To Be or not To Be

It’s not that there is anything wrong with “to be” in all its forms and tenses; the problem is that when you use it, you’re not using anything better. “To be” is rather static, inactive, and boring. Most sentences using this weak verb can be rephrased to become much more interesting, and, if not action-packed, at least not comatose.

Let’s take some examples:

There were about a hundred people in the street.

Now, imagine the scene. Surely these one hundred people were not simply standing limply in the street. What it needs is a good strong verb; one that is active, or makes us feel that action is imminent.

In the street, a hundred people … milled around, shook their fists, threw rocks (choose one of many possibilities)….

Or maybe: One hundred people shouted for justice in the street.

A cat was in the yard.

A stray cay slunk across the yard.

In each case, by shuffling the words around, we added action and interest.

Naturally, we sometimes need to use the verb “to be,” but when you are writing, be aware of it in its many forms and, if possible, try to substitute a stronger, more active verb.

Here are some of the variations of “to be”: is, are, am, was, were, have been, has been, had been, will be, was being, were being.

Next time you’re writing, look back at a section of your work and mark all the cases of the verb “to be.” Then see if you can find a way to improve the text by exchanging “to be” for a stronger verb. You may have to do some re-arranging of words and phrases, but in the end, it will probably make your story sing where previously it only droned.


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-IZE versus -ISE endings

As an author, editor and proofreader, two of the most invaluable reference books for use in British English are Hart’s Rules and the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, published by the Oxford University Press. I always encourage authors to invest in these for they give guidance and information on everything from spellings of difficult and unusual words, alternative American forms, hyphenation, publishing terms and all things concerning layout within writing, printing and publishing, whether for students or professional writers. It’s also the Holy Grail for editors.

The latest editions have recently been published so I was disappointed, if not surprised, to see a review put up on one of the major sales sites for Hart’s Rules. The reviewer stated that the contents page had capitalisation spelt “capitalization” and that if they had got this wrong at this early stage of the book by using the American spelling, he now distrusted all the content of this book totally “especially when compared against the current OSG where they have spelt it correctly.”

Oh dear! What a misinformed person. For if this reviewer had bothered to explore the contents of the book, in particular the section on verbs ending in -ize or -ise, they would have learned that, and I quote from Hart’s Rules (2005), p.43:

“the ending -ize has been in use in English since the 16th century, and is not an Americanism, although it is the usual form in American English today” but “The alternative from -ise is far more common in British than it is in American English.”

This opinion isn’t just the OUP’s. The Collins Dictionary (2007) p.862 also states:

“In Britain and the US -ize is the preferred ending for many verbs, but -ise is equally acceptable in British English. Certain words (chiefly those not formed by adding the suffix to an existing word) are, however, always spelt with –ise in both Britain and the US.”

For example: revise. Hart’s also makes the point that:

“For some words, however, -ise is obligatory: first, when it forms part of a larger word element such as -cise (= cutting), -mise (= sending), –prise (= taking), or -vise (seeing); and second, when it corresponds to nouns with -s- in the stem, such as advertise and televise.”

(For a full list of words that always take an -ise ending, click here)

As a point of interest, going back in history whether a verb took the -ize or -ise spelling was once determined by the word’s route: taking one form if it came from Latin, taking the other if from Greek. Of course, nowadays that etymology doesn’t come into the equation. What does and always will is the point I constantly make to writers and one that is most important, as quoted in Hart’s, not just for -ize versus -ise verb endings, but for any spelling or format:

“Whichever form is chosen, ensure that is applied consistently throughout the text.” [my emphasis]

So, it really doesn’t matter which form you use. Simply decide if you are going to use the British English format or the Amercian style, add those spellings to your wordprocesser dictionary, and stick to it throughout your text. If you are taking the British English stance, you should also take the British English style for ANY word you use that has an American English counterpart. Consistency is king.

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Editing Tips For Final Draft #amediting

Some great tips here from Carol E Wyer and “She Writes” that are useful when working on your final draft.

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Publication Mania

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Publication Mania

One of the saddest things I see among beginning writers is their burning need to publish before their work is ready. For many writers in the early days of their career, publication at this stage often comes at the expense of their reputation as a good author.

