Tag Archives: Punctuation

Style Sheets, and the Recipe of Writing for Recipes

The Nitty Gritty

I have hundreds of recipes pinned to dozens of Pinterest boards, so I come across a wide range of offerings.  Nowadays, the images have to be perfectly lit and photoshopped to make them look appealing; it’s like sugar in pre-packaged foods… we’ve gotten so used to the artificial visual flavour that if a photo were undoctored in some way, it would be glaringly out of place.  But what is often missing is the same attention to detail in the writing.  I’ve seen “tablespoon” misspelt a few ways, or the abbreviations as Tbs., tb, tbs, tbsp, T., etc. So which one is correct?  And do the forms or the etiquette of choices differ between print and online versions?

I pulled out a cross-section of cookbooks in my library and thumbed through them; I took older, newer, American and British, and I scoured online recipe sites like Betty Crocker; here’s what I discovered:

  • When writing a cookbook for a printed version, editors/publishers tend to write out the entire word [tablespoon, teaspoon, cup, pound, ounce, etc.].
  • The two most standard contractions for tablespoon are Tbs. and tbsp.  They can be ended with a period or not; I would tend to do it so that the contraction looks intentional and not a typo!  I grew up learning Tbs. for tablespoon and tsp. for teaspoon.  To each his own.
  • Blogs that are a collection of recipes, or allow contribution from subscribers, will have a hodgepodge of abbreviations and contractions because it’s simply too difficult to keep on top of such issues.  Even professional sites such as Betty Crocker have gotten sloppy about it; for example, they often (but not always) spell out words like tablespoon, and then suddenly revert to a contractions for pounds and ounce within the same recipe.  Consistency should be the golden standard if nothing else is.
  • Recipe instructions are written in the imperitive mood (bake this, stir that, knead this, eat with that, etc.).  You’ll never find 1st, 2nd or 3rd person pronouns within the instructions of a recipe; at most, you’ll find them in the short intro before a recipe begins.
  • In a printed book, NEVER does a recipe instruction include the ramblings about the cat in the kitchen, or what you changed about the recipe, or what you’re doing that’s unrelated to the topic at hand.  If you’re writing a personal blog, that’s a matter of personal preference; I tend to want the recipe itself streamlined to make it easier to read on the fly in the kitchen, but maybe that’s just pragmatic ol’ me.  If there are additional notes or something I’ve changed about a recipe for my own blog, I tend to put that in the introduction and not in the actual recipe, but there’s not a set rule – it depends on where it’s warranted or relevant.

As with any kind of writing, some things are a matter of personal preference; at that point, where there is no one grammar rule to apply, the most important thing is to be consistent throughout the manuscript.

Style Sheets

If you’re thinking of writing a cookbook (or any other manuscript for that matter!), I would recommend keeping what is called a style sheet; this is used in publishing houses where several people will have the manuscript in hand at some point; this sheet prevents someone else from undoing choices – they can look at the style sheet and know that it was an intentional decision, and leave it; otherwise the risk is that one man’s capital is another man’s lower case, and so on.

As an author, the style sheet is my running list of decisions to keep me on track as I  write; it can include sections for punctuation (have I decided to go with British or American English punctuation for things like Mr / Mr.?), unusual capitalisations (for me, one issue was when to capitalise “sir” as a substitute for a proper name – I could always refer to my sheet when in doubt), abbrevitation/contraction choices, etc.  It could also include a record of my choice of fonts, spacing between sections, indentations, and so on.  I have a section for my “cast of characters” – to remember how I’ve spelled a name, or what I’ve named an infrequent cast member. I might include an abbreviated description of a character so that I don’t give them green eyes in chapter one, and blue eyes in chapter ten.  What you can include in your style sheet is endless… foreign terms/spellings, reminders to check validity of hyperlinks, punctuations such as en- and em-dashes, how you’ve written specific gadgets (capitalised or not, hyphened or not, etc.).  Below is a basic style sheet template to get you started.

No matter what you’re working on, hone your craft, and keep writing!

Copy-Editing - Style Sheet

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Grammarly Musings

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Spell checker in action

I’ve been editing, tweaking, editing, and tweaking this week; not to mention editing.  Over the years I’ve used a wide variety of tools, such as Scrivener, but have found that, for me, the best combination is MS Word and my brain.

One of the tools I’ve also been using recently is a new one for me:  The Grammarly app in Word.  I’m of a mixed opinion about it.  Do any of you use this app with your manuscript?  If so, what is your experience/impression?

