Sparked by Words

G is for Gimme Something Good

I’m bartering commas, capital letters, and quotation marks – what’ll you give me in return? A better written story will do. Because if your name isn’t e.e. cummings, whose poetry famously forgot capital letters (and apparently, that ain’t even necessarily so,) or Michael Ondaatje, who eschews quotation marks round and about dialogue, or Alice Walker, whose The Color Purple revealed Celie’s emerging brilliance via her increasing grasp of written language, you’d better conform to common literary form. The road most traveled to publication is best paved with smooth asphalt and best lit with ordinary street lamps. In writing, we call these things everyday spelling, grammar, punctuation, and writing mechanics. I’m just saying: if a reader can’t find his way among the obstacle course of your creative constructions, maybe he’ll read something else. You know what they say then: “Oh darn.”

A good book demands the reader’s attention, and in a profession where the new writer is at the very low end of every totem pole, you better be careful to avoid the unemployment line. A writer assumes the reader is intelligent and will interact with the characters and try to outfox the plot. Part of the fun of reading is determining the story’s end before the writer declares the end of the story. It’s a kind of flirting between writer and reader. You need to understand this delicate affair. The reader has many suitors and if you want to be on the front porch with your diamond ring, your newly minted book, don’t make the reader close the door in your face before seeing how much sparkles on the band.

Personally I get frustrated enough to scrape my nails down the page when I have to spend my hard saved time counting backwards in a conversation to determine who spoke last in a long dialogue entry, who speaks next, and where the conversation reverts to narrative because the writer was just too lazy to tack quotation marks around the speaking parts between Main Character and Somebody Else. Just how much computer ink does anyone save by holding back on those flitting moth marks? I’ll post a few of them here: “ ”  “ ”  “ ” Take ‘em, they’re awfully cute, and they’re free. And while we’re at it, please remember that each new speaker gets his or her very own new paragraph, complete with indentation on the first line. Nobody should ever have to share a paragraph. Isn’t that the coolest thing ever?

And what’s going on with the disaffection so many writers express with commas? The rules are simple and few. After identifying labels but just before a proper name, put a comma, so we know you’re writing about Sam’s Uncle, John, his mama’s favorite brother, and not Sam’s Uncle John, a suspiciously named toilet. Between ideas of similar but different qualities, pop a comma so we readers understand what you intend.  Hervy shampooed the baby bats, sewed closed the toes of his socks, painted his belly button blue, and ran through the multiplication tables backwards to stay at the top of his game. Remove all those commas, and you’ll wonder if it’s Hervy who’s bat crazy or you. Between lists of like items, place a comma so we know that you are writing about a bunch of fruit, say, pineapple, dragon fruit, lichee nut, not a nutcase with a very long and fragrant title of pineapple dragon fruit lichee nut. I’ve often tried to sell commas to a few writer friends who don’t seem to be on friendly terms with the sexy little punctuation curves, but they resist. They shouldn’t, and neither should you.

Keep in mind that all spelling errors are yours to own, Spellcheck aside. Spelling correctly is not a sign of intelligence, and spelling poorly doesn’t mean a writer is stupid, but there is no excuse for expecting the reader to figure it out for you. Then you may claim credit for sound editing rather than being a doofus in that department. (Did you see how cleverly I included then and than in the previous sentence? And guess what, folks, I used each word correctly!) Spelling errors are irritating not only for the obvious, that the writer hasn’t an articulate grasp of words in his own language, but can lead a reader to the wrong conclusion. For instance, if it is written, “Your angle is looking out for you,” it doesn’t mean the same as, “Your angel is looking out for you.” In one sentence, a pointy appendage is trying to poke you in the eye. In the other, a spiritual essence has your best interests at hand. While we’re at it, take the class on you’re and your – one stands in for two words, you are. The other implies ownership of the item following, such as your boots. Or anything else you own.

Assign capital letters correctly. English, bless its little multi-foundational heart, has both upper and lower case. No matter how much you may dislike the boy in second grade who stole your chocolate milk, if you’re going to use his name in your book, his name must be capitalized. That’s right, Barry Dalrymple is correct and barry dalrymple is not, no matter how much you may loathe the little thief. (He probably has lactose intolerance by now, divine justice at last.) By contrast, do not capitalize every Word that you think is so Extremely important and Wonderful. That silliness smacks of 12-year-old girl in love with you-know-who Bieber. Capital letters have an honored place in our society but they can’t add star power to infantile affections.

Finally, figure out write how to phrase a paragraph correctly ordered in words of significance most importantly to make sense of some. Who knows what I meant in that mess of disorderly conducted words? If I can’t put a sentence together to save my life, I can’t count on you to save mine either. Yeah, like that.

I offer you a barter’s market of correctly spelled words, a variety of punctuation marks, a hodgepodge of grammar rules, an alphabet of useful letters in two cases, and a strong suggestion that you get on the Stories Correctly Written bandwagon. Paypal isn’t necessary because the price is lower than what they will accept and higher than what should be paid. Write the very best that you can, but let your reader concentrate on the content of your story and not the sloppy ink of your untamed jets. Check, check, check, and then have someone else check, check, check on your behalf. Your readers will thank you. Heck, they’ll stick around and read your entire story. Yippee!

Comments on: "G is for Gimme Something Good" (5)

  1. First off I would like to say awesome blog! I had
    a quick question in which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to writing.
    I’ve had a tough time clearing my mind in getting my
    ideas out there. I do take pleasure in writing however it
    just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes tend to be lost simply
    just trying to figure out how to begin. Any
    ideas or hints? Kudos!


  2. I am usually a stickler for correct spelling, grammar and construction when I write. Recently I wrote a piece that included longer discourse than usual, and in this medium I felt I should break up the dialogue of one speaker into more than one paragraph. This gave greater visual appeal, yet I hesitated to clutter the dialogue with extra quotation marks and explanatory phrases (she said, etc.). I posted in a bit of a rush for the weekly challenge, yet since then have wondered how I should have puncuated the dialogue. If you get a chance to critique for me, I would love that. If not, I understand. Here’s the link:


  3. I find as I get older, I miss more. The errors don’t jump off the page (because I don’t see as well). Spelling more often seems confusing (um, how do you spell ‘conceive’–i before e…?)

    I need a better grammar program.


    • Teaching can also be problematic to spelling correctly. Read enough children’s papers with words spelled wrong and even the words that are spelled right get you confused. Still, the dictionary is just a click away. We should all use it more.


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