Why writing rules are so hard

Depending on who you ask, there are six rules for proper use of a comma or sixteen. Depending on who you ask, numbers should be written out or typed as numerals, or written out and then typed as numerals inside of parentheses.

Why? What’s up with these rules? What’s the point, and why all the changes? Continue reading “Why writing rules are so hard”


DIY Editing: Seems? I know not ‘seems’!

I’ve got a weird favorite Shakespeare quote. While other people are off getting lovey dovey with Romeo and Juliet, or sniggering along with Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’ve got a thing for Act 1, Scene 2 of Hamlet:

List of titles of works based on Shakespearean...
I wonder if The Bard had this particular pet peeve… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shortly after the death of his father, Hamlet’s mother remarks that he seems sad. To which he replies:

‘Seems,’ madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.’

In other words: “Why the heck are you telling me I ‘seem’ sad?!? Mom, I’m in freaking mourning!”

I often find myself quoting this particular line at people when I see the dreaded ‘seems’ in writing.

What’s wrong with it?

The word ‘seems’ (or any variation thereof) has a particular meaning: it appears to be one way, but it may or may not be that way.

In writing, where the conservation of words and detail are paramount, this translates into: it appears to be one way, but it’s not.

The problem therefore arises when somebody says that something ‘seems to be’ a nice gesture, or the dress ‘seems to be’ big enough. That ‘seems’ means that what you just said is suddenly called into question, and we’re made to expect that the opposite is true– after all, if it really was true, you would go right out and say that.

In Hamlet’s tirade against the word, he points out that anybody can fake being sad, with dramatic sighs and dark clothes and general brooding– such people seem sad, but aren’t. On the other hand, he simply ‘is’.

Why do people use it?

Often ‘seems’ gets misused because

  • Writers are trying to cut instances of ‘am/is/are/was/were’ and don’t realize they’re replacing one linking verb with another.
  • Writers are trying to to point out that a character doesn’t know something– for instance, the way another character is feeling. It’s obvious that Hamlet is sad, but flat out telling us how he feels (when we’re not in his POV) would be head-hopping.

How do I fix it?

  • Be bold. Don’t skirt around your verbs– give us strong, flavorful verbs instead. Instead of ‘Hamlet seems sad’ give us ‘Hamlet wept’.
  • Show, don’t tell. If you’re trying to avoid head-hopping, don’t tell us that a character ‘seems to be thinking hard’. Show us the physical evidence of concentration: perhaps narrowed brows, or a chewed lip. Trust us to make that conclusion on our own.

When does it belong there?

Not every instance of the word is an abuse of the word. Like I pointed out before, ‘seems’ can be a more subtle way of expressing irony or duplicity. It can also be used to point out something that the character legitimately doesn’t know.

Using the dress example: it seems to be the right size, but I don’t have time to try it on. If I take it home without trying it, I’m taking the risk of being dead wrong– and then having to stay home because I have nothing to wear to the zombie ball. In this case, that uncertainty would cause tension. Used too often, though, and the tension drains out and the narrator just seems wishy-washy.

DIY Editing: A comma conundrum

Behold the comma: it’s the most dreaded of punctuation marks, and one of the most misused and abused.

And for good reason. In the English language, most punctuation marks have no more than two or three uses. A period will always either end a sentence or abbreviate a word. An exclamation point indicates excitement.

Commas, on the other hand, are the Hufflepuff of grammar. They do some of everything.

They divide points in a list, they separate phrases in a sentence, they offset names and dates and states, they act as periods within interrupted dialogue.

In fact, it seems the one thing they don’t do is create an arbitrary pause. For example:

“My name, is Doctor Incredible!” just looks tacky. If you’re trying to pause for dramatic effect, you’re looking for an ellipse. It should really look like this: “My name… is Doctor Incredible!”

I started this post intending to write out all of the rules for properly placing a comma, but 1) I’d be here all day, and 2) the people below have said the same far more eloquently than I.

