Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Spell-check: Use at own Risk.

Editors love to receive a clean manuscript. By clean I mean without spelling mistakes. It is not so difficult these days with computers. Every word processor has a program that checks for misspelled words and even wrong grammar. But Spell-check is not infallible. Any writer relying solely on Spell-check will never have a clean manuscript. If you are using the wrong word and it is spelled correctly, Spell-check will not catch it. And never rely on the suggested word or the suggested ‘correct’ grammar. Never! Take the following sentence: “I did not do that,” Martinez defended himself. Spell-check will suggest you use ‘him’ instead of ‘himself’. Those are two different actions. Use ‘him’ and it means Martinez defended someone else. Spell-check does not like ‘himself’, ‘herself’, ‘myself’. It will suggest ‘me’ instead of ‘myself’. Not all the time, but most of the time. The only way to catch wrong words is by reading the manuscript a few times, but even that is not a sure way to find all the mistakes. Our minds have a way to fill in empty spaces, missing letters, and even missing words. It is always a good idea to put a manuscript away for a while and read it again after maybe a couple of weeks, or even a month. The waiting period is hard. We all want to see our ‘baby’ published as soon as possible, but it is time well spent. Your editor will thank you for it.

Once I’ve finished my novel I go through it with Spell-check to catch the most obvious mistakes, then I read for inconsistencies and the flow of the story. I’m looking for awkward sentences, and things like the description of the characters. It won’t do to have one character have blond hair and blue eyes in the beginning and suddenly she has dark hair and brown or green eyes. (Unless she has her hair colored and wears contact lenses). Hopefully, I will also find missing words, wrong words, the use of the correct name for every character and things like that. If I don’t have a title yet for my novel, this is also the time to look for phrases in the story that may suggest a title.

Once I’m satisfied with everything, I put the novel aside and start a new story. After a couple of weeks or so, I will read the manuscript again. Then I save it in Rich Text and off it goes to the editor with a little prayer.

Writers are artisans. Artisans know how to use their tools. Writers don’t use hammers, nails, and chisels to build something. Words are a writer’s tools and it is important to learn to use them correctly, to learn how to build proper sentences. Writers are wordsmiths who use words to take their readers into the world of the imagination. A story can be told with simple words and simple sentences or with flowery words and elaborate sentences. It doesn’t matter as long as they keep the reader spellbound.

Like any craft, good writing needs to be learned. It is an ongoing process. The more we write the better we get…if we learn from our mistakes. But we do need to know the basics of writing; we need to know how to build a sentence, how to spell, and when to use the right words, if we want to become more skillful.

It is surprising how many people don’t know the proper use of ‘me’ and ‘I’. This article is too short to go into details, but the simple rule is: When you are doing it, it is ‘I’. When it is done to you, it is ‘me’.

Wrong: Mr. Brown invited my wife and I for supper.

Correct: Mr. Brown invited my wife and me for supper.

Wrong: My wife and me are going out for supper.

Correct: My wife and I are going out for supper.

A hint: When you are the object it is ‘I’. When you are the subject, it is ‘me’.

Another concept many people struggle with is ‘Lie and Lay’.

‘To lie’ means to recline, to rest, to sleep (or to be dead).

‘To lay’ means to put something down. ‘Lay’ is also the past tense of ‘lie’, which makes things a bit more complex.

Wrong: He is laying in bed. (Present tense). Ask yourself: What is he laying? I’ve seen this sentence many times.

Correct: He is lying in bed. Or ‘He lies in bed’. (Present tense)*

Wrong: He laid in bed. (Past tense)

Correct: He lay in bed. (Past tense)

*A note here: The synonym in Spell-check will tell you ‘lying’ means to be ‘deceitful’ etc. No mention of ‘reclining’ except in Related Words: ‘lie’. It gets complicated. The sentence could mean he is telling lies in bed. That is one of the reasons people get confused. As I said before, do not rely on Spell-check too much.

Wrong: A dead bird laid in the sand.  (Past tense) (Ask: What did it lay? An egg? The bird is dead; it would be a miracle if it laid an egg.

Correct: A dead bird lay in the sand. (Past tense)

To come back to Spell-check. The following is a sentence I wrote in one of my stories:

His neck tingled, the way it always did when danger lay waiting nearby.

