Write about a party you wish you hadn’t gone to — and why.
Category: On Writing
I was recently editing a document online for which my client had already done a spell check, and just to be safe, I checked the spelling one more time (the automated way). According to the spell check, all was well — but later, as I read through the document, I discovered that neither of these spell checks had caught the word improeved. (I actually looked it up, thinking perhaps I was missing something, but no: improeved is not a word. Not in the English language, anyway, according to Merriam-Webster’s.)
In the same document, I found the word particilarly — also not a word, also not caught by spell check.
Which brings me to Lesson #1: Do not rely on spell check.
Many of us writers rely on ourselves to edit our own work; after all, good editing is expensive. We may have friends, or a writing buddy or group, to read over our stories or novels — and while we hope that these folks can recognize that words like improeved and particilarly need fixing, they may not have the eagle eyes that experts have. And I’m guessing that most average readers may not know (or care) how to properly use a semi-colon, or what a serial comma is, or when The Chicago Manual of Style calls for an open compound versus a closed one. Not every writer can be an editor — but every writer who wants to be published will eventually put his or her work in front of an acquisitions editor, and part of making a good impression is having a cleanly edited manuscript.
So what is a writer to do? If you can afford to hire an editor, go for it. (There are a great many resources out there, too many to outline here — but visit your local community writing center if you have one, see this post for more on how to hire an editor, and check out this list of editing rates to be sure you pay a fair rate.)
There are a few shortcuts when it comes to self-editing — like spell check (which clearly isn’t entirely reliable) and this free software that apparently targets cliches and overused words — but this leads me to Lesson #2: Writers who hope to be in the game for the long term would be wise to learn how to be their own best editors (even though we all, at some point before publication, need a pro).
Below are a few tips for self-editing — not a comprehensive list, by any means, but a few things to keep in mind so that you can make your manuscript as polished it can be before sending it out, as well as avoid the errors most likely to irritate agents and acquisitions editors.
- Put the writing aside for a bit. When you come back to it with fresh eyes, you’ll be better able to spot errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation, as well as clunky style issues.
- Read widely when you’re not writing — and choose your material well. If you read professionally edited books and top newspapers and magazines, for the most part you’ll be getting good examples of what well-written, grammatically proper, and well-punctuated sentences should look like. If you read the work of prize-winning authors, you’ll be getting good examples of how to turn a phrase and how to construct a lovely sentence.
- If you’re not comfortable with grammar and punctuation as you’d like to be, take a class and/or read a few books. Even experienced writers will often put a comma in a sentence where they’d like to have a pause — yet if it’s not grammatically correct, this will make an editor’s hair stand on end. I love Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English — and Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation is another great resource. And The Bugaboo Review: A Lighthearted Guide to Exterminating Confusion about Words, Spelling, and Grammar by Sue Sommer is a good resource for all those evil word twins and other spelling and grammatical confusions.
- Read your work aloud. This is among the best ways to ferret out clunky sentences. If it sounds odd to your ears, there’s probably something going on grammatically or stylistically; rework and re-read until it sounds great out loud. Also, speaking the words helps you avoid some of the misspellings that spell check doesn’t catch: One writer I know submitted a piece to a critique group in which she’d used the word “pubic” instead of “public” (a mistake that was quite hilarious in the context of the story) — and while we’d all read the scene in question beforehand, not one of us noticed this typo until she read it aloud.
- Read every word. Go through your piece sentence by sentence, word by word. This helps you check for misspellings that you might otherwise skim past, and it also helps you find missing words or repeated words. (I’m always amazed at how many of these show up in my own work…it’s embarrassing, really. But if you catch them all, no one else has to know.)
- Ask a trusted reader to take a look. This isn’t exactly “self-editing,” but if you have someone who’s willing and able to read your work, ask. Even a casual reader might find a missing word or an odd spelling that is all to easy for you to miss because you’ve read the piece dozens of times.
And, finally, Lesson #3: Embrace grammar, style, and punctuation. Don’t make the mistake of being one of those writers who says, “I don’t need to know how to spell; that’s what editors are for.” These are the writers who very rarely make it to the point of having an editor because sloppy work doesn’t pass muster, especially in these days when getting published is more challenging than ever. So if there’s anything about grammar or punctuation that you don’t know, learn it. If you want to be a better stylist, study the authors you love and learn from them. As a writer your job is not only to tell the story and tell it well, but to hide all the strings (i.e., the grammar and punctuation and everything else that makes the story work on a mechanical level), so that readers can see only the story itself — or, better yet, disappear into the story altogether.
Write about an animal you recently encountered, whether a stray cat, a neighbor’s dog, or a spider in your garden.
Write about a child you interacted with recently who was not related to you … for example, at a store, park, or school.
