Probably the LAST thing I should be doing with my time today is writing a blog post. Nevertheless, I am compelled to share what I’m learning.
See, I’m judging a contest for writers, new and hopeful authors. There’s a wonderful set of criteria which guides me. Very helpful. Very insightful. But mainly, I’m calling upon what I’ve learned over the past five years.
And I’m using up far too much time doing this…except…except…it comes at an important juncture in my own career. I have two novels under my belt, and my third has been accepted but for the final edits. So reading these submissions, I can certainly see how my own skills have improved.
Here’s what I’m seeing in these entries, problems that I believe will keep the books from seeing publication unless they are corrected:
1. Lack of specificity. Instead of having your protagonist say, “I went to college with her,” tell me which college. MIT is very different from University of Illinois. A tiny specific tells the reader LOTS about your protagonist.
2. Simple grammatical mistakes. Common on, people. Learn to use a comma. All right, I still have trouble with “that” versus “which,” but I keep looking up the difference and trying to get it right. And it’s a subtle difference, one that may even go the way of “who” versus “whom,” because proper usage almost becomes, uh, snotty. BUT…the major rules for comma usage are golden. Check this out, if you are unclear: http://www.eslbee.com/sentences.htm
3. Tighten up. I’m going to wear out my strike-through function. Here’s an example of a sentence that needs to go on a diet: “I thought the words to myself.” Uh, we only think to ourselves unless we are suffering from multiple personality disorder. Here’s another: “Unexpectedly, I threw up my hands because I was startled by the surprise.” ARRRGHHH. (I can’t even start to fix that one!)
4. Delete the word “was” and write cleaner, clearer sentences. “I was tired, lonely from the long drive, and feeling sleepy as I pulled into town.” How about “Tired, lonely, and sleepy from the 13-hour drive, I pulled into town.” What I’m discovering is a real need for people to improve their technical ability, their basic repertoire of sentence structures. (Yes, “was” can be used perfectly. When you want to show that the subject was acted upon, then “was” does a brilliant job.)
5. Simple spelling and usage errors. I just looked up the spelling of “repertoire.” That’s part of my job. I always look up “lay” and “lie” because they are confusing. That’s also part of the job. See, it’s not just about writing–it’s about knowing what my faults are as a writer and working to improve.
Okay, back to the judging.
PS I’ve re-read this and corrected it twice since originally writing it. That’s another problem with beginning writers: They think their job is done once they have a first draft. (Sad to say, I’ll probably find other corrections to make once this goes up. Still, the point is that you can’t knock it out fast and walk away!)
Alan Orloff says
Good observations. All writers–new, old, published, unpublished–should heed these five rules. At least most of the time!
This is great feedback for writers and wannabes – thanks!
Joanna Campbell Slan says
You are welcome. I'll try to post more thoughts as I finish my judging.