‘Lay’ was flagged. Spell-check suggested using ‘laid’, which is of course wrong. (‘Danger’ laid what nearby?  An egg? It would be correct if Danger were the name of a bird)

Perhaps I should have written: His neck tingled, the way it always did when danger lay nearby…waiting. It may have been an improved sentence. This is also an example how the placements of words can change the mood of a sentence.

To make matters even more complicated, to lie also means to tell untruths. Past tense of ‘lie’ is ‘lied’. If we get the spelling of the word wrong it will really create havoc. By the way, Spell-check flagged ‘lied’ as I wrote this and suggested to use ‘laid’.

There are other words to watch out for: desert versus dessert. I’ve used and mixed them up. It  is quite easy to do. (You can eat dessert but you can’t eat the desert. Of course, you can eat dessert in the desert). Playing with words like that can be great fun; it can also get quite frustrating.

Most writers have problems with commas. I have to admit I am one of them. Commas were created to announce a pause between sentences. A pause stops people from carrying on and on without taking a breath. A good thing, otherwise some of us may never get a word in when we are having a conversation with someone who loves to talk. Even in writing we need to pause once in awhile to give the reader a break.

Here is an example of a sentence without commas: ‘Before the white man came to North America native tribes roamed the prairies forests and mountains hunting buffalo and bison living in tents made from buffalo hides.’

Does this mean the buffalo and bison lived in tents? The sentence needs more than one comma, but the most important one is after bison.

This is how it should read with commas: Before the white man came to North America, native tribes roamed the prairies, forests, and mountains, hunting buffalo and bison, living in tents made from buffalo hides.

Spell-check suggested putting a comma after buffalo but I decided not to. Too many commas will make the sentence look choppy. Of course, one could also put a period behind ‘bison’ and create a new sentence, starting with ‘They lived in tents…’

A rule of thumb with commas: If you’re not sure it is best to leave it out.

As a writer we do have a certain freedom how we write dialog. We don’t necessarily have to follow the rules. In real life people don’t talk the correct way, which means the characters in our stories will not always be grammatically correct when they speak. You are free to write: Johnny looked at Mr. Brown and said, “Gee! Thanks neighbor. Me and the Missis will take you up on that there invite. Us should be at your place at around eightish or so. I is lookin’ forward to checkin’ out that big pond of yours me and my buddies heard so much about.”

Not correct and probably overdone a bit but perfectly okay in a story. Just make certain Johnny talks like that throughout the story, unless he takes night classes and studies the English language to become a writer.

Obviously, if you write a sentence like that Spell-check will flag it and suggest the properly spelled words and grammar. Don’t listen to it.

Thank you for letting me share with you some of the problems I’ve encountered in my journey to become a better writer. I hope I’ve helped you with some of yours.

I spend my time spinning tales about alien planets and the people who populate them, but I also write contemporary thrillers. If you are interested in finding out more about me, I invite you to visit me on my blog ‘Herbert’s Place’ or my website ‘Herbert’s World’.

Herbert Grosshans

Science Fiction with a dash of Erotica


Jenny Twist said...

Herbert, that was a totally brilliant article. How refreshing to read an author who actually understands English grammar.
Well done!
Jenny Twist

Mysti said...

Lovely article! I am a stickler when it comes to editing, though I understand that no story is immune to typos.

I still laugh about one of the final edits on "A Ranger's Tale"--Jayden wanted to tear someone apart with his BEAR hands :) Spell-checker certainly didn't help with that one.

I've found that reading out loud helps immensely. Your ears will hear what your eyes miss. And having some critique partners is invaluable. Fresh eyes will do wonders for your manuscript.

Loving learning more about my fellow Melange authors, Mila! Keep it up!


hotcha12 said...


Mila Ramos said...

Do you know which grammar point in editing always confused me? The semi-colon. What is that?? Its almost like its taunting me to use but I have no idea when to use it!

Mila Ramos said...


You should see some of the upcoming posts, they are awesome!!! I am honestly so honored by our group!!!

I have to do stuff like this more often. Melange authors are just amazing!!!

Mysti said...

I agree, and in the spirit of the semi-colon, I present: