Knowing your grammar or at least using a grammar checking program

This post is the thirty-fourth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Due to the A-to-Z blogging challenge, I have taken the month of April off for my writing series. In case you need a refresher, I last covered Beta Readers, Proofreaders and Editors. In that post, I said I would discuss grammar checking programs in a future post, so here it is.

But first, before I delve into programs, let me say that grammar is very important. Your manuscript can easily be rejected by agents and publishers if it comes to them riddled with errors. And for those of us who self-publish, you can expect plenty of negative reviews if you publish a book full of grammar mistakes. Yes, you can hire someone to fix your grammar mistakes or use grammar software but I believe every author needs to know the basics of grammar or at least know enough to look up the rule if you are unsure.

You may not recall all the grammar rules that were drilled into you when you were in school, but there countless books that can help, or you can turn to the internet.

Books to keep nearby:

Dictionary

Thesaurus

Flip-Dictionary or Reverse Dictionary – These books are for when you know what something is but not what it is called.

Style and Usage Guide – I have seen all sorts of recommendations for The New York Manual of Style and The Chicago Manual of Style. But I always have had Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style on hand since college.

You also may want to include any reference books that pertain to your genre such as forensics if you are writing a police drama or a book on poisons if you are writing a mystery.

Internet resources:

Grammar and PunctuationGrammarbook.com

SpellingDictionary.com or Merriam-Webster

Word ChoiceThesaurus.com or Reverse Dictionary

ResearchEncyclopedia.com or Wikipedia.com (the latter one may not be too reliable as it can be edited by anyone, but it can be a good starting point in your research)

Also for research, check out Writerswrite.com

Writing helpWriter’s Digest

If you need additional help, a proofreader can check your grammar, but, nowadays, as software improves, the need for someone to proofread for spelling and grammar errors diminishes. I’m not saying a program can take the place of an expert but some of these programs do a remarkable good job and they blow away the checkers that come with word processing software.

Grammar Checking Software

There are several options out there, and none of them will catch every error. You will need to review any suggestions made to see if they are correct for whatever you are writing.

Since 2012, I have been using the program WhiteSmoke which is a cloud-based program. Grammerly and Ginger are two other popular programs.

Here is a quick look at these three.

WhiteSmoke (website

  • The offer a mobile version that is separate from the cloud-based version.
  • Works with any browser.
  • Offers three version – essential, premium and business.
  • Prices range from $79 to $215 depending on version.
  • Offers a translator and a plagiarism checker on all three versions.

Grammarly (website

  • It offers a free version but will only give writing suggestions on the paid version.
  • Paid version checks for more errors than free version.
  • More Expensive than WhiteSmoke and Ginger at $139.95 for a year subscription
  • It includes a Plagiarism checker on premium version.
  • No free trial of premium version

Ginger Software (website

  • Works on multiple platforms
  • Free version only analyzes a limited number of words per check and not the whole text.
  • No plagiarism tool
  • Offers two paid versions – basic and premium – The basic version is $61.20 per year.
  • It includes dictionary and translation tools which Grammarly doesn’t.
  • The software will actually read your sentences or the words it suggests be replaced.
  • I found it hard to find anything on the site other than the free version. I figure after you download it, they might “suggest” the upgrade.

Any of these grammar checking programs will help your writing and are definitely worth the investment.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

#11 – Prologue and opening scenes

#12 – Beginning and ending scenes in a novel

#13 – The importance of dialogue…and a few tips on how to write it

#14 – Using Internal Dialogue in your novel

#15 – More dialogue tips and help with dialogue tags

#16 – Knowing and incorporating back story into your novel

#17 – Hinting at what is to come with foreshadowing

#18 – Tips for writing different scenes in your novel

#19 – Dealing with Writer’s Block

#20 – Killing a Character in your Novel

#21 – Keeping things realistic in your novel

#22 – Establishing Writing Goals and Developing Good Writing Habits

#23 – Using the five senses and passive voice in your novel

#24 – The benefit of research in fiction writing

#25 – Novella or Novel, Trilogy or Series – decisions for writers

#26 – Avoiding Plot and Character Clichés

#27 – Novel Writing – Endings and Epilogues

#28 – Fantasy Novel Writing – World Building, Dragons, Magic and More

#29 – Finishing your First Draft

#30 – Your Second Draft and Beyond

#31 – Picking Stronger Words and Watching out for Homonyms

#32 – Omitting unnecessary words in your novel

#33 – Beta Reader, Proofreaders and Copy Editors

Take the time to proofread everything you write

Three weeks ago, I wrote a post on the need for people to be able to write a professional e-mail. Soon after that, the principal of my kids’ school sent out a long email riddled with grammatical and punctuation errors. Many of the teachers seemed quite embarrassed by it.

