FIRST STEP: OWN YOUR MISTAKE
Not every writer or author is forged with the basics of the English language. We all grow up learning the rigors of grammar, but sometimes, our training falls to the wayside. We read books, we write, we talk, we listen to the patterns of normal human speech, we read more books, and we pick up bad habits along the way. I sure did.
But it turns out, at least when it comes to book publishing, mechanics and grammar still matter. Quite a lot. If you want to sell a manuscript or become a pro copyeditor, the best way to achieve either objective is to get back to the basics.
Sentence structure is one of those key basics. And one of my most common sentence structure errors was the dreaded comma splice. At some point along the way I picked up this nasty habit. In my writing brain, the one rushing to get all the words down on paper, it just sounds right. It sounds better and makes the most sense coming from my fingertips. But what sounds correct in our heads, isn't always what reads well on the page. So I'm here to confess to my comma splicing ways and help everyone else guilty of comma splicing to learn the error of their ways before it's too late. Just kidding. It's never too late to learn something new or re-learn something old.
SECOND STEP: RECOGNIZE AND REPAIR
A comma splice is the result of a writer using a comma to connect two independent clauses. A clause is a group of words that includes a subject and a finite verb, and an independent clause is a clause that can stand as a complete sentence. This means comma splicing is piecing together two separate sentences using only a comma. It's not the end of the world, but it is bad grammar.
Even with all that description a nasty habit can be hard to recognize at first. It needs to be seen for what it is.
EXAMPLE: This is a comma splice, it can be hard to recognize if you aren't looking for it.
Now, how does something like this get fixed? As with most writing faux pas, there are usually several solutions to revise.
THIRD STEP: RESOURCES
In the hot heat of writing, especially in the rush to meet a deadline, it can still be challenging to find those pesky comma splices hiding among the shining pearls of those otherwise perfectly formed sentences. And maybe, like with me, those are the grammatical issues you are most blind to -- the sort of natural error that your editorial or revising eye just glazes right over.
Luckily, there are resources to help hone that editorial eye. There are the obvious ones like The Copyeditor's Handbook and The Chicago Manual of Style to relearn all those pesky sentence structure rules and refine them.
Once the studying is complete, then it's time to move on to testing. There are several online quizzes that satisfy the requirements, but the best of the bunch were created by:
Other options include online and digital grammar checkers like:
Being guilty of using comma splices doesn't make you a bad writer. But knowing how to recognize and revise them, especially before an editor gets ahold of a manuscript and points them out anyway, will definitely make you a better writer.
This was written for and originally appeared on the Ooligan Press blog.
As a springboard from a previous blog post on writing "show AND tell," I'm in the midst of the arduous process of surgically editing the language in the Iron Curtain manuscript. Yes, I'm to the point where the major plot elements are locked in, and now I'm cleaning up and refining all the over-used phrases and terms to make the words sing off the page in order to evoke emotion and empathy in the reader. Gotta paint those mind pictures!
This the part where more of my "telling" becomes "showing." Nearly every writer has this stage of the process where they're taking a serious stock of the language level issues in their own writing and figuring out how to make it better. Or maybe that's just me? Whatever the case, do your thing, writers!
Find Your Weaknesses
By far, the biggest issues for me are touch-related sensory elements. I spend way too much time on lingering glances and hands/fingers DOING THINGS. But I didn't initially know that. It's a leftover from taking two terms of screenwriting and TV scriptwriting. There's a lot more "stage direction" involved in that writing style and once mired in it, the bad habits were hard to shake when it came to novel writing. It took some poking, prodding, and carefully analysis of words/terms in my manuscripts before I realized just what my biggest crutches were.
You've got to spend time with your manuscript. I suggest printing out a paper copy, busting out a red pen and highlighting, underlining, or circling words that you know are "weak" or that you see popping up over and over again. It also might help to "listen" to your manuscript read by someone else or out loud to yourself or with the aid of technology. The cringe phrases will start to pile up. Right them down, make a note or a list, and vow to return for another pass.
How To 'Fix' Filler Words
Once you know what your filler words are, you then have to spend some time figuring out how to fix them. I started with honing in on repeated words/phrases and using the "search/find" function in my word processor to spit back a tally, and then I'd determine what seemed like a more appropriate number (let's shoot for 50 instead of 100). After that, it was just a matter of clicking through each use, analyzing it in the context, and creating better phrasing.
And once you start to see the tally decrease, knowing that you're swapping in more creative descriptions and phrasing in their stead, it gives you a better overall feeling about the manuscript itself. You've got solid plot and characterization and setting and pacing and structure... and now you have THE WORDS to match the beautiful, amazing, wonderful story you've put your heart and soul into crafting.
I'll also often look at the "spread" of the words too. Readers are INCREDIBLY SENSITIVE to overused words, terms, and phrases and they'll become especially attuned to them if they're used close together. You absolutely MUST mind your gaps. Unless there are reasonable/extenuating circumstances, try to separate at least two or three pages between each instance and see how that feels.
So, what phrases and terms should you be on the lookout for when you're getting down to the third or fourth revision pass on your manuscript and you're ready to put on the spit-polish?
Common Words To Lose
Everyone has their different and unique writing quirks, so my specific language edit lists tend to be longer and filled with more of my usual suspects (eye, heart, hand, mouth, face, lip, smile -- I love you guys!). I told you. Stage direction is my weakness and my first love and it takes an actual effort and labor of love to reel it back in.
Melinda Jasmine Crouchley, YA science fiction author and professional editor.