Archive for the ‘The “Rules”’ Category

I’ve seen it hundreds of times; heck, I’ve done it myself.

Editor/Critique Partner/Beta Reader: Suggests change to word, sentence, paragraph, chapter, scene, plot, or anything else in your manuscript.

Author: “But, but…I meant… That’s because… Don’t you see… I don’t have to…”

Inevitably when someone tells us something about our story might need to change, we come up with excuses. We try to explain what we meant. We assert that we are the exception to whatever rule is mentioned. We think, “They just don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Uh-uh. No. Stop, especially if you paid for that advice or you want advice from that person in the future. Granted, not all advice should be taken, but before you throw out an edit or critique, you MUST realize these three things.

NO Explaining

One: Don’t try to explain. You will not be there to explain your point to the reader.

The biggest mistake I see when someone receives an edit is trying to explain what they meant. The problem with this? The author doesn’t stand over the reader as they read a book. You won’t be able to watch the reader’s face, see their confused look, explain what that sentence is trying to convey. It doesn’t happen. If a reader can’t understand something without you explaining it, you need to fix it so they can. The greatest value of a critique is finding those spots in your story that need more explanation. This enables you to smooth and clarify your story so those confusing points disappear (or rejoice, if your intention was to confuse the reader on purpose).

Two: Don’t ignore the rules. You are not a special snowflake.

Yes, you need to know the rules and follow them. That should be a given, and if it isn’t, you might want to reevaluate your approach to writing. Why? Because rules are there for a reason. Do you know what that reason is? It is so all readers have a uniform path to follow on the road to understanding. Following grammar and punctuation and even story-structure rules allows readers to relate to your story on a relatively uniform and easily understandable plain. If you didn’t follow the rules for parts of speech, how is a reader to know what the sentence is about (subject), what the subject is doing (verb), what they are doing it to/with (object), et cetera? In the same way, stories have a familiar structure, as do scenes; punctuation has a familiar usage. This keeps us from confusing the reader.

Can you shake up those rules? Yes — once you know them very well, know why they exist, and decide to break them intentionally for a very important reason. Never just “because,” and never out of ignorance. Listen when someone says you’ve broken a rule. Investigate it. Did you break it? If so, fix it, or make sure you are breaking it intentionally (and in a way readers will understand — see #1).

Three: Listen to your gut and not your ego.

Ego says, “My way is best, and everyone else is wrong.” Instinct says, “I’m considering your advice,” and then, “It does/does not seem to fit with the effect I want.”

Critique partners, beta readers, even editors (GASP!) are not infallible. How they see a story might not be how you want the story to go. But you can’t let hubris get in the way of making your story the absolute best it can be. Remember point #2? Thinking you are special and the rules don’t apply to you? That is ego. Hubris. Pride. It has nothing to do with being a great writer. Instinct is what you need to listen to.

What am I talking about? I’ll give you an example. The longer I’ve written, the more I’ve come to realize that when the pieces of a plot are “right,” when they start to come together in a way that is at once complex and exciting and logical (i.e. understandable), I get this excited feeling in the pit of my stomach. If I’m not excited about it, I’m not there yet; the plot’s not ready. My latest book had problems with the ending. I knew it wasn’t quite right, but I sent it to my editor anyway (yes, I use an editor even though I am one; I never solely rely on my own ability to see my work!). I didn’t tell her where I was struggling. When I got my edits back, she had pointed to places in the climax and resolution that she felt weren’t strong enough — the same places I felt weren’t strong enough. She had some suggestions for fixing it, but her suggestions didn’t give me that excited feeling. So I asked her to let me think on it a bit more. I did. I discussed the issues with my husband, who is a techie and understood the issues I was struggling with. And finally, as time marinated my story, I happened on what I thought was the solution. I got that excited feeling in my gut. I e-mailed my editor about the idea and got a very excited e-mail back. She loved it. Even more than her own ideas, in fact. It was a gratifying moment to realize I had listened to my instinct, and it had paid off.

I didn’t all of a sudden decide my editor didn’t know what she was talking about. I didn’t dismiss the sense that the ending wasn’t quite “there” yet. No, I paid attention to my gut. You should too. Don’t automatically dismiss other people as wrong, thinking you are infallible or just that good as an author. Trust me; none of us are. We all need to consider alternatives. We let our writing instinct tell us when all the information comes together to produce just the right solution for our story. It’s a fine line we have to walk, but it is possible, and the more you grow as a writer, the easier it will be.

So when that next edit or critique or beta read comes in? Take some time with it. Don’t automatically start defending yourself. Don’t try to explain or make excuses. Don’t brush off the comments and tell yourself the other person just isn’t smart enough to get what you meant. DO consider, reevaluate, and then move forward, striving to make your story the best it can be.

