Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Column: Write It Right – Don’t Trip Up Your Reader by Robin Widmar

At the last Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference, I got into a casual discussion with a fellow writer about how much (or how little) the typical reader notices typographical errors. The consensus was that it really depends on the reader.

You never know who’s going to pick up your story, or how easily any given reader will be annoyed by typos, continuity errors, or factual misstatements. Some readers will use any excuse to put down a book. Others are more tolerant.

I’m one of those people who notices just about every writing or editing mishap in the books I read. Mistakes usually pull me right out of whatever I’m reading, but I generally keep reading if I’m enjoying the story. My mother (who is also my number one proofreader) reads very fast, but will find every single grammatical, spelling, or continuity mistake in a book. Every mistake.

On the other hand, I have friends of both the writer and non-writer persuasions who read the exact same books I do, but are mostly oblivious to awkward sentences, missing punctuation, or a character’s eye color changing mid-novel.

Some mistakes rest squarely on the writer’s shoulders. Others are the result of hasty, incomplete, or nonexistent copyediting. But my point is this: As a writer, you should do everything in your power to avoid tripping up your reader. We want readers to keep reading (and hopefully buying!) our work – not throwing it against the wall in frustration. This is especially important if that reader is an agent or an editor.

As a copy editor, former writing contest judge, and lifelong reader, here are some of the most common errors I’ve seen (pay attention, writing contest entrants!):

  • Creative cut-and-paste. I love being a writer in the computerized world – it beats the heck out of using quill and ink or a manual typewriter to churn out hundreds of pages of manuscript! But the magic of cut-and-paste is fraught with hazards. Double wording, missing words, and jumbled, nonsensical sentences are just a few of the results of C & P gone awry.
  • Homonyms gone bad. Words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings crop up regularly in print. Sometimes the brain “hears” one thing but the hands write something different. Examples:
    • Wrung (as in wring out a wet cloth) and rung (the rung of a ladder, or having rung a bell)
    • Right (turn right, the right thing to do) and rite (rite of passage)
    • Rein (leather strap connected to a horse’s bridle), reign (a king’s reign), and rain (that wet stuff from the sky)
  • Poor punctuation. Many writers use punctuation too much or not enough – lately there seems to be a drought of commas and an epidemic of hyperactive hyphen syndrome! When in doubt, always check your style guide of choice for advice on punctuation. And use your dictionary to verify hyphenation of words.
Always have someone else look over your work before clicking the “Send” button – especially if you’ve just finished some rewrites. If you don’t have a proofreader handy, let your writing sit for a day or two (or longer if it's a lengthy piece) and review it with fresh eyes. You want to make a good impression, so be sure your copy is as clean and error-free as possible before sending it out to the world.

About the writer: Robin Widmar works to support a horse habit and writes to follow a dream. When she’s not writing about demons, dragons, or firefighting, she discusses the rampant typographical errors threatening to take over the written world at The World Needs a Proofreader (http://worldneedsproofreader.blogspot.com/). 

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