Writers’ groups, for all their many good deeds, are sometimes gathering places for pompous snobs. I want to be clear that I am not down on writing groups. Far from it. The writing group I belonged to for several years involved a wonderful collection of writers who brought a variety of skills and experience, and who wrote in many different genres. The majority of the members were down-to-earth and extremely helpful to new writers.  However, my writing group also happened to have several authors whose agenda included basking in the prestige of “being published” rather than first concentrating on producing their best work or helping…

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He Said/She Said

Some months ago I came across a list on the Internet someone had posted with synonyms for the word said. Going through this long list I wondered whether English was the writer’s mother tongue as many of the words listed were in fact action words or words displaying feeling and certainly not to be used in place of he said/she said.

Time and again a novice writer or author who hasn’t been properly edited will use action words as speech tags, eg “blah de blah,” he laughed. Laughing is an action and no one can laugh and speak at the same time. Laughed, chuckled, smiled, grinned, coughed, sighed etc are all action words. And I defy anyone to speak and cough at the same time, you’ll end up choking on your words!

Using he said/she said is a much neater way of writing dialogue. Speech tags should be unobtrusive, almost disappearing into the background. In good writing, it is the words of the dialogue and any attached action that should convey the emotion and tone of the speaker. Once the order of a conversation has been established, speech tags should not be necessary for the most part. For a simple example:

“I don’t believe it!” he exclaimed, throwing down the book.                             

Here, the use of the exclamation mark tells the reader the speaker’s emotive reaction and response. Adding he exclaimed is totally superfluous and unnecessary. Far better to have written:

He threw down the book. “I don’t believe it!”

I have replicated the list below having extracted those incorrect words. All of these can be used instead of said, however I strongly urge you use with sparsity and caution. Less is more.

Other words that could be swopped for “said”

  • accused, acknowledged, admitted, affirmed, agreed, announced, answered,  articulated, asked, asserted, assured, avow,
  • barked, bawled, beckoned, begged, bellowed, beseeched, blubbered, blurted, bossed, broadcast,
  • cajole, called, carped, cautioned, censured, chimed in, comforted, conceded, concurred, condemned, conferred, confessed, confided, confirm, consoled, contend, continued, crave, cried, criticized, croaked, crooned, crowed,
  • declared, defend, demanded, dictated, disclosed, disseminate, divulged, drawled,
  • emitted, empathized, encouraged, entreated, exclaimed, explained, exposed,
  • finished,
  • groaned, growled, grumbled,
  • hesitated, hinted, hissed, hollered, howled,
  • impart, implied, implored, informed, enquired, insisted, interjected, invited,
  • jabbered, joked, justified,
  • maintained, mewled, mimicked, moaned, mocked, mourned, murmured, mused, mumbled, muttered
  • noted,
  • observed, offered, ordered,
  • passed on, pleaded, postulated, preached, proclaimed, professed, proffered, promised, promulgated, proposed, protested, provoked, publicized, put forth
  • queried, quipped, quivered, quizzed, quoted,
  • reassured, raged, ranted, rejoiced, rejoined, remarked, remonstrated, repeated, replied, reprimanded, requested, required, requisition, retorted, revealed, roared,
  • scoffed, scolded, shouted, shrieked, snarled, snivelled, sobbed, solicited, specified, spluttered, stammered, stated, stuttered, stressed, suggested,
  • taunted, teased, testified, thundered, told, touted, trumpeted,
  • uttered,
  • voiced,
  • wailed, warned, whimpered, whined, whispered,
  • yawped, yelled, yelped, yowled
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Quotation Marks – Double or Single?

A perplexing problem for many writers and authors is with regard to punctuation and capitalization, particularly concerning dialogue. As with many things in writing, there are differences between what is deemed acceptable in the USA, Canada, and elsewhere, and how it is done in the UK.

The publishing industry in Britain has long followed that editors’ bible New Hart’s Rules: the Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors, published by the OUP, a goldmine of information on standard conventions for the written word. Of course, some things have changed and evolved over time, but the basics have not.

First, to answer that constant chestnut: “Should I use double or single quotes in my writing?” The answer is simple – you use whichever you prefer as long as you are consistent and do not switch between the two.

The USA prefers the double quotation mark. This is, in fact, how millions of children in the UK were taught to write dialogue in school – with the good old double inverted commas. UK English (and as in Hart’s Rules) favours the single mark, but there is no rule that says you cannot use double if that is your preference. In fact, using double quotes has its advantages in that it saves a lot of time and hassle if you are considering publishing in the USA. Converting single to double is never as straightforward as it sounds, even when using the Search and Replace function.

