Neatness Counts!

I learned to type on a manual typewriter, and when I first saw an electric one, I was pretty impressed. However, it was immediately apparent that while the touch was lighter (I still pound the keys, though, which is a problem on those sleek aluminum Apple keyboards), the fundamentals were the same. Carbon paper, White-out, and the ability either to think ahead or write one’s way out of an unfortunate corner—to avoid retyping the page—were still high on the list of sine qua non.

Needless to say, many manuscripts looked pretty rough.

Fast forward to decades later. We have cut/copy and paste, one of technology’s major leaps forward (up there with the intermittent windshield wiper, Velcro™, and the iPod), to say nothing of AutoCorrect and spell check, and guess what! Too many manuscripts still look pretty rough.

Agents will not read crappy-looking work. They get far too much beautifully packaged writing to bother with stuff that the writer couldn’t be bothered with.

People! This is not okay! I’m not going to get all philosophical about the downfall of civilization as reflected in messy work, but it might not hurt to consider it. Why shoot yourself in the foot? Discuss! And then e-mail me, and I will make your work beautiful.

Orwell’s Rules for Better Writing

Today I want to direct you to a dandy site, Delancey Place, which brings its subscribers eclectic excerpts from the writing of interesting people. In this post, opinions about good and bad writing by the great George Orwell are laid out. Please find the 5-13-2011 post for the entire piece, but below is a portion.

“…one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in those five specimens at the beginning of this article.”

Author: George Orwell

Title: “Politics and the English Language”

Date: 1946




On Writing

After hearing about this book for several years, I have finally read Stephen King’s memoir On Writing. King’s novels have never been my cuppa, but this book is worth every minute of your time. Not only does he explain why rewriting and editing is important, he shows you in his own work, which is fascinating. He makes the case for the wholesale slaughter of adverbs and of dialogue words other than “said,” and—my favorite—he dismisses that most beloved of institutions among the un- or underpublished, the writers group.

I spent many hours vaguely irritated by the creampuff opinions of my fellow group members, many of whom I truly love and remains friends with, when it was clear that the two goals of most members were a) to get finished already with everyone else’s work so they could read their own pearls to us all, and b) to figure out what to say that was supportive and nonspecific, so that no one’s feelings were bruised. I know this to be true, because that’s usually the way I felt. And let’s be honest—you do, too.

I always said, before I began reading my pages, that I already knew what was good about my stuff (which I did). I didn’t need to hear about that. I wanted to know what people didn’t like, what didn’t work—what was trite, or illogical, or weak. But there’s an inherent flaw in that system: the audience is too big. Stephen King says what I had long suspected, suggested to clients, and now, even practice myself (the iron test, right?): Write to one person, your first reader. In my case, it’s my sister. He has many reasons for this advice, all of which make powerful sense.

Read his book.

Why Self-Publish?

Because you can.

The days of boxes of inventory crammed into your closet are gone. And so is the stigma of what was known, in pre-digital days, as “vanity press.”

Today, thanks to technology, it is a viable and respectable alternative to the time-consuming process of finding an agent (possibly years), and then waiting for a sale (possibly more years). Today, your book will be printed each time someone goes online to buy a copy. No more boxes of books.

Today, publishers are keeping an eye on the sales figures at Amazon (and the rest) and if they see that a book is gathering steam, believe me, they will not be shy about calling you and suggesting that they buy and republish your book. So in a way, Amazon (and the others) will function as your literary agent while you sell your book online.

Why wait? Publish your book, the sooner the better, and let the market decide.

The Ancient Art of Editing

When I was doing research for a post about infinitives, I learned something. I had one of those quietly thrilling moments that come to people like me who get a kick out of things like this. Or as dear Miss Jean Brodie would say, “For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.”

Thanks to a romp through the Internet’s less traveled alleyways, where people go to get passionate about the esoteric, I found the Latin word for to edit:

corrigo, corrigere, correxi, correctus–V (3rd) TRANS—correct, set right; straighten; improve, edit, reform; restore, cure; chastise;

Isn’t that terrific?

The Mystery of the Split Infinitive

I feel slightly wicked for committing this heresy to written form, and disloyal to my father (he should rest in peace), who spent my formative years imparting to me his tough-love of language, but I am ready to allow an occasional cautious and mindful splitting of the infinitive. There. I’ve said it.

The infinitive is the form of the verb that starts with to: To think, to write, to edit, to publish, to be a huge success and make a ton of money—But we are getting ahead of ourselves…

In Latin (and in many other languages, too) the infinitive is a single word, a special form of the verb: cogitare (to think), scribere (to write), corrigere (to edit), edare or vulgare (to publish), existere (which means be, not just in the sense of exist but also become). Since it’s not possible to split a Latin single-word infinitive, the Powers That Used to Be carved it into stone that we were forbidden to split our English ones, even though it was not just possible but convenient, rational, and not a crime (Sorry, Dad).


Many times there is a shade of meaning added to a phrase containing a split infinitive. For example, Oxford Dictionaries offers this elegant explanation:

You really have to watch him. [i.e. ‘It’s important that you watch him’]

doesn’t have quite the same meaning as:

You have to really watch him. [i.e. ‘You have to watch him very closely’]

True dat. So, meaning no disrespect to Cicero or Ovid or my father, I say split them, if it’s necessary, and have a clear conscience (te absolvo), but know what you are doing, and do it with care.

Who Knows?

Okay, here it is: Who in clauses gets seriously tricky sometimes, and the easiest way to figure it out is to do a little rewrite in your head.

  • My new boyfriend, whom I met online…Clue: I met he? Nope. I met him. So whom. Him/whom.
  • Give the money to whoever comes to the door…Clue: It’s not what you may think. To whom? Afraid not. Logical, but wrong. Who is the subject of the phrase “comes to the door,” so it is not inflected.

In a very teensy nutshell, that’s all you need to know. I said it would be ugly, but it’s really not. Difficult, maybe, but worth it. Mental gymnastics won’t do a thing for your abs, but you will impress other smart people, which is also difficult, and also worth it.

e-Publish? Please!

In case you need another reason to e-publish your book:

Last week, Amazon announced that “e-book sales on Amazon exceed the number of hardback books sold” and today, Steven Levy tells us in WIRED’s Gadget Lab that Jeff Bezos predicts, “Our best estimate is that Kindle books will outsell paperbacks sometime in the next nine to twelve months.”

Let me repeat that.

“Our best estimate is that Kindle books will outsell paperbacks sometime in the next nine to twelve months.”

Get your book up there now.

Just between…We?

I used to have a client who insisted on saying, “Between he and I…” And I would routinely change it to “between him and me.” And then he would change it back. I finally threatened to quit working for him if he didn’t allow me to make him look good. That kept him in line for a couple of years.

I don’t understand why mixing pronouns and prepositions seems to be such a tricky business for so many people. In part, I am tempted to say, it’s because the public schools in this country no longer offer Latin, and so most people manage to avoid learning the subtleties of grammar that Latin offers (which is a damned shame, too, because I suspected then, and I know now, that Latin was the most valuable subject I studied). But those of us who took Latin know that the subject form of the pronoun (I, he, she, they) appears only as the subject of a sentence. Except for the possessive form (mine, yours, his, hers, theirs), everything else is an object of one sort or another (me, him, her, them).

But (and this is another sore point with me) today, many people seem to feel that the rules of grammar are mere suggestions (like speed limits and good taste). Never mind nuance and precision; as long as “you know what I mean,” everyone is satisfied. Well, I am not satisfied. Indeed, I am appalled. And I will make my stand, with whoever* cares to stand with me, between my beloved English language and the barbarians at its gate.

* I’ll discuss the who/whom confusion tomorrow.

To Whom It May Concern

I think that when “whom” disappears, it will be the signal of the end of civilization. Of course, by my standards, civilization started easing on down the road when people decided it was okay not to get dressed up for concerts and theater. But I digress.

The rules of who/whom are a little bit tricky—sometimes I have to think for a moment before being certain—but that little “who” running around naked just grates on my ear, and I want to clothe it in a decent inflection. Needless to say, it helps to have studied Latin.

It’s always who when it’s the subject of a sentence:

  • Who ate the last piece of pizza?
  • Who left the water running?
  • Who is that person in my seat?

It takes a turn for the complex when homophones are thrown into the mix:

  • Who’s calling?
  • Whose brilliant idea is this?

With a preposition, use the inflected form (whom):

  • With whom are you sitting?
  • To whom is this addressed?
  • The argument is between whom?
  • From whom is this package?

And then it starts to get ugly. Check back tomorrow.

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