Purdue University’s Writing Lab site lists fifteen distinct rules for working with this slippery punctuation. Wikipedia has thirteen subsections on correct usage. Grammarbook.com has twenty-one. And even then, there’s more ways to make mistakes: The Opinion Page of the New York Times has a nice discussion of some common comma mistakes, as well as a Fanfare for the Comma Man— which discusses my next point:

The rules can change depending on who you ask. People will argue over these forever, so rather than giving you the rules, here’s some  spots where you can throw them out and go with your gut.

  • The infamous Oxford comma (the comma that precedes ‘and’ in a list), as in “bacon, milk, and cheese”)
  • Modifying phrases at the beginning of a sentence, such as “Last night Boxy and I saw a movie”

If the use/omission of the comma doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence, then it can go either way. However, in some cases the comma can lead to confusion. Remember: clarity trumps all else.

Adventures with Scrivener

Until now, I’ve only really used a few features of Scrivener: the goal and wordcount feature, the folders, the ‘split at section’ command, and occasionally the research file.

This time I’m trying something different.

I wrote the whole of this draft in Microsoft Word. Because I wasn’t using any features aside from the wordcount and the putting-text-on-white-space features, it didn’t matter what software I used. Now I’m being a bit more discerning.


I opened a new folder on my project and pasted the entirety of my story into the first text document. From there, I went to the first scene break and split the story to the next section. split at section

By splitting the pre-written sections one at a time, I have the chance to really look at them without getting overwhelmed by how much I still have to do. I can thoughtfully evaluate when the scene actually starts and ends, figure out a title that won’t leave me hopelessly lost in a few days, and add a summary for my purposes.

Metadatameta data

Scrivener has options for metadata. It defaults to descriptions of the chapter/section/idea/what have you, but I tinkered with it somewhat.

Because my story involves traveling between multiple locations, I set one to keep track of the country–this one by color.

I set the other one to keep track of the prevalent mood of each scene, both as the scene opens, and as it closes. I’ve mentioned before that we can’t just dwell on a single mood— it needs to continuously rise and fall to keep the readers invested.


I’ve been doing a lot of reading about theme in particular, and I’ve been trying to apply what I’ve learned so far. I’ve identified three core themes in my story, and the facets thereof that the different characters embody. Now that’s a lot of stuff. It’s too hard to keep track of all the themes of an entire story all at once. I’ve found it’s much easier to take it section by section and noting the themes that are touched on, and how they’re developed over the course of the story.

Characterscharacter keywords

I’ve got a whole lot of named characters, so I use the Keywords feature to keep a track of which characters made an appearance in a given scene, and which ones were only mentioned. So far I’ve found that some of them are mentioned rarely enough to merit combining or cutting entirely (I’m looking at you, Kessie!), while one in particular needs a few more mentions to properly emphasize his place in the story.

Document Reference

There’s also a nifty feature that allows you to cross-reference the events going on in one section with stuff going on elsewhere. This becomes really useful for remembering exact details and wording of past conversations, keeping track of which saint deals with what aspects of life, and using the proper terms for all the parts of a dirigible.

The Cork Board

I’ve always admired the cork board feature on Scrivener, but I’ve never really had reason to use it before. Now that I’m taking advantage of all these other features, though, it’s a great way of seeing a lot of details at a glance.

cork board

What do you use to write and edit your stories? Are you big on features like these, or are you more a traditional ‘just-get-the-words-on-the-screen’ kind of writer? 

DIY Editing: Whose line is it, anyway?

If you want the basics of punctuation, check out these guys here:

Mr. Clements.com



A step past the basics

1) Avoid using synonyms for said/asked, unless that synonym dramatically changes the meaning of the sentence. 

2) British English uses single quotes (‘You’re a wizard, Harry!’) while American English uses double quotes: (“I can show you the world.”)

3) Change lines any time you’re drawing attention to a different character. No, seriously, read that post. Leigh Michaels has some incredible tips for paragraph breaks and dialogue.