What is important is consistency in style throughout your document. Whichever you choose, ALL quotes, including single words or phrases, as well as direct speech/dialogue should be in that choice, i.e. either all double or all single. The only exception would be a quote within a quote/dialogue (see New Hart’s Rules p.85).

There is a school of thought that direct speech is set within double and or word or phrase within single. Not so in UK English. Take a look at any professionally published novel by the major publishing houses, and you will see this is the case. It’s one or the other, not a mixture. The extracts below show how this should be done.

Example 1 Single within double quotation marks

“I was telling Elaine about it and she said, ‘I don’t believe you.’ It took me ages to convince her.” 

Example 2 All quotes in single quotation marks, even single words/phrases/statements

‘Sorry,’ said Anita, ‘I’m going to have to leave you to your own devices again.’ There was a large pile of correspondence waiting in her little ‘office’, the cupboard beneath the stairs.

Punctuation Within Dialogue

Again, USA English and UK English use different conventions. The UK places punctuation inside quotation marks in direct speech, and outside in quotations or individual words/phrases; the USA seems to favour inside for both. Example 2 above shows an example of UK style.

If you have a publisher, it’s worthwhile checking what their preferred house style is with regard to quotation marks and its punctuation.

One final point today: Always use commas before or surrounding the name of a person being directly addressed in dialogue (see Example 3). For example, the following statements are both correct but each has a different meaning.

“Come and see Michael.”  and “Come and see, Michael.”  Can you see the difference?

In the second statement, Fred is speaking directly with Michael; the comma use before Michael’s name makes this clear. In the first statement, Fred is urging whomever he is in direct dialogue with to come and see someone called Michael.

Example 3 Commas surrounding name of person directly addressed

‘Sorry, Elaine, I can’t come today,’ said Anita. ‘I have to go out.’

‘That’s okay, Anita, I know you have to go and see Michael.’ 

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“I Don’t Need an Editor!”

I am amazed at the number of self-publishing authors who still believe their work doesn’t need editing or proofing, then bemoan when a reviewer criticises and gives their novel a  low rating. These are often the same writers who grumble and grouse that publishers aren’t interested in their work, that they cannot get an agent, and that nobody takes them seriously hence they have self-published; quite a self-defeating circle. If they would only stop and think for a moment.

There are also a lot of self-publishing authors and other writers who use editors or proofers and then complain that their editor doesn’t understand their work, has hacked it to bits, doesn’t know what they are doing and charged a fortune for the privilege. Oh boy! Is it any wonder many self-publishers don’t sell many copies and never recoup, let alone see any profit, on books they have often paid to have published?

What, I wonder, would these writers make of it should ever they find themselves in the fortunate position of being taken on by a “proper” publisher? Would they still rant and rave that their work is having to be edited, and checked, and proofed? Of course they wouldn’t! Let’s be honest, even the best authors have to have their work edited. You simply cannot write a novel and expect it to be perfect after only one draft, but it seems some writers think they can. Why? What does it prove? What does it gain? Usually nothing, other than dissatisfied readers and disgruntled authors. What is the point of writing a novel and publishing it if that is the outcome?

Ask any self-respecting author who has been down this route and they will all tell you the same: edit, edit, edit, proof, proof, proof to the enth degree and then have your work properly edited by a professional. Heed what the editor suggests, listen, learn. You might not agree with the comments, but remember these words written by Maeve Binchy to an author friend of mine when she was struggling through yet another round of edits for her publisher:

“It’s long and hard, isn’t it? I know, I know. but stick with it to the end. … Remember, agents and editors are not gods. They care like ourselves. They are human and they want so much for us to succeed.” 

Author Avis Randall with Maeve Binchy

Authors Avis Randall and Maeve Binchy

Yes, doing rewrites and editing is hard. No one said it was ever going to be easy! Editors and proofers are human. And like all other human beings, make mistakes, miss things, are sometimes wrong. The vast majority of them do care, do take pride in what they do and only want to help see an author succeed. That other pair of eyes sees most of what a writer misses in their own work, they know about punctuation, spelling, grammar, layout.

Punctuation is probably the biggest problem, yet correct punctuation is vital. It conveys meaning, tone, pace. And if any author cannot see the difference between, for example, “Come and see Uncle Fred”  and “Come and see, Uncle Fred”,  they are the ones who most definitely do need an editor and proofreader.