So far, the app is batting less than 1 out of 10; in other words, of 10 “critical errors” that it points out, only 1 of them is legitimate.  I’d say the average is more like 1 out of 15 or 18.  There is also a version of this app, which requires a monthly or yearly subscription, that will expand its range of editing suggestions; but before I go that route I want to know that the app actually works in the free version.  So far, it’s more static than editing aid.

Now to be fair, my manuscript is not the average; it’s got words like en queue (the hairstyle of men in the 18th century), and odd terminology to do with nautical actions or environments.  But some of the errors that it points out, such as those to do with commas, are actually correct (e.g. pointing out the second comma of a parenthetical phrase as out of place).  Most of the time the suggestions that it makes are just downright wrong in the context; it proves that language is a fluid concept, and nearly impossible to intelligently simulate in a computer program.  It also means that we are far better off becoming fluent in grammar rather than relying on ANY program to correct our writing!

Having said that, I still appreciate it because it forces me to think through a decision, whether that be sentence structure, punctuation, or phrasing.  Sometimes it sends me in search of confirmation for a grammatical assumption I’ve made; rarely am I surprised by what I find, but it nevertheless helps to solidify the right way of writing something in my mind.  For the most part, I have the app turned off (a great function – the only reason I still use it!), just running it through sections at a time as my other editing nears an end.

Are there any programs or apps that you use for editing?  If so, what is your experience?  Please share in the comments below!

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Commas Matter

When was the last time you saw one?…

Commas Matter

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Writing Tip: Layering

Lightning BugIf you’ve ever painted a picture more than a colouring book or a paint-by-number, chances are you’ve learned something along the way about layers.  Layering is also a digital graphics technique in programs such as Photoshop, and as each layer is made, the image changes, taking on the shapes or colours as you add the consecutive elements.

Besides being a writer, I am also a vocal coach.  I only take on students who are already in bands, or preparing for recordings or competitions, and one of the things I teach them is layering within a vocal performance:  The nuances of thoughts, the power of imagination, the colouring of the vocals through not only the physical placement of the tone within their instrument (their body), but the placement of their imagination.  One can communicate boredom or interest or empathy with the exact same wording by merely varying the intonation, and that comes through the layering of the performance.

Writing is much the same way:  It is through the employment of grammar, spelling and punctuation that we signal the reader to prepare for a particular experience; as Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”  

Oh, the difference between, “It was rainy last night,” and “It was a dark and stormy night”!

So the next time you feel like your manuscript or poem is falling flat, take a minute to think about the layers, and see what creative brush strokes you can give your work.

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Novel Writing Pyramid

Novel Pyramid

When writing or drafting a new story, sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the forest due to the trees – in the myriad of ideas that flash up in a brainstorm.  The pyramid above helps remind me of the emphasis each area needs in the overall structure:

If a story is too complex, you’ll lose or confuse your readers; but if it’s too simple, it becomes predictable and therefore no challenge to the mind of the adventurer who’s picked up your book to get lost in another world.  Most of the best stories are, at their heart, quite simple – “boy meets girl”, or “person achieves goal”.

If you don’t know what your settings and themes are, how can you effectively work toward the final outcome?  If you don’t know who your character is, and what your basic plot (goal and how it’s achieved) is, how can you guide the reader through dialogue or prose toward the desired conclusion?  Diction is important because it is central to creating the voice of each character, and sticking to genre-specific vocabulary and expressions (i.e. no proverbial airplanes through the scenes of a historical novel).  As Mark Twain once wrote,

“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

And if you have the top four slices of the pyramid in place, but don’t have proper foundations – in other words, know your grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax (sentence structures, tense usage, etc.) then no matter how brilliant your plot might be, or your character development, if readers can’t get past your bad diction and grammar, you’ve lost them as present and future readers!

I’d like to encourage you to know your weaknesses, and develop them into strengths!  If grammar or spelling is a weakness, work on it – invest time into reviewing the rules – Wikipedia is an excellent source for articles on how to use punctuation, etc.  Buy a good grammar book, or even a grammar practice book with an answer key at the back (The “English Grammar in Use” series is one I used for years with EFLA students).  If plot or character development is a weakness, then make a list of questions for each, and take the time to think about and answer them.

Good writing is about quality; it’s about solid foundations and constant development, the honing of your skills; it’s about research, thinking outside the box, and being able to convey in words the images born in your mind.  Just as sharpening a pencil makes it easier to write, so does sharpening your mind and skills.

