, Best Gay Erotica, Best Lesbian Erotica, Best Bisexual Erotica, Best Fetish Erotica, and others. His extensive knowledge of erotica as writer, editor, anthologist and publisher resulted in the bestselling guide How To Write And Sell Erotica. He can be found in a number of places online, not least of which is mchristian.com.
No money, lovelife in the toilet, but at least I started writing a new novel so .. yay me!