– Lea

lea schafer, freelance editor, romance editor, semicolon usage, rules for semicolons, self-editingYou don’t have to be afraid of this seemingly complicated bit of punctuation — and you don’t have to hate it either. Semicolons, like all punctuation, have their uses, and they’re probably not as complicated as you might think.

Chicago Manual of Style has specific rules regarding the semicolon: five entries, to be exact. But in reality, those five entries boil down to two uses for the semicolon. That’s right, TWO. Two can’t be that difficult to remember, people! And just so you have no excuses, I’m going to explain what those two uses are.

First, dividing independent clauses.

Sounds important, right? You’re probably sitting there thinking, What the heck is an independent clause? Really it’s just a fancy way of saying a complete sentence. A semicolon may be used between two complete sentences instead of a period. Why would you do this?

A semicolon is used when the two sentences are closely related. Here’s the example CMOS gives:

She spent much of her free time immersed in the ocean; no mere water-resistant watch would do.

The first sentence explains the second; there’s a direct connection. She is in the water a lot, so her watch has to be more than simply water-resistant. Now, if the sentences were not connected, you would use a period (and most likely a new paragraph), like this:

She spent much of her free time immersed in the ocean. Her car is blue.

Does she use her car to drive to the ocean? Probably. But that connection isn’t made in these two sentences. They should be separate. Hence, the period.

Second, dividing elements in a complicated list.

Note the word “complicated.” When you go to the grocery store, you get ham, biscuits, and eggs. You don’t get ham; biscuits; and eggs. this is a simple list, straightforward, with nothing included that would confuse the reader. Now look at this sentence:

She had several things on her list to do today: run to the DMV, stand in line, and get her license renewed; spend two hours at the hairdresser having her hair washed, colored, and styled; and go by the grocery store to pick up ham, biscuits, and eggs.

Notice all the internal punctuation here? Each task on the list involves multiple steps. What if we used commas instead?

She had several things on her list to do today: run to the DMV, stand in line, and get her license renewed, spend two hours at the hairdresser having her hair washed, colored, and dried, and go by the grocery store to pick up ham, biscuits, and eggs.

Confusing? Yes. the semicolon makes clear what is involved in each stop, prevent us from thinking this person will be styled while going to the grocery store. The list is complicated, but with a semicolon, it can easily be made clear.

A word about dialogue.

I won’t get into the issues surrounding comma splices today (if you don’t know what that is, don’t worry; we’ll cover it another day — see how I did that semicolon thing? 🙂 ). However, semicolons are very useful in dialogue. Often writers feel it is more natural to run spoken sentences together, separating with just a comma, to make the dialogue sound more natural. The period gives a hard stop, so it sometimes feels too heavy for everyday dialogue. Here’s an example:

“No, I have cake. You keep your cookie.”

And with a comma:

“No, I have cake, you keep your cookie.”

This sentence could be seen as flowing well. The comma is incorrect, however, because “No, I have cake” is a complete sentence. Notice how closely related these two sentences are? What did we learn about that above? Yes, a semicolon works here, giving the more pause-like feeling of a comma, but still grammatically correct. See?

“No, I have cake; you keep your cookie.”

We don’t have the hard pause of a period, and we don’t have the incorrect comma. We have a compromise, and it works well. Try it the next time you don’t want a hard stop in your dialogue.

And that’s it, short and sweet! Not all punctuation has to give you headaches, least of all the lowly semicolon. The comma, on the other hand…


– Lea

*Photo courtesy of Memphis CVB

lea schafer, editor, editing, freelance editing, dictionary, spelling, line editing, line editorThe worst? Well, in my opinion, anyway. There are some things no one is going to get a hundred percent right because, contrary to what they want to think, even the “experts” don’t necessarily know and can’t agree on what is “right” (*glaring at commas here*). But there is one thing you can do right all the time (with a little bit of help) and at least one thing you should do wrong occasionally. Want to know what they are?

First, the one thing you should always do right: spelling. Let’s face it, a misspelled word looks bad; it just does. Mixing up those homophones? Bad. Using the wrong verb tense (yes, I consider this a spelling issue, and I’ll tell you why)? Bad. Why is it bad? Because it is the most easily fixable editing problem around, and some writers are just too lazy to do anything about it.

I would say up to twenty percent of my time on an edit (occasionally more) is spent checking spelling. But we learned how to spell in school, right? Doesn’t spell check fix most of that? Um, no. Too often spell check misses words used out of context but spelled correctly, or underlines words that are spelled correctly but aren’t recognized in spell check’s dictionary. And though many of us learned to spell in school, not everyone has an affinity for spelling (just as everyone — me! — doesn’t have an affinity for math, and that’s okay). Not to mention, whether we like it or not, spelling and what’s acceptable language change over time. Twenty years ago none of the tech-savvy words we take for granted now even existed. You have to do your research, and trust me, nothing shows an editor that you care about the quality of your work better than using correct spelling.