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Punctuation Dragons

Raphael - Saint George and the DragonThose wee things called punctuation are probably the most important things in writing; they are the proverbial insects of the writing world, for without them the entire system would disintegrate.  At the same time, they can sometimes be as daunting as fighting a dragon.

So without further ado, below is a brief breakdown of the most familiarly-confusing punctuation marks.  There may be a few discrepancies between various dialects / regional rules, but these are the basic rules – if you have these firmly in hand and use them consistently, you’ll recognize those rules that differ to what you learned in school; just apply whichever rules you use with consistency.  Feel free to copy / paste the post and print it out to keep handy (with that goal in mind, I’ll keep it comment-free)!

 Commas:

Where possible, leave out.  Where confusing, put in.

  • Separate elements in a series.
  • , + small conjunction (i.e. and, but, or):  If in doubt, use it here.
  • To set off introductory elements.  The comma can be omitted for short elements unless it makes the meaning unclear or confusing.
  • To set off parenthetical elements (added information that, if removed, does not affect the meaning of the sentence).
  • To separate coordinate adjectives (e.g. tall, distinguished woman)
  • To set off quoted elements:  , “(quote/dialogue).”  OR  , “(quote/dialogue),” (prose).
  • To set off contrasting expressions.
  • To avoid confusion.
  • Never use only one comma between a subject and its verb! (Only one would constitute a splice – see below)
  • Typographical reasons (i.e. dates, numbers, location references, etc.)

Comma Splice:  When a comma is misplaced between two independent clauses or randomly in the middle of a sentence, or between the subject and its verb.

Semi-Colon:

  • Use to join two independent clauses (e.g. “My wife would like tea; I would prefer coffee.”)
  • Use to separate items in a list that includes other punctuation (e.g. “The people present were Jamie, who came from New Zealand; John, the milkman’s son; and George, a gaunt kind of man.”)

 Apostrophe:

  • To express the possessive (e.g. Jane’s book)
  • To signify contractions (e.g. It’s cold outside.)
  • Some proper names use an apostrophe (e.g. O’Donnell, O’Malley)
  • Apostrophes are NEVER to be used to form a plural.  Never.  It’s CDs, not CD’s; DVDs, not DVD’s; the 1980s, not the 1980’s; 100s, not 100’s.  This may be a controversial “never” as they are common mistakes – so common that some writers perceive them as correct (just because some people use them does not make them correct usage… jumping off a cliff and all that).  The only exception to this “never” is when there may be the possibility of misreading.

 Hyphen (-) vs. en-dash (–) vs. em-dash (—)

Hyphen:

  • To join two words into a single meaning (e.g. decision-maker), or linked as an adjective before a noun (e.g. decision-making process).

En-dash: (Key: Ctrl + number – / Alt+0150)

  • To join two words that are separate but related, for example as a substitute for and or to.

Em-dash:  (Key:  AltGr + number – / Alt+0151)

  • Used to form parenthetical phrases.  These are used, for example, if there is the risk of confusion when other punctuation is used in the same sentence – for example commas.

The general rule of thumb in the UK seems to be as follows:  Use the en-dash within dialogues and prose, but end abrupt, interrupted dialogue with an em-dash.

There is a fourth dash called the Horizontal Bar.  It is usually used to set off quotation sources.  it is generally the same length as an em-dash, so this is often used instead. The main difference between the two is that some software may insert a line break after an em-dash but not after a quotation dash.

Parentheses / Brackets:

  • Order of usage:  (…[…{…}…]…).
  • Use to contain material that could be omitted without altering a sentence’s meaning, and where commas used elsewhere may lead to confusion if too many are used.  Any punctuation inside the brackets is independent from the main sentence.
  • […] Square brackets/crochets are used to mark omitted material from a quote of an original, more complete text.

Ellipsis:  … / . . . aka “Suspension Point”

  • Use for intentional omissions or an unfinished thought.
  • Use for unstated alternatives (implied by context).  E.g. “I’m on a… special diet.” (Edward Cullen, in Twilight)
  • Use for a slight pause.
  • Use for a nervous or awkward silence.
  • Use at the beginning or end of a sentence to inspire feelings of melancholy or longing.

