September 23, 2014

Do Writers Really Have to Learn All That (Yucky) Grammar?

grammarBy C. S. Lakin

In a word, yes. In two words: absolutely yes.

I hear groans. I hear protests. You hated English Comp in school? Old, crotchety Mrs. Snigglegrass made you dissect sentences and name the parts of speech? You got a what as your final grade?

I feel your pain. Who ever makes grammar fun and easy? Learning grammar, to some people, is as much fun as getting a tooth pulled. Or having to memorize the multiplication tables or the capitals of all the countries in the world (remember when they never changed?). Terms like dangling modifiers, predicates, participial phrases, and subjunctive mood give some people the chills. Did you have to conjugate verbs back in junior high? Do you know the difference between the past progressive tense and the past perfect? No? Do you care? More than likely, you don’t.

Every Vocation Requires a Knowledge of Tools

But how in the world will you be a proficient handler of the English language if you don’t know anything about the tools of your trade? What would you think if you brought your ailing car to a mechanic and he didn’t have any tools in the shop? Or he had a box full of tools but hadn’t a clue how to use any of them correctly.

For some reason, many writers feel they should get to “pass go” and proceed to “the bank” without having to do the hard work of learning to write well and become a master (or mistress) at handling language. I often wonder about the logic of that.

I work on about two hundred manuscripts a year—critiquing and editing—and I’m astonished at how poorly written some are. I’m not talking about novel structure, which is difficult and tricky to learn. I’m talking about very basic grammatical issues—punctuation, spelling, sentence structure. Granted, many writers send me a rough draft to work on, so I don’t expect them to have edited it to perfection. But what I see a lot is a lack of understanding regarding so many of the basics of good writing.

A Time to Gush and a Time to Polish

Some of this is just sloppy or lazy writing due to hurrying to slap thoughts on the page, and I get that. I encourage writers to gush and let their prose flow in their first draft. But I would expect they would then follow through by rereading at some future date and cleaning up the mess. And more importantly, knowing how to.

I’m not saying every writer must have super editing chops and spend months memorizing the Chicago Manual of Style. Just as we don’t expect all doctors to memorize Gray’s Anatomy. (Should we? Do they?)

I’m afraid, though, that many writers haven’t a clue how to clean up their messy manuscripts. And even worse, many don’t really care. They think it’s their editor’s job to transform the mess into perfect prose. And we editors often do that; maybe you think I should be grateful for the job security. But, speaking for myself, I would rather work on a draft that’s been carefully edited and shows the writer not only cares about what she’s written but has a respect for the English language (or whatever language she writes in). The way some writers mutilate language makes me wonder if they have a love-hate relationship with writing.

A mechanic or building contractor will take good care of his or her tools, learning to wield them correctly, and will choose the best tool for the specific task at hand. Words are the writer’s tools. Shouldn’t writers treat words similarly? We expect that anyone wanting to become a teacher, nurse, commercial truck driver, or plumber has to hit the books and learn their vocation. So why do so many people feel that being a writer exempts from having to take the time to learn proper grammar? Who started that lie anyway?

Proficiency Leads to Competency and Confidence

One morning I asked my surgeon/author friend to describe how he prepared for each surgery. He went on to explain how he filled out a “menu” of the surgical instruments he would need, which varied depending on the type of surgery he was about to perform. He would put a check mark next to numerous scalpels and other items (which I wouldn’t know what to call) and then turn in his menu. When he entered the operating room, he’d find his requested instruments and accessories neatly lined up waiting for him. With those specific tools, he could perform his surgery efficiently, competently, and confidently.

Well, no one is going to die if I don’t have the exact grammar tools or know all the rules when I sit down to write my novel, right? (you may be arguing). True, although I’ll be daring enough to say if you are lacking a lot of those proper tools, the patient (read: your novel, story, article, or post) may die a slow (or quite fast) and painful death. Which could have an adverse effect on your career as a writer.