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Kit Domino Proofing & Editing Blog

After the success of my blogs on proofing and editing, I thought it time that two of my worlds should pull apart although they remain in close harmony and proximity. Here I will concentrate solely on the nuts and bolts of writing, editing and proofing – the business end of the world of Kit Domino, if you will.  Quick links will transport you from one blog world to the other and back again faster than Concorde ever could.

Anyway, that’s the plan and I hope you’ll come back time and again.

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Understanding the Ellipsis and Dash

There are two punctuation symbols that frequently confuse writers: that of not knowing what to use or where when it comes to ellipses and hyphens.

The Ellipsis

The ellipsis is a single punctuation mark that consists of three dots – no more, no less – thus  What it is not is two, four, six or even ten dots. These three dots are not full stops (periods), they are smaller in size and spacing. Most modern word processors recognise this and, if you key in three stops with a space at the start and end, will automatically change this to the correct symbol. In Word, you can also add an ellipsis through the Insert Symbol tab, under Special Characters. You may even wish to set it to your own shortcut key. You will know you have added it correctly if you then move your cursor back over the three stops; it should jump back over all three in one move.

So, why and when is this symbol used? The ellipsis has two functions. The first as a means of showing, when citing a quotation, that word/s or even a complete sentence/s or phrase has been omitted. Use one ellipsis for each part left out. Below is an example using the second paragraph above. For clarity only, I have set the ellipses used in this article in bold.

“The ellipsis is a single punctuation mark that consists of three dots thus … These three dots are not full stops (periods)  Most word processors and computers recognise this and   automatically change this to the correct symbol.”

The second function of the ellipsis is probably the one most used by authors. It is used to denote when a thought or speech tapers off. It is also used in dialogue when a speaker stops mid sentence for one reason or another or the sentence is left unfinished purposefully, often leading the reader to guess what was going to be said. An ellipsis should not be used to show where dialogue has been interrupted by another speaker. That is the role of another symbol.

For example:

Do ghosts really exist? I suppose it could have been the wind, but I wonder

“We can’t use that door. The only way is through ” Claude stopped to draw breath.

Another query is that of spacing and punctuation before and after an ellipsis. It’s a matter of preference. Some publishers and writers do, others do not include full stops or commas before or after if within dialogue, the symbol being deemed adequate for purpose, although a question mark should be included if the phrase constitutes a direct question. Whether you put a single word space either side of the ellipsis is, again, entirely a matter of choice. There is nothing wrong in putting the symbol directly before or after a word – with no spacing. The rule is always, whatever your or your publisher’s preference with regard to spacing and punctuation surrounding this and other symbols, be consistent throughout your document.

“I mean What I meant to say was Don’t do it.”  “You don’t mean ?”

The Dash

You might not have realised it but there are three main types of dashes: the hyphen, the single, ordinary small dash used to conjoin words, as in multipurpose; the en dash, so named as it takes up the space of the letter N; and the longer em dash named (you’ve guessed it!) as it takes up the space of the letter M. So why three types? Each has a different function.

The Hyphen

The use of the small hyphen is obvious, although I would point out that many words that once upon a time would have been hyphenated are nowadays often written as one complete word. This is fine except it can cause a visual angst in eBook reading and in fully justified text, as a long word will often be forced to jump to the next line, dragging out the previous sentence with long word spaces; not a pretty sight. This is why many print publishers use hyphens at the end of lines to wrap the word. I expect you are so used to seeing them you hardly notice they are there. These are called soft hyphens, as they will disappear if the text is amended. They are often referred to as automatic hyphens. With DTP, the use of the soft/automatic hyphen has diminished somewhat. If you are formatting for eBooks, avoid automatic hyphenation.

The En and the Em Dash

The en dash is used to show ranges, be it in numbers, figures, places:  pages 113; 37 miles; northsouth (note no space between). In essence, it replaces the word “to”. Its second function is one I have used in this article – the dash between two phrases, with a single word space either side. This has become its secondary and more popular function when previously that was, and still is, the role of the em dash.

In many published books you will see the em dash used for this purpose and always without spacing. As with the ellipsis, these symbols can be added by typing a double or triple hyphen or through the Insert Symbol, Special Characters tab.

The second use of the em dash is in dialogue when a speaker is interrupted by another speaker:

“You can’t seriously believe that? I told you before I
“I don’t care what you said. I’m telling you now,” Peter interrupted.

It is perfectly acceptable, and indeed recommended in eBook publishing, to use an unspaced en dash for this purpose. Kindle recognises both en and em dashes but many other formats do not, particularly if you are inclined to use non standard or fancy fonts.

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