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The 3 Levels of Editing

EditingWriting is not just about stringing words together to express a coherent thought; at that level one might say it’s primary school basics.  The deeper I delve into the written world of words, the more I recognize the shades of colour, light and moods, and the fact that when I am telling a story, I am really painting a picture.  But to get to that depth, besides the fundamental skills of telling a good story, every writer needs to be familiar with what I consider to be three basic levels of editing; there’s a wide palette for discussion, and the order below is not chronological but often simultaneous phases of editing.  Here are a few points to keep in mind:

1:  The Matrix Level

I call this the “Matrix Level” because it really is the foundation – without it, don’t even think about giving up your day job.  This level includes things like spelling, vocabulary (choosing the best word or phrase in a given situation) and punctuation.  At this level you might also include things like formatting (being consistent in usage of fonts; spacing; size and heading styles; margins; indentations; double-or single-spacing after a full stop; capitalizations; abbreviations [e.g. Mr. or Mr {that choice depends on whether or not you’re using American Standard English, or British Standard English}]; and consistent use of italics, bolds and underlines).

2:  The 3-C Level

This is what I call the 3-C level because it’s just that:  Coherency, Consistency, Conciseness.  This is the level you work on things like clear expression; showing, not telling (re-writing those scenes that tell into a scene that shows the action or the purpose of that scene); assessing what your demographic target is (teenagers, women, men, children, intellectual readers, pulp-fiction readers, genre-specific groups, etc.) and writing with them in mind as you make choices of expression and complexity.

This level includes things like pacing/timing/rhythm of the overall script; logical connections, organic changes, filling in the “holes” in the plot, the building of action or tension (again, in an organic way to the story—don’t just slap in a sex scene or a car chase because you need to pick up the pace in a dragging scene!), and keeping an eye out for things like vocabulary repetition (if it’s there, it needs to be organic, e.g. perhaps a character likes to use a phrase as a “trademark”) or filler words (actually, really, etc.).

3:  The “Cutting Room Floor” Level

This is the level where tough decisions come in; here you need to ask yourself some basic questions:  Does scene XYZ support the plot in more than one way?  [Plot, by the way, applies whether you’re writing a novel, a business case plan, or a newspaper article.]  If not, can I glean the core sentiment or information that needs to be conveyed and splice it in somewhere else?  Does the purpose / goal come through or remain clear in this scene?  If not, how can I change it, trim it, or chop it?  Are paragraphs unified (i.e. one main goal / thought each)?  This process is very similar to film editing, and you can learn a lot from that process by listening to good film commentaries (the best I’ve come across are films with commentaries by Steven Spielberg – he’s a natural teacher in that respect!).

In the current novel I’m writing, a fantasy-history spanning from first century AD Scotland and Norway to modern-day Scotland, an earlier draft had too many characters; there are still enough to warrant a Cast of Characters section at the end (due to the complex structure that will be woven together in the next draft), but the general rule is to not tax the reader with more than four characters in any given scene.  So even though each character was well-developed and interesting, I had to let some heads roll.

The way I write works for me:  If I’ve written a scene that somehow doesn’t sit right with the tone/mood but I know it conveys something necessary to the construct as a whole, I will paste that scene to the end of the document and title it “Scene to Salvage: —” with a brief description.  Later I can go back to the core of that scene and salvage it, or decide that it no longer fits and delete it—it’s nonetheless served the purpose of helping me solidify the plot by hashing out certain elements.  I may really like one key sentence or idea, so I’ll cut it out and drop it in where it works well organically to the story.  I might also add that each of these levels is vital in this story as each section (Pictish; an otherworldly kingdom; Norse settlements; and modern archaeology) has its own colour palette:  Stone, rain and sea; mist, sky and whispers; leather, smoke and wood; and technology, pubs and peat mire.  Each sections’ dialogue and prose need to reflect those palettes, and that’s the secret of showing, not telling!

The more structured you work, and the more confident you become with each level, the better and faster the writing process will become.  I hope this inspires you, and spurs you on to greater writing!

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20 Common Grammar Errors

For writers and bloggers, being reminded of the basic grammar rules from time to time is a good thing; they can help to improve our communication and efficiency.  If you’re like me, you may be writing along when a question pops up like, “Does this sentence need a comma here or not?”  The more familiar we become with the rules (and keep in mind that there are some differences between nationally-accepted rules, e.g. between the British standard and the American standard), the faster such decisions will become and the less time will be lost on such mundanely important details.  Click on the image below for a link to the 20 most common grammar errors and how to solve them.

AA Mistakes

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Stop Apostrophe Abuse

Okay, grammar pet peeve time:  Apostrophe abuse.  It needs to stop.  Now.apostrophe Puppy

There are only two instances in the English language in which apostrophes are used:

1) Contractions, as in:  you are = you’re, or have not = haven’t, or I am = I’m.  Just keep in mind that the apostrophe takes the place of the missing letter(s); if you take a letter out to combine (contract) two words together, place the apostrophe where the missing letter would have been written.