Why? Because if you’ve taken the time to check spelling throughout your ms, you’ve more than likely taken the same amount of care with other areas of your craft.

lea schafer, editing, line editing, editor, line editor, freelance editor, spelling, dictionary, Merriam-WebsterSo what’s the easiest way to get spelling right? First, don’t just rely on spell check, and don’t rely on your memory. Use a dictionary. My preference is for Merriam-Webster (M-W), whose latest edition is available both for free online ( and as a free app for your phone. I use American Heritage Dictionary as a backup ( There’s also an interesting site called OneLook Dictionary that links to multiple dictionaries, so that if you can’t find a word in one, you might find it in another (

A word of caution: sites like Wikipedia and Wordnik and Free Dictionary and such are not official sources. Stick with a well-known, reputable dictionary for your work. And yes, I know different dictionaries spell words differently. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, emphasizes British spellings, while M-W shows the British spellings as variants, not the primary listing. So if you are British, stick with the Oxford. If you are American, stick with a dictionary that uses primarily American spellings, or marks British spellings clearly (M-W does both of the latter). Personally, as an editor, I would prefer you choose one professional, established dictionary and stick to it. A line editor (like me) can conform your spelling to the house style of your publisher if it differs. It’s also better to work with an online version where possible, since those are typically the latest update, whereas paper copies quickly become outdated and must be replaced at least yearly.

Dictionaries are the best place to figure out which homophone you need, which tense of a verb is considered correct now (leapt versus leaped, etcetera), and even which words are usually hyphenated and which are not. If you are looking for a compound noun and it isn’t listed in the dictionary, it is spelled with a space. This is why “bar stool” (which is not listed in M-W) is spelled with a space. If you use American Heritage, it is listed as “barstool.” Does it count against you if you use the wrong version? Not in my opinion. Again, some words differ from dictionary to dictionary, but using a dictionary consistently will vastly improve your spelling. In M-W, you can even see which prefixes are typically hyphenated by looking up the prefix followed by a hyphen (such as “pre-“). The entry will often be followed by a list of words using that prefix, and even if your word isn’t on it, you can get a sense of whether that prefix is typically hyphenated or not. The prefix “over-” does not have every word listed, but you can check what is listed and see that none of them include hyphens. That’s your clue that this prefix typically isn’t hyphenated. (Note: You can find rules for using prefixes and other such spelling issues in the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), which also has an online website but is a paid service. See

Now, for that “thing” you should do wrong occasionally.

The English language is all about following an established, convoluted set of rules, getting those things “right.” And let’s face it, not all the experts can agree on those rules. Even CMOS contains gray areas that are open to interpretation or outright say “if preferred.” There is some leeway. Not to mention, in everyday life most people don’t talk according to the rules. Which is why I don’t think you should always follow the rules when it comes to writing dialogue for your characters. Yes, this is where I think “doing it wrong” can give your writing the authenticity and feeling it needs to be great.

lea schafer, editor, editing, line editor, line editing, freelance editor, dialogueTake contractions, for instance. Yes, there are rules for contractions, but in formal writing, contractions are frowned upon. That’s why speaking without contractions sounds like you are British royalty (not to mention the use of the pronoun “we” instead of “I”). But normal people talk normally, casually, and use many contractions. They also slur their words together. “Gonna” isn’t in the dictionary, but how many kids do you know that say, “I’m gonna do it anyway”? They don’t typically say, “I am going to do it anyway.” In fact, they might even tack on an “s” to that “anyway” to sound even more authentic. Which one do you think a reader wants to hear? Well, that depends on your character, right? If he’s a six-year-old Southerner, he’s “gonna do it anyways,” but if he’s a royal prince, he might go with the formal version. You have to write dialogue that’s authentic to the character, not to the rules of language. Write like someone would speak, given their background and education level and immediate situation, not how the perfect rules of language demand things be.


I know; I know. There are a ton of protests in your mind, exceptions, ambiguities, and even the occasional downright “I don’t wanna!” That’s okay. I still think, for the majority of your writing, these two concepts are a must:

Use a dictionary for the best spelling you can get.

Don’t always conform to grammar rules if you want authentic dialogue.

We’ll get into more specific topics, cover thoroughly issues like punctuating dialogue and word choice and a mountain of other things as the months go on. There’s no end to the issues being debated in the English language. But for now, know that these are, in my opinion (and we all know about having those 🙂 ), good “rules” to follow. How about you? Anything you see as a major mistake when you read a book? Any rules you feel hindered your writing as you grew your skills? Anything you think is more important than the two ideas I’ve listed here? Tell me about it. You never know — I might just agree with you.

– Lea


*Final photo courtesy of Håkan Dahlström.