Write about a time you were on or near a lake, ocean, or river.
Of all that Antarctica is known for, who knew it was once a publishing hub? (Well, sort of.)
I’ve been reading about the Aurora Australis — the first book ever written, printed, illustrated, and bound in Antarctica — soon to be offered at auction by Sotheby’s and expected to bring in £70,000.
Aurora Australis was produced during Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition of 1908–09, at Cape Royds on Ross Island in the McMurdo Sound. It was one of many activities Shackleton encouraged of his team so that “the spectre known as ‘polar ennui’ never made its appearance.”
What’s interesting is that by the time this book was created, publishing was not a new thing in the polar regions. Already explorers were publishing articles and newspapers detailing their expeditions — from Edward Parry’s 1819 expedition in search of the Northwest Passage to the South Polar Times, published during Robert Scott’s Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions. And now, of course, you can go online to read the news of what’s happening in Antarctica — for example, The Antarctic Sun, published by the U.S. Antarctic Program; and blog posts from the British Antarctic Survey.
Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition was sponsored by a printing firm, and Shackleton received training and traveled south with a printing press and paper. (Click here to learn more about the challenges of printing in the extreme temperatures of the Antarctic.)
Aurora Australis, which will be auctioned in London on September 30, is 120 pages long and contains poems, stories, essays, and illustrations by ten members of the expedition. Horse harnesses were recycled to create the leather spines, and the covers of the copy up for auction were made from a tea chest. Only eighty copies of the book were printed.
Write about a hot summer night.
Write about something you regret.
Write about something you found funny but someone else did not. Create a scene around this incident. Next, write about something that someone else joked about that you did not find amusing yourself.
If you could change careers, what would you do instead? Write about what your new job/life would look like.
If you could live in a foreign country, where would you choose? Imagine where you would be, and write about your life there, in as much detail as possible.
When I visited Antarctica more than 10 years ago, I met researchers from Oceanites, a nonprofit foundation founded in 1987 whose main focus is its Antarctic Site Inventory, which has been collecting and compiling data on penguins and their habitat in the Antarctic peninsula for the past two decades. When I wrote the short story “The Ecstatic Cry” and later MY LAST CONTINENT, I had a similar fictional organization in mind for the researchers in these stories.
These penguin counters do amazing work; their data offers important insights into climate change, the state of the oceans, the effects of tourism, and how best to conserve one of the most important areas of the world. For example, this article, “What Are the Penguins Telling Us?” by Steve Forrest, outlines the affects of climate change on the penguins: “the ice-loving Adélies of Petermann [Island] now number fewer than 300 nesting pairs, while the gentoos have risen to 2,400.” This is happening, he writes, at hundreds of sites in the Western Antarctic Peninsula, where the average temperature has risen several degrees centigrade in the past two decades: “Adélies are disappearing from their rookeries while the open-water loving Gentoos prosper.”
This video shows how irresistible these birds are…
…and it goes without saying we need to protect their habitat by taking better care of our planet and the oceans that sustain them.
Write about a favorite plant, flower, or tree. Go beyond writing about the plant itself and write about your first memory of it, then a more recent memory. Create a scene based on one of these memories.
Write about a jelly bean flavor that should exist but doesn’t.
Today I’m delighted to share a writing prompt from author Jennifer Caloyeras, whose YA novel Strays was just released by Ashland Creek Press. Jennifer did a residency at the blog Novel Novice, which included classroom material (i.e., this prompt, as well as a few great action items).
Here is Jennifer’s prompt (and click here for the full post):
Write about a memorable interaction with an animal. (Off the top of my head I can think of a bird’s nest filled with eggs that I claimed and the mother bird came back looking for her babies. Or the time I saw a rattlesnake on a hike and instead of being afraid I was in awe of its beauty.) Describe the animal using all five senses. How did this interaction make you feel? What did you learn from the experience? The more details you can add the better! Why not throw a metaphor or simile in there? What do you think the animal was thinking? In what ways were you similar to that animal? In what ways were you different?
While this may be aimed toward YA readers, I love this prompt, as I think we all should consider our relationship to animals, whether our pets or the wildlife that surrounds us. Just this last week, for example, I saw a bear coming down the driveway toward a major road as I drove by; my husband and I trapped an injured bird and took it to a wildlife rehab center; and I helped care for a range of feral, sick, and adoptable cats at the animal shelter. Such human-animal interactions are becoming more and more inevitable. In fact, for insights into animal life on the urban edge, and to learn about the wonderful people who help rehabilitate animals harmed by life on this edge, check out the series Animal R&R, written and directed by Elliott Kennerson and narrated by Joan Embery, which you can watch online (and click here to follow the series on Facebook).