Novel Editing: Fix Your Grammar
Correct grammar is one of the critical distinctions between a successful writer and an unsuccessful one. Sadly, many beginning writers neglect it.
As part of a new series on all aspects of editing a novel, (the first part was about Copy Editing Symbols) this article looks at some of the common errors of grammar made by beginning writers. I made all these mistakes when I started as a novelist, and so do lots of writers.
We all know how to write a sentence, so I won’t cover the absolute basics you’d have learnt at school, like tenses. Instead, these are some common grammar mistakes and style issues I see a lot in manuscripts.
Poor Grammar – Sign of the Amateur
Editing your grammar might seem boring, but there’s an excellent reason you need to eliminate grammar mistakes from your manuscript: they mark you out as an amateur, and no agent or publisher will even read a manuscript that’s obviously amateurish. If you want to get your book published, then this is something you need to sort out.
So, let’s fix that grammar!
Common Grammar Mistakes
Here’s the list of problems I see a lot.
- Excessive use of emphasis (exclamation marks, bold, italics, etc.).
- Not spelling out numbers.
- Missing vocative commas.
- Incorrect use of contractions.
- Missing apostrophes.
- Misusing ellipses and m-dashes.
- Using commas, dashes and semi-colons incorrectly.
- Too many parentheses.
Talking of “Let’s fix that grammar!”—that’s an example of a common mistake: overuse of exclamation marks. Adding an exclamation mark to the end of a sentence does not make it funny! See!
Cut out all these exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
In fact, an exclamation mark indicates that the character is shouting. Think extremely carefully before including any exclamation marks except if your characters are shouting.
Bold, capitals, underlining and colour
There’s nothing that screams ‘amateur’ louder than a manuscript with formatting used for emphasis.
- Don’t use bold for emphasis.
- Don’t use CAPITALS or underlining either.
- And for pity’s sake, don’t use colour.
Just don’t, okay? It makes you look… crazy.
For more on formatting your work for submission to a literary agent or publisher, see standard manuscript format.
You should use italics for:
- Names of books and newspapers, e.g. New York Times.
- Names of ships, e.g. La Rhin.
- Foreign language phrases, e.g. coup de main.
It’s acceptable to use italics occasionally for emphasis, e.g. ‘Sure, and I wasn’t helping those murdering atheists.’ Italics, though, quickly become tiring for the reader. Like exclamation marks, you shouldn’t overuse them.
Spell out numbers
It’s normal to spell out numbers in creative writing. So:
‘One million pounds,’ he says.
Exceptions are dates and times:
Here is the Reichsrundfunk Berlin news at 7.00 a.m. on 24 September 1955.
In dialogue, people’s names have commas before and if necessary after.
‘Few people dare to interrupt me, Katharina.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake, Mildred, will you shut up?’
The most common contraction mistake is misuse of its and it’s. This is easily done, especially as Word’s grammar check sometimes gets it wrong. When you’re editing, mentally expand each contraction to make sure the sentence makes sense.
‘m … am. (I’m = I am)
‘s … is or has. (It’s = it is, or it has)
‘re … are. (We’re = we are)
‘ve … have. (I’ve = I have)
‘d … had or would. (I’d = I had, I would)
‘ll … will. (I’ll = I will)
n’t … not. (Isn’t = is not)
There’s also a style choice here. Contractions sound more natural, relaxed and informal, particularly in dialogue. But you might want your character to sound tense and formal sometimes. The thing is to be consistent—your character shouldn’t drift between formal and informal for no reason.
Another easy typo and a mistake that Word’s grammar check sometimes misses.
Graeme’s pen = the pen belonging to Graeme.
Graemes pen = [makes no sense].
Americans’ hopes = the hopes of all Americans.
Whether singular words that end in ‘s’ anyway (e.g. Mercedes) get an extra ‘s’ (e.g. whether it’s Mercedes’s or Mercedes’) is a matter of style, but choose a rule and apply it consistently.
M-Dashes versus n-dashes versus hyphens
These are similar looking punctuation, but they vary in usage.
An m-dash is the size of an m (—) an n-dash the size of an n (–) and a hyphen (-) is the one on your keyboard.
Tip: how to add an n and m-dash in Word
In Word for Windows, type CTRL and minus for an n-dash
and CTRL, Shift and minus for an m-dash
In Word for Mac, type Option and minus for an n-dash
and Option, Shift and minus for an m-dash
You should use hyphens, as you might expect, to hyphenate words together.
Apart from that, usage of hyphens, n-dashes and m-dashes varies between different house styles and so your copy editor may change them. For now, just pick a style and stick to it.
Personally, I use n-dashes with spaces around them except for interruptions, where I use an m-dash.
Ellipses versus m-dashes
Ellipses (i.e. ‘…’) show dialogue tailing off. An m-dash (i.e. ‘—’) indicates dialogue being interrupted.
Commas versus m-dashes versus semi-colons
This is one of the trickiest grammar techniques to get right, because it’s a style choice.
You should use commas when the parts of the sentence can’t stand alone. But if you could separate the sentence into two separate sentences, then you should use a dash or a semi-colon rather than a comma.
That’s where the style choice comes in, because you can normally rewrite the sentence to use any of those constructions. E.g.
- The sun stabs through the clouds, casting harsh shadows across the silver Mercedes Gullwing parked between the trees.
- The sun stabs through the clouds. It casts harsh shadows across the silver Mercedes Gullwing parked between the trees.
- The sun stabs through the clouds – it casts harsh shadows across the silver Mercedes Gullwing parked between the trees.
- The sun stabs through the clouds; it casts harsh shadows across the silver Mercedes Gullwing parked between the trees.
None of those are ‘wrong’ necessarily, but some read better than others (the first one is the one I used).
A dash is more ‘dramatic’ drawing attention to the next bit of the sentence more than a semi-colon.
My rule is if I could imagine an exclamation mark at the end of the sentence (of course there isn’t one because of the previous rule about not overusing exclamation marks) then I use an m-dash, otherwise a semi-colon.
In creative writing, parenthesis are best avoided. They are usually a sign either of a digression or a poorly constructed sentence. You can almost always either cut them or reword the sentence.
Dialogue punctuation and layout
Each line of dialogue from a new speaker goes in a new paragraph.
If the dialogue has a speaker attribution, then the dialogue ends in a comma, not a full stop.
Dialogue that continues something you were describing the same character doing stays in the same paragraph.
In the UK, single quotes usually denote dialogue. In the USA, they commonly use double quotes.
More Grammar Rules
Of course, there are many other rules. The ones above are just ones I see broken regularly. If you can eliminate them, then you’ll be ahead of most people and your grammar probably won’t stop the agent or publisher from becoming engrossed in your book… which is the crucial thing and the entire point of fixing your grammar.
Books of Grammar Rules
In the UK, both Oxford and Cambridge universities produce guides to editing, which include grammar.
Hart’s Rules, the Oxford guide to editing, is available on Amazon UK here.
Butcher’s Copyediting, the Cambridge guide to editing, is available on Amazon UK here.
In the USA, many people use the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s available on Amazon here.
Need Grammar Help?
If you’d like help editing your novel, including fixing its grammar please email me. Otherwise, feel free to share the article using the buttons below.