Thursday, March 24, 2011

creating patterns for readers

I've been editing a memoir/novel for a client. Some of the writing is really brilliant and some of the story is riveting but the book itself is flawed by inconsistencies, the kind of inconsistencies that many readers find annoying. Here are some of the things to watch out for in your own writing.

1. If you choose to use italics for blocks of text, make sure you use it consistently for the same kind of sections (e.g., flashbacks, dreams, interior monologues).
2. If you choose to use both third-person and first-person narration in a book, be sure that you use them for the same kinds of text and definitely don't switch from one to the other in the middle of a section.
3. Learn to use all punctuation clearly and consistently, especially if you are using a punctuation mark in a non-traditional way.
4. Avoid the use of "you" to address the reader.
5. Both past and present narrative tenses are useful and they can be used in the same writing but again, use them consistently. For example, you want to use present narrative for all full scenes and past narrative for summary.

Remember that you are writing for a reader. Readers are always looking for patterns. They want to organize your words and ideas and story in their heads. The more consistently you use things in a clear pattern, the happier the reader will be.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Creating your own style guide

In the editing I do for businesses and organizations, there is already, most commonly, a style guide. This guide to spelling, capitalization, formatting, and certain grammar and punctuation variations is useful so that all writers and editors for the organization are using the same things. Or an organization, like the School of Nursing at OHSU, will follow the American Psychological Association's style guide, know as APA formatting. But when I edit for individual writers, we generally need to create a style guide, either for that author or for that work. Here are some things you might want to consider as a writer in creating your own guide.

1. Will you use the Oxford/serial comma (the comma before "and" in a series)? The rule now is that this piece of punctuation is optional but should be used consistently (i.e., always or never)?
2. If you're writing fiction, will you include colons and semi-colons? As these are considered formal marks of punctuation, they occur rarely in fiction although on occasion in literary fiction. How formal is the writing you're doing?
3. What is your rule for the use of a comma before the main subject and verb of a sentence? Current usage dictates the use of a comma if the introductory material is a clause (contains a subject and verb) or if the introductory phrase has more than four words (When he left, she was bewildered OR A week ago Friday, he would never have thought that). But there's lots of leeway on this in fiction, as long as you're consistent. What usage of punctuation might make your writing the most reader-friendly?
4. Most of us are good at capitalizing proper nouns and titles. Are there any special words that you want to capitalize? If so, it would be good to have a list.
5. Be sure you create a list of character names, town names, etc., so you can keep the spellings straight.
6. Will you include any character's thoughts? Italics is the most common formatting for such a style.
7. Will you use quotation marks to indicate characters' speech or not? Quote marks is most common but other styles are possible.

While none of these issues need to be decided before you begin writing, keeping track of these decisions will help you in revising and self-editing.