You want your writing to shine. You want to show the world you are a terrific writer. Well then, Physician, know thy tools. Then you can perform your writing “operations” efficiently, competently, and confidently. And let me just add this: when you have the right tools and know how to use them, it always makes a job so much easier than if you don’t.

The fun thing about being grown-ups is we can decide how, when, and what we want to learn. The challenge is to erase the bad associations we have with certain subjects we suffered through in school (such as English Comp?) and find a new joy in the learning. It may sound trite, but it truly is a matter of attitude. Make the decision to adopt a healthy attitude about learning grammar. Set aside some time each day or week to dig into books or websites that can teach you what some of those yucky things are all about. Who knows, you may even learn to love those dang(ling) participles or misplaced modifiers!


C. S. Lakin is a multi-published novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copyeditor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive. Her new book—Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage—is designed to help writers get a painless grasp on grammar. You can buy it in print here or as an ebook here. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

7 Mistakes Guest Bloggers Make

UPDATE: It seems my break from guest posts is well-timed, as Problogger is predicting that Google may start penalizing blogs that allow guest posts later in 2013. The news has been rippling through the blogosphere for several weeks now. 

At best, guest posts offer readers a different perspective and the blogger-in-chief a breather from producing blog posts. At worst, they’re robotic dribble filled with spammy links. In the past several months, I’ve gotten so many guest post pitches in the latter camp that I’ve stopped accepting outside posts while I regroup and rethink the process (next week’s guest post is a notable exception). Apologies to those of you who’ve pitched me guest posts recently, but I suspect you don’t actually read this blog, and I feel a responsibility to those who do read it to maintain a certain level of professionalism and originality.

Here’s a list of mistakes I’ve seen again and again in guest post pitches. Some of these are applicable to freelancers pitching to magazines and websites, but hopefully none of you, my dear regular readers, are committing any of these faux pas.

  1. Not following directions. I have a page on my blog that clearly outlines my guest posting process, yet someone emails me asking if I accept guest posts at least once a day. When you’re pitching a website, magazine, or blog, take a moment to click around the site and see if they have a submissions page or a writer’s guidelines page. You’ll save yourself and your editor a lot of time and frustration. Then follow the instructions to the letter. For instance, my guidelines suggest sending a specific idea and formatting your email subject in a certain way. I don’t have time for a lengthy email exchange in which I ask a series about you and your idea (and I’m guessing editors at websites and magazines don’t either), so just tell me what you want to write about and why you’re qualified to write about it. Don’t expect me to brainstorm for you when I don’t even know you or your writing.
  2. Pitching off topic. If I had a dollar for every email pitching me a guest post about life insurance/pest control/luxury travel/online degrees/penile enhancements … well, you get the idea. A magazine for dog-lovers in Boise does not want your article about how to buy cheap printer ink, just as my blog does not need guest posts on any of the aforementioned topics. Know what your target publication covers and pitch an idea that fits that audience and their needs. Occasionally I’ll get a guest post that’s kinda sorta almost a fit for my blog but it misses the mark because it keeps referring to my readers as business-owners or entrepreneurs. Well, yes, freelancers are business-owners and entrepreneurs, but those aren’t the terms I’d typically use because freelancer is more specific. What terms does your target publication use?
  3. Relying on generalities. Of the guest post submissions that actually cover freelancing, many of them fall into the trap of generality (and yes, before I cracked down on guest posts, some of them appeared on this blog and still do because I’m too nice to delete them). They rehash the same  tired service topics and listicles we’ve seen on every other freelance writing blog. And often the advice is as generic as the topics themselves. Use anecdotes and examples to illustrate your tips (for instance, “I once had a client who ___, so I ____  and the result was ____ …”) and choose colorful language to keep readers engaged.
  4. Writing like a robot. Again, read the website/blog/magazine you’re pitching, then try to match the editorial voice of that publication. I welcome guest bloggers whose voice differs from mine, but too often, they don’t even have a voice. They’ll write sentences in passive voice with lots of flabby, over-blown language like “It is generally recommended that business owners typically choose to examine their business and management strategies several times a year in order to achieve the best outcomes.” Say what? For most service pieces, it’s fine to use “you” (or the implied you) and speak directly to the reader. And don’t use 15 words when you could get your point across in five.
  5. Resisting edits. When I publish a guest post, it reflects on the guest poster and on me. I reserve the right to edit posts (perhaps adding a snappier title or smoothing some transitions), but I try to make it a collaborative process and get the contributor’s OK on revisions. Some pull a Houdini and disappear, while others demand to know, diva-style, “how dare you edit my writing?” For those who typically contribute to content mills, revisions might be a foreign concept, but it makes both of us look better. If something is unclear to me, it’s likely to unclear to some of my readers. If something reads like broken English to me, I’m probably not the only one.
  6. Following up a zillion times a day. Sorry, but when I get an email that’s not even addressed to my name, I don’t always feel obligated to respond. Sometimes that results in a flurry of increasingly frustrated follow-up emails. That energy would be so much more productive if it were channeled into researching blogs instead of blindly pitching. Also, when you contribute to someone’s blog, you don’t get to dictate when your post appears. If you write something worth publishing, and I tell you, “thanks for this! I’ll get back to you on scheduling,” it does not give you license to demand that it run that week or ask multiple times a week when it will run. Checking in once a week is plenty. In the meantime, you might research other blogs or brainstorm other guest post ideas.
  7. Disappearing once the post appears. If you’ve written a really good guest post, it’s likely my readers will have comments or questions. Stick around and engage with them. Tweet your post. Thank your host. I’ve found that so few guest bloggers do this, but it really makes a good impression when they do. Likewise, if you’re writing for a magazine, don’t go AWOL once the article appears and you cash your check.

Your turn! For those of you who accept guest posts, have you run into these issues? Are there others you’ve noticed? Do tell!

Guest Post: The Truth About Writing for SEO

By Rebecca Joyner

It’s amazing what happens when you take a descriptive term and chop it down into an acronym. Consider “search engine optimization.” We all know what search engines are. And “optimize” is a familiar word. Most people can figure out that this phrase is about optimizing something so search engines like Google can find it. But once you turn an understandable phrase into alphabet soup – S…E…O… – it suddenly becomes technical. Difficult. Scary.
Writers should not be scared of SEO. They should, however, know what it is and how to wield it for their own benefit or that of their clients. Here are some truths I’ve learned aboutSEO during several years of writing copy that helps businesses get found online:
  1. Writing for SEO starts with writing well. There are plenty of job postings out there for “SEO writers.” Companies are getting smarter about marketing their businesses through online content. That’s a good thing. However, organizations need to know that good SEO writing must first begood writing. Once readers are on your website, you better deliver something informative, entertaining, readable and actionable, or you’ve wasted your time.
  2. Knowing your keywords is similar to knowing your business. Keywords are at the core of most SEOstrategies. These are the words and phrases that prospective readers type into search engines to find you or your client (or your client’s competition). Some simple research on Google Adwords can show you which short and long tail search terms website visitors use most often. But really – if you understand the market, the target customer, and the problem that customer needs to solve – you should have a pretty good idea of your top eight to 10 keywords and phrases.
  3. Pay attention to headlines, subheads, tags and descriptions.Cheap content mills and self-appointedSEO gurus might stuff boring copy with keywords and call it a day. You can’t do that. You are a writer – a writer who happens to know a few things aboutSEO. Make sure you’ve used keywords in the places where they count most: headlines, subheads, blog post tags and meta descriptions. Because your keywords are intrinsically tied into your business and the problem you’re solving for customers, they will naturally appear in the body of your content, as well. Don’t cram them in where they don’t need to be. You’ll get pinged as spam (and you won’t feel good about yourself, either).
  4. Be nice to SEO experts (but don’t compromise your core writing principles). If your client has enlisted the help of SEO consultants, be ready for detailed instructions about the number of keywords you should use and where you should put them. Most of the time, you can heed these instructions without abandoning what you know about how to appeal to readers and get your job done well.
SEO is no panacea for writers or the clients we serve. We still must create work that is clear, compelling and creative. That requirement hasn’t changed since the days of quill pens and parchment; the words mattered most then, and they matter most now. Modern-day realities demand, however, that we know something about distribution, since the words themselves are now part of the strategy for finding readers.
Rebecca Joyner works with small businesses and companies in high-tech, financial services and other industries to write and edit press releases, articles, newsletters, website copy, blog posts, case studies, e-books, marketing collateral and more. Her work has appeared under client bylines on Mashable, Businessweek, MarketingProfs, Computerworld, Search Engine Land and many other outlets, as well as on more than a dozen corporate blogs. Follow Rebecca on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.