Tags and Beats

A dialogue tag is a a label which tells the reader exactly who said what: he said, she said, I said, the borg collective said as one— etc.

  • The most common format for a dialogue tag is exactly what I wrote above: [Speaker] said/ [Speaker] asked. The name of the speaker first, followed by the manner in which the quotation is being expressed.
  • In times of old, it was common to put said at the beginning of the tag: said Billy, asked the waitress. This order still shows up sometimes, but for the most part it’s considered archaic.
  • The most effective time to use the older style is when the description of the subject gets overly long, and the verb is in danger of getting lost. For example:
    “Want fries with that?” the waitress who brought them their menus asked.
    “Want fries with that?” asked the waitress who brought them their menus.

A dialogue beat is an action that identifies the speaker.

  • The beat shares the same line as the dialogue. This is why it’s so important to switch paragraphs when a person besides the speaker is doing anything. For example:
    “What, is there something on my face?” I wiped my chin.
    He pointed at his own cheek. “Right over there.” 
  • Beats tend to be short. When they get too long, the reader can start losing track of what’s actually said.
  • In the same vein, using too many beats in one conversation can become distracting, and draw attention away from the dialogue.
  • Keep the actions important and relevant.

And sometimes, your best bet is to use nothing at all.

  • This works best when you’ve got only two characters with distinct dialogue.
  • Use it alongside beats and tags.

All used together, it looks something like this (tags will be in bold, and beats in italics):

“Could you please move?”
“It’s a possibility,” he said. “Who’s asking?”
“The person whose rib cage you’re crushing. If you could just— thank you.” I rolled over and took a breath. “I have to say, I’m a little bit disappointed.”
“Disappointed?” His eyes widened. “I’ve been doing this a long time, mouse. Nobody’s ever tried to give me a critique.”
“I’m not complaining,” I said quickly. “Not really. I appreciate your being here. I do. But the stories always make death seem so… romantic. This is… not.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“It’s just that you only die once,” I said. “I suppose I expected it to be a big to-do.”
“Then it’s a good thing you’re not dead.”

DIY Editing: Changing the filter

Here’s another biggie in the self-editing world: Filtering.

What is it?

I saw, he heard, she thought, I felt, I smelled– the list goes on. Essentially, filtering is what happens any time we’re informed that the the character is observing the world around them, rather than letting us observe right along with the character.

What’s wrong with it?

At the most basic, this is the writer informing the reader that the POV character has functioning eyes, ears, nerve endings, etc. Thank you for the info, but we already assumed as much, and having it repeatedly shoved at us can be seriously annoying.

On a technical level, it slows the pace of the story and adds unnecessary words to your word count.

Beyond that, filtering puts an unnecessary distance between the reader and the action– instead of looking through the eyes of the POV character, the POV character gets shunted into center stage and we’re reminded once again that we’re reading a book, rather than witnessing this world for ourselves.

In other words: we’re not watching a beautiful sunset, we’re watching Bill watch a beautiful sunset.

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Let’s see it in action

With: Bill could see the city in the distance.
: The city rose up in the distance.

With: Julie heard the robber’s footsteps coming closer.
Without: The robber’s footsteps moved closer.

With: She smelled sulfur whens he struck the match.
Without: She struck a match, and the sharp smell of sulfur stung her nose.

When is it a good thing?

Like being verbs, some writers will tell you never to use filtering, ever, but it does have its uses.

  • When you’re deliberately trying to distance your reader from your POV character.
  • To emphasize a disconnect between reality and what your POV character is observing– most effectively, when your POV character realizes that they’re observing something that isn’t really there.
  • If what’s being seen/heard/smelled/whatever is less important than the fact that the character is seeing/hearing/smelling it.

What can I do about it?

Like with linking verbs, the easiest way to start is with a good old-fashioned Find/Replace (Ctrl+F on the keyboard) for saw, and then another for felt, heard, watched, etc. But that can only really give you an initial count. After that point, all you can really do is go through it line by line and prune those suckers out of your prose.