When we as authors get ready to submit or publish our book, we usually take great pains to proofread the text, whether we do it ourselves or hire someone else to do it. Even then mistakes slip through the cracks. But beyond your book, do you proofread everything you send? Or are you like the principal and just send something out without a second glance?

proofI have to say that I spend probably way too much time crafting my emails. I almost never jot off a quick message. I read and re-read it to make sure it says what I want it to say clearly. This actually is considered editing. It is the looking for grammatical and typographical errors that are considered proofreading. I typically give my email a once over for punctuation before sending it.

Now I can say for a fact that not all authors do the same. I get email correspondence all the time from authors for my Friday Featured Author spot. And then there are the submissions – especially the author interviews and author bios. Many times I see grammar, punctuation and style errors in these documents.

Now sometimes, I may make the correction such as italicizing the book titles, but often I don’t have the time to correct someone else’s work. I did put in paragraph breaks for the one author, who didn’t seem to think he needed any. This was on an excerpt, and I don’t know how he thought anyone would want to read this long block of text.

Both the emails and the submissions for my blog, in my opinion, should be proofread before submitting. These authors are putting their work out there for others to see. If I was a reader and I saw an interview riddled with mistakes in grammar and punctuation, I might wonder about whether the author’s books are this way too. (Of course, course I guess it could be reflecting poorly on me since it is my blog. I hadn’t think about that until just now.)

So my suggestion for authors is to proofread everything you write – from a quick email, to your interview questions, to your post on your own blog and of course your novel.

Some tips for proofreading:

  • Take a break between writing and proofing
  • Read the text aloud
  • Read it backwards
  • Use a grammar-checker – but don’t rely solely on grammar or spell check.
  • Print out your text and proof it on paper versus the screen.
  • Have someone else read it

As an author, you want to have the best image possible. To ensure that comes across to your associates and potential readers, please make sure you proofread all of your correspondence and anything meant for posting online.

Don’t be in a rush to self-publish

You’ve dreamed of the day when you can hold in your hands a copy of your own book. You imagine showing it off to friends and family as you proudly declare you ARE an author. But as you are preparing to self-publish your own book, I urge you to make sure you – or more importantly your book – are ready.

There is a lot that goes into self-publishing and marketing your book. But I am not talking about finding your target market or figuring out which method of advertising will reach those readers. No, I am talking about making sure the book you wrote – the one you are about to introduce to all those eager readers – is ready.

And this is not just advice for newbies. This holds true whether you are an author with two to three books or one that has a dozen or more under your belt. Don’t let anyone else tell you how quickly you should be putting out books. Just because one author spits out one every other month, doesn’t mean that you should do the same thing.

So what do I mean by “make sure your book is ready?”

I mean don’t hurry through the editing process. Yes, writing a book is a huge accomplishment. However, that is only the first step. Now comes the hard part – editing. It can take countless hours to weed out inconsistencies, fix timelines, refine word choice, and the list goes on.

The key with editing is that you can’t tackle all the editing issues at once. You need to concentrate on only a few at a time. (I use this revision outline to help me.) There is no magic number on how many times you will re-read your novel trying to improve it. And trust me, it is easy to get stuck on revising your wording.

There are a couple of tips I suggest for all writers.

  • Beta Readers/Editor – Have someone else read your book. A fresh set of eyes can catch inconsistencies and other errors in the plot.
  • Take a break. Don’t work on or read your novel for a period of time. When you come back to it, you will be able to see errors that you couldn’t see when you were slaving away on it daily.
  • Proofreading – You, a friend with knowledge of spelling and grammar, a teacher, run it through every grammar program you can find, or even hire a professional – or do all the above – to correct grammar and spelling. And if you make content changes, it needs to be proofread again. (That is why this is typically the last step before publishing.)