2) Possessives, as in:  Steve’s hat (the hat belongs to Steve), or today’s specials (specials on for today)

Apostrophe Tombstone

Alway’s there for us. Who is Alway?

Never, I repeat NEVER should an apostrophe be used to indicate a plural!!  Never, EVER.  If you see it used as a plural, it’s wrong – even if it’s on a tombstone (see the image below). Apostrophe Tombstone 2

In the illustration on the right, “Alway’s there for us,” it obviously means “Alway is there for us.”  But who is Alway?  I thought Mary was trying to rest in peace here…  It’s just wrong on so many levels, because it’s not even a plural (which they were aiming for), but an adverb.

Let’s (as in “let us”) look at another very common mistake:  1) it vs. 2) it’s vs. 3) its:

1) “It” is fairly straightforward; it is the third person singular pronoun (used in place of a noun) for objects or gender-neutral references; e.g. The chair is red = It is red.

2) “It’s” is the contracted form of “it is”, as in It’s raining or “it has”, as in It’s been a long time since we saw each other last.

3) “Its” is the possessive form of the third person singular pronoun:  “the dog’s paws” = “its paws”  REMEMBER:  You would never spell “his shirt” as “hi’s shirt”, or “her skirt” as “he’r skirt”; in the same way you should never use the contracted form as the possessive form of it.

It’s not “CD’s” or “DVD’s” as the plural form; this is actually the possessive (which therefore requires an object for that subject’s possessive form, as in the CD’s case), and I find myself asking, “CD’s what?”

If you want more examples, from tombstones to shop signs to tattoos that are embarrassingly wrong, take a look at  www.apostropheabuse.com.  Okay, pet peeve appeased.  Glad to get that off my chest.

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That Low-Down Word

That Word CloudI run a forum on a British writers’ website for grammatical problems, and answer questions that come up in the course of their writing projects.  This week the question came up about that little word, “that” – when to use it and when to lose it.  When do you use that?  When do you use a comma instead?  And when is neither one necessary?  Ah, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice proper grammar.  Hey, just kidding – it’s not that complicated!  Sometimes it doesn’t matter, and sometimes it can be confusing without it.  So, here’s the low-down:

1) Remember Rhythm:  How does your sentence flow?  Read your sentence aloud; does it have a better rhythm with or without that?  When in doubt and rhythm / comprehension is fine with or without, use it – inclusion may benefit the understanding of the sentence as a whole, and omission may cause misunderstandings.  Sometimes using that is a matter of personal taste.  Here’s a sentence that could be understood with or without:  “Fiona thinks (that) Alistair works too hard.

If you’ve already got a that in the sentence elsewhere, consider how your sentence can be reworded to avoid an overload. A double that is usually unnecessary.  In the sentence, “I realised that that would not be a good idea” the first that (acting as a conjunction, whereas the second acts as a pronoun) could be eliminated, aiding the flow but not impeding the comprehension.  Sometimes that is required in one part of a sentence, and when a second that comes up a choice needs to be made:  Take this sentence, from an AP report:  “Ford Motor Co. warned that it no longer expects to return to profitability by next year and that it is trimming North American production of pickups and SUVs for the rest of this year because of high gas prices and a shaky economy.”  The second instance could be eliminated thus:  “…next year; it is trimming…”

2) Comprehension:  Sometimes a sentence can be unintentionally misleading, and using that can help clarify.  For example,  “Fiona maintains Alistair works too hard.”  Does Fiona maintain Alistair and he works too hard? If you insert a that after maintains, it becomes clear that maintains refers to an opinion, and not maintenance of Alistair.

Sometimes in our writing, however, we want to intentionally lead the reader or a character down the garden path toward the wrong conclusion.  It’s a fine art, and understanding how another person interprets what you’ve written or could interpret it goes a long way toward walking that fine line between misdirection and deception; the first will leave a “gotcha” smile, and the latter might leave your next book unread….  As a plot element, it has its uses; but as a badly written sentence, it only results in confusing and frustrating the reader, who has to find the beginning of the sentence and read it again to understand it properly.

3) Commas:  Commas can sometimes replace the word that.  In this example, “Peter Coveney writes that ‘[t]he purpose and strength of . . .’” it would never be “Peter Coveney writes that,” or “Peter Coveney writes, that…” though it could be, “Peter Coveney writes, “…”

I hope that helps some of you dealing with similar issues in writing!

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