Is there a common writing problem you’d like to see strung up and shot? Do you know any other good uses for filtering? Do you think I’m way off?  Tell us about it in the comments!

DIY Editing: ‘was’ and other has-beens

This is possibly the most common aspect I’ve seen editors complain about, and it’s one of the easiest to fix.

What is it?

Linking verbs. Being verbs. “Was” and “were”. These are verbs that, by themselves mean simply “this thing exists”: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, seems, etc.

A step beyond being verbs is the passive voice, in which the subject of the sentence is acted upon by the object. For the non-grammarians out there: Rather than “James hit the ball”, we have “The ball was hit by James”– which has even academic writers reaching for their trusty baseball bat. Often people will mistakenly use ‘passive voice’ as a blanket term for both these qualities. They’re related, and passive voice almost always involves a being verb, but they’re not the same thing.

What’s wrong with it?

On the surface, nothing– which is why it’s so hard to quit these words. They’re integral to academic and informative writing (like, for example, blog posts) because they’re very clear and straightforward. Problem is, these words lack ‘oomph’. Too many of them together will make prose feel bland and unexciting.

Let’s see it in action

With: She was standing on the pier.
Without: She stood on the pier.

With: He was tall.
Without: He dwarfed everyone else at the party.

With: Her eyes were green.
Without: Her green eyes swept the room.

With: The door was opened by Suzie.
Without: Suzie opened the door.

Taking out the being verb sometimes requires that we rearrange the sentence. It can be a bit of work, but typically this leaves us with stronger verbs and more vivid images.

When is it a good thing?

Some writers will tell you never to use these words, but I beg to differ. My rule of thumb is one or two linking verbs per page of manuscript, and with possibly more allowances for dialogue– because let’s face it, people use these words all the time when they speak, so eradicating them entirely is almost impossible.

Being verbs separate the reader from the action. When used carefully and sparingly, they create a sense of stillness, as opposed to the more driving urgency of more active verbs.

Even passive voice can be an effective tool when it’s used appropriately. For example:

  • When you want to obscure the person/thing acting on the object.
    The door was opened from the inside” rather than “Jim opened the door
  • When you want to to emphasize the person/thing being acted upon.
    “The cathedral was built by union laborers” rather than “Union laborers built the cathedral”
  • When the person/thing doing the acting is surprising (often the punchline of a joke).
    While crossing the street, I was struck down by a runaway tricycle

What can I do about it?

The easiest way to deal with linking verbs and passive tense is with a good old-fashioned Find/Replace (Ctrl+F on the keyboard) for was, and then another for were (or is/are, if you’re writing in the present tense). A lot of word processor programs will highlight all the instances and give you a tally of how often these are used– which is often way too much. At that point, it’s easy enough to go through them one at a time and decide whether they belong or whether those sentences would be better served by stronger verbs.


Is there a common writing problem you’d like to see strung up and shot? Do you know any other good uses for linking verbs? Do you think I’m way off?  Tell us about it in the comments!

DIY Editing

But Jennifer, you may say, isn’t this counterproductive if you’re starting an editing service?

Not in the slightest.

I’m a big proponent of editors– be they paid professionals or critique buddies, it’s essential to hand your story to somebody else before you try throwing it in the shark tank that is publishing. As writers, we’re usually too close to our work to see it for what it is, and so we need a fresh pair of eyes to find all the things we couldn’t find.

But that doesn’t mean the gargantuan task of editing isn’t entirely out of our hands.

We can’t always zap all of the tiny nitpicky details on our own, but we can try to snag as many of them as we can, so our beta editors can focus more fully on the big picture.

To that end, I’ll be giving a how-to guide on some of the most common mistakes I’ve found over the course of my editing experiences, including explanations on what they are, why the common wisdom advises against them, and reasons you might be inclined to go against that wisdom.