I can’t stress this last one enough. No matter how strong or compelling of a story you have written, there is nothing worse than turning off readers with a bunch of spelling and grammatical errors. And really by rushing to publish a book that isn’t ready, you are creating a negative image of not just you but other indie authors.

So rather than rush and put out a mediocre story. Take your time to rewrite, to edit, to polish and to proof your novel until it IS ready for all those hungry readers out there.

How to use Italics in your writing – #AtoZchanllenge

As a writer, sometimes you want to emphasize something. That is where italics come into play. Italic is a type of print where the letters slope to the right.

Funky capital I

Funky capital I

(Yes, today on the A to Z challenge, it is the letter I. I decided to go with something a little more unusual and talk about italics which I used quite a bit in my trilogy.)

In my The Elemental series, there are two species (dragons and STACs) that speak telepathically. In order to differentiate between spoken words and telepathic communication, I had the latter written in italics. I even went a step further and put quotation marks around any human’s speech that was spoken telepathically. I hoped this made it easier for readers to understand who was speaking during a conversation and how.

Sample conversation from Summoned – Lina is a human and Tosh is a STAC:

Lina wandered over to the remains of another traveler’s fire, knowing Val watched her. She poked at the ashes with her foot. A few of the ashes floated up toward her.

Lina? Tosh said, hesitantly.

She sat down, drawing her knees up to her chest. “I don’t want to talk, Tosh.”

He curled up beside her and began to purr softly.

Another instance in which I used italics was whenever there was a dream sequence. I had one at the beginning of my book and wanted the reader to know that this was not really happening so I specifically mentioned the dream and then put the dream sequence in italics.

Example of opening dream sequence from Summoned:

The young woman tossed in her bed, muttering softly. She rolled over, her long honey-colored hair covering her pale face. Her fingers dug into the mattress. She shook her head as she sank deeper into the dream.

The yellow light cut through the dark. Her eyes stayed focused on it as it flickered before her like a hundred candles dancing in a soft summer breeze, growing brighter as she neared. As she walked, her hands reached out, touching the smooth, cold stone wall. That alone should have warned Lina something was not right. Even as her mind called out that this was all wrong, she continued down the hall toward the light and toward whatever was calling her.

These are just two of the situations in which italics can come into play in my novels. Below are the more common uses of italics.

1.)    Emphasis or to show contrast –

He managed to eat ten cookies. (Emphasis on the number)

He managed to eat not nine, but ten cookies. (Shows contrast)

The key note here is that you don’t want to overuse italics for this purpose or it will lose its effectiveness.

2.)    Titles of books, albums, movies, plays or periodicals –

Summoned was the first book I wrote.

Short poems and essays are not italicized but set off with quotation marks.

3.)    The names of ships, planes, trains and automobiles.

The Queen Mary sails tomorrow.

4.)    Scientific names of plants and animals.

The name for the human species is homo sapiens.

5.)    Foreign words or phrases –

I got the weirdest feeling of déjà vu.

6.)    Sometimes in a novel it is used to indicate a character’s thought process.

This can’t be true, Sally thought.

If something that normally is italicized is mentioned in an already italic sentence, then the word reverts back to normal. I think the Scarlet Letter had a chapter about that, thought Mary.

I hope this grammar review has helped someone.

 

Picking stronger words

Today’s blog topic comes from helping my son do his homework last week. One of the assignments was to replace the verbs with stronger ones.

Here is an example from his homework.

Ben got a bag of chips from the shelf.

Stronger word choice:

Ben grabbed a bag of chips from the shelf.

Yes, both sentences are very similar. But the key is that in the second example you learn how Ben got the bag. The word “grab” means to “seize something quickly.” So when I used the word “grabbed,” you know that not only did Ben get a bag of chips, but you understand how he did it.

So when picking stronger words, you are trying to choose words that give the reader more information. Instead of talking loudly, you shout. Instead of hitting hard, you wallop and instead of smile smugly, you smirk.

Take a look at this example:

Seething with anger, Sarah took the book from him. She walked out the door, closing it loudly as she left.

Stronger word choices:

Sarah snatched the book out of his hand. She stomped out the door, slamming it behind her.

