Wednesday, February 15, 2012


I AM CURRENTLY READING A NOVEL with a good story line, but one that is hard to read because it is so poorly composed. I’m hanging in there, because I want to see what happens. However, as I read, I’m getting a bit bent out of shape with the author.  I don't like my time consumed wading through poor construction, pedantic rants or typographical errors (for which there is no excuse.)

Not having been published myself, I may have little standing to be critical of someone whose words I am holding in my hands.

With that in mind, I have drafted the following ten rules (give or take) that I will post on the bulletin board in my studio if only as a reminder to myself:

  1. Few nevers exist in good writing. Nothing is absolute.
  2. Get grammar. Get tense. Get modifiers.
  3. Know there, their and they’re; know also to, too, two. Know the word you want to use and spell it properly. Remember that a homophone is not some sort of alternative lifestyle hotline.
  4. Avoid over-use of unique words in close proximity within text: “The angry birds’ angry squawks angered the sleeping giant.”  Using a word like "palpable" more than once in every hundred pages or so (excluding when it comes up in dialog) is probably too frequent.  Using it three times in five pages means someone didn't access their Thesaurus.
  5. Vary sentence length. Long descriptive or technical sentences are best punctuated by short declarative statements. It keeps the reader engaged.
  6. Suspend grammar rules when writing dialogue. People in conversation don’t subscribe to the King’s English. We don’t casually talk as good as we write, except, perhaps when we’re being deposed. Don’t make dialogue sound like a deposition.
  7. Understand that poetry makes prose better: think alliteration, rhythm, cadence. (The last sentence in above tip might be a good example.)
  8. Figure out what “passive voice” means, how it may slow down the pace of the text, when to use and when to avoid it. “Timmy was bitten by Lassie.” vs. “Lassie bit Timmy!”
  9. Use spell check, but don’t depend on it. Most spell checking programs do not harbor many technical terms, nor do they get dialect. When spell check checks, check to make sure it didn’t introduce a new error.
  10. Acronyms confuse readers who are not hip. Assume all readers are not hip. (This is a cogent point for those on the speaking circuit as well.) Similarly: Don’t expect everyone to know your colloquialisms.
  11. A good paragraph has five sentences. A great paragraph has as many sentences as necessary to fully convey the point. Some excellent paragraphs contain only one word.
  12. Oh.
  13. When writing about a current event or composing a technical piece, such as a users manual for the DVD player or a how-to for leadership or administration or boat building or cake baking, report if you must. When writing fiction, don’t.
  14. Typos kill kontent.
  15. Self-publishing is for folks who are smarter than editors. However, too many self-published books prove that too many writers are not smarter than the editor they did not hire.
  16. Reading is a creative act that involves conversing with the author. Successful authors ensure that their writing can hold up their end of the obligation that is inherent in that reader/writer relationship.
  17. Effective writing is focused on truth – that goes for non-fiction and fiction.  Especially fiction.
  18. Finally, avoid writing ten rules for this or ten rules for that. You’ll always either run over or short.

© 2012
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. Love #15. I think all writers should hand over their work to a trusted (and educated) friend to proof read before submitting to a publisher or self-publishing. Even if they only notice the typos it's better than nothing.

  2. I don't disagree with Kat, however, at a conference in Jackson, WY about 20 years ago, a well-known poet told a group of us that one should NEVER have a friend or a loved one edit their work. "They can't be totally honest without hurting your feelings," she explained.

    With that said, I'd refer us back to point number 1 on this list.

  3. And what is the not-so-good novel? I could name a few.

  4. Given that the book in question is of small print run, I am withholding the name of the novel. My assumptions are two: 1) the author doesn't need his/her work or name sullied, and 2) perhaps s/he'll do better with a second effort, particularly if s/he a) pays attention to his/her writer's group colleagues - should s/he be in such a group, and b) if s/he gets an editor to help him/her with mechanics, plot, scene development and characterization. Chances are, few people will run across his/her current effort.

    Having said that, reading his/her book from stem to stern has renewed my interest in the book I am working on. All of us have a great book inside; but the vast majority of us need the dispassionate support of an outside voice to ensure that our own authorial foibles don't get in the way of telling a great story.

    I wish the individual well in his/her second effort.

  5. Brilliant,
    "Homophone is not an alternative livestyle hotline"
    Now that right there is funny, and I don't care who ya are. BTW, however, I think it could be a hotline.
    This is good stuff and I know being probably the major contributor illustrating the need for this list. While good, this list will not alleviate the need for reminders.