By Ashley Lister
Not only is this a time for celebrating and overindulging, it’s also time for me to issue an annual reminder for how to improve your writing.
As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, when I’m not blogging for ERWA, or writing stories that amuse me and my modest readership, I lecture in creative writing. Around this time of year I end up doing a lot of marking and I’m repeatedly struck by the common errors that are made in student submissions.
This is a list of my top four bugbears.
There are two reasons for using an apostrophe: to show omission and to show possession. Apostrophes of omission are the ones we find in words like they’re, don’t and we’ll. Apostrophes of possession are the ones that show ownership, as in the boy’s books, or the girl’s guns. Apostrophes of possession become potentially confusing when we deal with plurals but it’s not really quantum physics. If we’re looking at books belonging to several boys, the apostrophe goes after the pluralising s (i.e. the boys’ books). If we’re looking at guns belonging to several girls, the same rule applies as before and we write the girls’ guns.
2. Run-on Sentences
Somewhat ironically, this is the definition of a run-on sentence from Wikipedia: “A run-on is a sentence in which two or more independent clauses are joined without appropriate punctuation or conjunction, and this is generally considered a stylistic error, though it is occasionally used in literature and may be used as a rhetorical device, and an example of a run-on is a comma splice, in which two independent clauses are joined with a comma without an accompanying coordinating conjunction, and some prescriptivists exclude comma splices from the definition of a run-on sentence, but this does not imply that they consider comma splices to be acceptable.”
Admittedly, run-on sentences can suggest an unconventional mindset, or give an idea of stream of consciousness writing that reflects the reality of our chaotic mindset. However, unless they’re being used to create a specific effect, sentences should be used to express a single thought with clarity and concision. Anything else is going to drag a reader out of the narrative.
3. Dialogue Formatting
In short: start a new paragraph for each speaker and keep all reported speech and punctuation within speech marks. For a lengthier overview of dialogue this link to a MasterClass article might be helpful.
Typos are inescapable. We all make occasional mistakes or suffer at the helpful hands of autocorrect. But printed typos will only ever bite you in the arse and the best way to eradicate them is to thoroughly proofread everything prior to hitting the metaphorical SEND button. This is not my way of saying everything needs to be perfect and typo-free. I’m the last person in the world who could argue for that. But the fewer mistakes on the page, the easier a text is to read. This is a link to one of my favourite poems on the subject of proofreading.
Reading over this I realise I’m starting 2022 in a grumpy mood, which is probably not a bad thing. The last couple of years have been difficult for all of us and I hope this one finally gives us the respite from tension and stress that we all deserve. Happy New Year xxx