The second example gives a clearer picture of what happened. You know by her actions that Sarah is either angry or annoyed.

In the second half of the first example, instead of picking a strong verb, an adverb were used. As a writer, using the occasional adverb is fine but in reality, you should aim to use strong verbs (as in the second example.) The use of a lot of adverbs shows lazy writing.

Quick grammar refresher: An adverb modifies a verb, adjective or other adverbs. They answer the question where, when, how and to what extent. You don’t have to eliminate all adverbs but if an adverb can easily be eliminated without change the meaning of the passage, then it should be removed.

Of course, though sometimes a stronger verb will work better, there are times when a simple word is fine. Characters can walk. They don’t always have to stomp, dash, hurry, shuffle, scurry or whatever.

You want to pick the best word for the scene. This doesn’t mean you need a big, fancy or unusual word. It means picking the right word to say the right thing in just the right way. It doesn’t mean rushing to a thesaurus to sprinkle your book with synonyms when a simpler word will do.

As you revise your draft, examine your word choices. You might ask yourself, “Is this really what I mean?” or “Is there a better word to convey this so my readers will understand what is happening?”  Finding words that capture your meaning and convey it to your readers is challenging. But you can tighten up your writing by making sure you are picking strong words.

Why I didn’t hire a proofreader for my novel

The other day I read a blog about the importance of hiring someone to edit your book before publishing it. The writer couldn’t fathom any reason an author would not put out their best work which in her opinion meant having a professional editor review the book before publication.

While I agree that putting a professional, well-polished, grammatically correct novel should be the goal of all authors, I do, however, understand why someone wouldn’t hire a proofreader or copy editor.

Money. Pure and simple, I believe it is a financial issue. It doesn’t have anything to do with not valuing their work or not being a professional. Hiring a professional to review your book is not cheap.  I am one of those authors who didn’t have someone proof my first novel, Summoned, before I self-published it, and money is the reason why.

Now before we go any further, let me say that people throw around hiring an editor and a proofreader as if they are the same thing. While related, they are NOT the same. An editor is going to look for consistency and substance in addition to grammatical, spelling and factual errors. They are going to comment on improving the flow and consistency of your story. A proofreader is someone you hire after your work has been edited. They look for common grammar errors and typos.

Now back to my story…after the first few reviews of Summoned mentioned grammatical errors, I looked into having my book proofread.  The estimates for my 84,000-word novel were between $450 and $1400. It is hard as a newbie to justify shelling out that type of money. Yes, you want to be professional but think of how many books I have to sell to cover that cost. Summoned is available for $2.99, which means I make $2.05 on each book sold. Assuming I went with the low end of those proofing amounts, that means I would need to sell 220 books just to break even and that isn’t including cover design or any book promotions. I couldn’t justify that cost at the time.

And I am being a realist here because as much as I love my work and believe readers will enjoy it, there are millions upon millions of books out there. It is hard for an unknown to crack the bestseller lists or even make a decent amount of money. Roughly, half the self-published authors make $500 a year or less.

So since I wasn’t willing to shell out that type of money, but wanted to improve my work, I decided to invest in one of the leading grammar checking programs. After reading reviews and much research I went with Whitesmoke. Now this is a comprehensive grammar checker that will blow away what Microsoft Word does. Check out this comparison using actual sentences with errors.

Not only does it do grammar, punctuation and style, but it also alerts you to word repetitions and missing words. To use WhiteSmoke you must have an internet connection as their database of words and phrases is too big to be downloaded to your computer, plus they are constantly testing, improving and upgrading it daily.

Now I am not saying that Whitesmoke is perfect, and it can make suggestions that don’t fit into a fictitious work.  It is a time-consuming process as it reviews everything paragraph by paragraph. But when I ran it on Summoned I was amazed at how many things it caught. I then used it on Quietus (Book 2 in my trilogy) and The Search (my short story) before they were published. None of the reviews for either of these works have ever mentioned grammar or spelling being a problem. I am currently using it as I edit my upcoming book Destiny (Book 3 in my trilogy).

So should WhiteSmoke replace a copy editor? No. Could it replace a proofreader? Maybe.

But if nothing else, it can certainly allow those budding writers out there a chance to produce grammatically-correct material at a fraction of the price. Now helping them with the plot is a whole other issue.