Interested in contributing a guest blog post of your own? Check out the guest blogger guidelines.


Guest Post: 5 Lessons on Writing from The Hunger Games

By Maureen

Did you ever notice how closely movies and popular books mirror life? Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is not only one of the most popular recent sensations, both in print and on the screen, it also serves as a wonderful model for professional writers. More specifically, did you ever feel that working as a professional writer sometimes feels a lot like you’re taking part in your own Hunger Games? If you want to win those professional challenges, you can do no worse than to look to Katniss Everdeen on how to come out a Victor.

  1.  Whether you win or lose, luck plays a part.
    From the day of the Reaping, when Katniss Everdeen realizes the least likely person in the entire District has been chosen as tribute—her 12-year-old sister—Katniss recognizes that sometimes sheer bad luck can bring disaster. Writers have to remember the same thing. You may have the most brilliant story idea out there, but if the editor just bought a similar article—you lose. Don’t let simple bad luck get you down. 
  2. The only way to win is to be prepared.
    Katniss made an astute observation about the other Districts. They put their children to work earlier than her coal mining District 12. Many of the tasks the children from other Districts learned while helping with the harvest or spearing fish with a trident or heaving axes in a forest provided practice in skills that directly contributed to their chances for surviving the Hunger Games. Writers have the same issue: It’s essential to prepare yourself for success by practicing the skills of good writing and good research. The more you practice, the better you are—and the more likely you are to survive.
  3. Having allies helps—but choose them wisely.
    In the Arena, Katniss discovered that the best way to improve her odds of survival was by the careful choice of who she allied herself with. She chose her allies with care, not based solely on their external skills, but rather based more on their similarity of approaches and goals. Writers have to do the same thing. If you’re writing with editors or publications on a different path than you, both you and they are likely to be unhappy. Don’t go there. Work for people and publications you respect.
  4. Persist. Even when things get tough.
    The first rule of survival in the Hunger Games is simple: Stay alive. Do what it takes to keep going and keep moving forward. Writers need to do the same. Even when you’re in a writing slump and nothing is selling, you have to keep going. Keep writing, keep submitting, and things will get better.
  5. Make the odds be ever in your favor.
    The motto of the Hunger Games, “May the odds be ever in your favor,” could just as easily be the motto of the professional writer, with one slight change: “Make the odds be ever in your favor.” Research your markets. Meet editorial requirements. Do quality work. Be professional. Submit promptly. None of those, by themselves, can guarantee an acceptance, but not doing them will certainly tip the odds against you. Don’t make your odds worse than they are.

Maureen is a skilled freelance writer working for a professional business writing company. When she’s not busy helping people edit and revise their writing pieces, she enjoys publishing book of her own as well as enrolling in guest blogging opportunities with

Interested in contributing a guest blog post of your own? Check out the guest blogger guidelines.

Image: andtara / Flicker