Posts Tagged ‘Punctuation’

It’s been a while since I wrote a post about abuse of the written word. I’ve mentioned some of the following unfortunate trends in posts from years past — and these trends continue to irritate — so, if you’re a longtime subscriber, please forgive any repetition.

To start with the equivalent of discharging a shotgun into a 55-gallon drum of mackerel:

  • English is not German. Of late, a lot of writers seem not to realize this. Thus there’s the regrettable trend of capitalizing Common Nouns for no apparent Reason, or for the transparent but unspoken Reason that the Writer can’t think of a better Way to add Emphasis.
  • Perhaps even worse is the ever-more-common practice of placing hyphens between adverbs and adjectives. The most extreme example of such semi-literate usage is placing a hyphen between an adverb ending in “ly” and a following adjective. As I mentioned ages ago, the “ly” ending is almost literally jumping in the air, waving its arms, and screaming, “Look at me! Look at me! I’m part of an adverb!” This type of barbaric, worse-than-useless hyphenization reveals that all too many people don’t know the parts of speech, nor how to properly use them.  This is a very-bad thing.
  • Misuse of punctuation is rife, particularly the misuse of semicolons. There are only two correct ways of using semicolons: the first is to link two closely related complete sentences; the second is to separate items in a list (usually beginning with a colon). Unfortunately, a lot of writers seem to regard semicolons as an exotic type of spice and toss handfuls of them, seemingly at random, into their verbal stews, at times in place of commas. Or should that be,  “. . . into their verbal stews; at times in place of commas”? No, it shouldn’t. That; would be wrong.
  • Another regrettable example of the Germanization of English is the entirely unnecessary and increasingly common placement of commas between the words in age-old compound nouns comprised of separate words. Or should that be compound-nouns comprised of separate-words? No, it shouldn’t; that wouldn’t make “common-sense.” (The final stage in this trend is the fusing of two words into one. Occasionally this produces a sonorous result, as in “motorcycle,” but more often produces a cacophonous one, as in “thinktank.”)
  • Finally, “and” is not part of the infinitive. Again, most people seem not to realize this, and would see nothing wrong with the following: “I’ll try and write a grammatically correct sentence.” If that’s not ugly enough to convince you, please consider that, in addition to being the correct word, “to” is shorter than “and,” and conciseness is a good thing. If you doubt this, please try and tell us why.

(We recently began running the best posts from years past, posts that will be new to most of our subscribers. We’re currently featuring blasts from the past from 2013, and will be for the next few months; we’ll intersperse them with new material.)

Why we rejection 99% of queries and manuscripts

by Chaz Bufe

As primary editor for See Sharp Press, I’ve seen thousands of queries and manuscripts over the years. I reject probably 99% of them. I derive no joy from doing this, but I have to do it. There are reasons.

The first is that probably half of the authors who approach us don’t bother to read our submission guidelines. Some send manuscripts rather than query letters. Others send queries about books that are outside of our  niches, often way outside, in areas we specifically state we do not publish. Still others are obviously making simultaneous submissions, something to which we loudly say no in our guidelines.

That takes care of most submissions. But what of the rest?

A surprising number of authors don’t know how to write queries. Some are so short (one sentence) that they give us virtually nothing to go on. Others omit essential information, such as word count, working title, or even the manuscript’s topic. Still other queries are so badly written (misspellings, mispunctuation, passive voice, boasting) that there would be no point in looking at the authors’ manuscripts. Similarly, some queries come from the clearly demented. And still other queries are insanely detailed, some running to several thousand words set in tiny, html-formatted type.

Rejected manuscripts are another matter. The ones that I find the hardest to reject are well written, have something to say, and probably wouldn’t sell enough copies to justify the hard work and expense of publication. Such submissions account for perhaps 5% of the total. In such cases, I try to recommend other publishers that might be interested, and I’ll sometimes make suggestions about both content and the initial query. I hate saying “no” to such submissions, but if I want See Sharp Press to stay in business, I have little choice.

That still leaves all too many rejected manuscripts. The primary problem with almost all of them — in addition, in most cases, to their being commercially unviable — is that they’re poorly written.

By far the most common fault is use of passive voice. Passive voice pervades present-day American English to such an extent that many, probably most, would-be published authors are blissfully unaware of it and use it incessantly. Almost certainly, many don’t even know what it is. (As writing instructor Rebecca Johnson notes, “If you can insert ‘by zombies’ after the verb, you have passive voice.”)

What’s so bad about passive voice? Passive voice is vague. It allows writers to describe actions without ascribing responsibility for those actions–hence its popularity in “Pentagonese”/”corporatese.” Take, for instance, the sentence, “Fifteen hundred civilians were killed in Fallujah today,” versus “The U.S. military killed fifteen hundred civilians in Fallujah today.” Both of these sentences could truthfully describe a mass killing, but which provides more information?

Even where there is no desire to deceive, the vagueness of passive voice still leaves readers in the dark as to responsibility. For instance, the sentence, “John was beaten with a baseball bat,” invites the question, “by whom?” When you answer the question in passive voice, you end up with a lifeless sentence that is wordier than its active voice counterpart: “John was beaten with a baseball bat by Bill,” versus “Bill beat John with a baseball bat.” Nine words versus seven. And the first (passive voice) sentence makes the reader wait until its end to reveal the subject, which, along with its wordiness, robs it of vitality.

Other common problems include poor organization, incorrect use of punctuation (especially semicolons), limited use of punctuation (periods and commas only), and lack of variation in sentence structure. (Spelling problems are mostly a thing of the past, thanks to spell checkers.)

Science fiction submissions often have additional problems. The most common is that writers don’t bother to “get the science right.” It’s one thing to base a story on plausible projection of current scientific speculation; it’s quite another to blithely ignore Newtonian physics (which quite accurately describes day-to-day physical events).

In science fiction, there are always at least one or two  “gimmes”: faster-than-light travel, immortality, artificial intelligence, etc. It’s perfectly fine — in fact necessary — to use such scientific projections. But don’t rob your story of plausibility by ignoring known science or through inconsistency. Science fiction isn’t fantasy — and even in fantasy, consistency is vital.

Another very common problem with science fiction manuscripts is careless writing. Science fiction, when properly done, is harder to write than any other kind of fiction: mysteries, westerns, “literary”  or historical fiction, romance novels, etc. The reason is that sci-fi authors have to create an alternative, internally consistent world with which their readers are not familiar. Writers of other types of fiction have the huge advantage of writing against familiar backdrops; they don’t have to create them. In all too many of the science fiction submissions I read, authors seem unaware of this, and many authors don’t even strive for internal consistency. Unawareness does, in fact, probably account for most such problems; the other most likely reason is sheer laziness.

To increase your chances of selling a manuscript (to See Sharp Press or any other publisher), you’d do well to do the following: 1) Read the submission guidelines; 2) Follow them; 3) Write a query of 200 to 300 words in which you address the submissions editor by name (find it), provide the working title, describe your book, describe the potential audience, mention your previous published works (if any), tell the publisher why your book is a good fit for them, and mention any similar titles the publisher has already issued.

In your writing: 1) Produce a detailed outline before you start to write; 2) Use active voice; 3) In science fiction submissions, get the science right and strive for consistency; and 4) Edit your work several times and, if you can, have other writers go through it, too. All of this is crucial. Editors generally consider poorly written work an indication that the writer is incompetent, lazy, and/or so egotistical that he thinks it’s beneath him to clean up his own mess.

If you follow the advice in the previous two paragraphs, you’ll vastly increase your chances of finding a publisher for your book.

Good luck.

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