Four pitfalls authors must watch out for

Morgan St. James             

Morgan St. James

Pitfalls can easily trip you up, but you need to recognize them to avoid them. After all, you can’t hit a target you can’t see. If you want to be farther off base than a foul ball, just keep thinking that your book will be so irresistible to an editor, publisher, agent or reviewer although there may be a few flaws they will snap it up anyway and assign their best editor. Some aspiring authors even daydream of the possibility of a bidding war because it’s theirs will be such a hot manuscript. Whoa! Time for a reality check. You may be approaching a pitfall.

As unfair as it might seem, even a tiny number of grammar, punctuation or usage mistakes often raise a brilliant red flag faster than you can say “But…but…but…”  Here are four typical pitfalls along with some easy techniques for sidestepping them. There are certainly many more, but let’s start with these.

Semicolon or comma?  For a very easy test, ask yourself if the part of the sentence set off by the comma can stand on its own. Does it have its own subject and verb? If so, use a semicolon or depending upon the pace of the scene, opt for two separate sentences. Short punchy sentences give the impression of fast-paced action. Some authors hate to use semicolons, and I’m one of them. I use semi-colons sparingly or not at all because they tend to stop the action. Although it seems like a small thing, knowing the difference results in a more polished piece.

Match subjects with verbs Matching plural verbs with plural subjects and singular verbs with singular subjects is often a real challenge. Look at some of your work through the eyes of a stranger. Are you guilty of being a “mixmaster?” Here is an easy test:

Is this right or wrong: Only one of the celebrities are accepting Carrie’s invitation to a hot party.

All you have to do is delete “of the celebrities” to see that “are” should have been “is”. Only one is accepting Carrie’s invitation to a hot party.

Wandering words The word “only” is a good word to use as an example. Some words just meander all over the place. They wander through the manuscript and pop up in places where they have no business being, when they should do sticking to the word or words they apply to like crazy glue.

Try this: I’ve only written two of the seven articles so far.

This mini faux pas shows up so often, editors are apt to skip right over it. However, just try moving the word “only” to see how it affects the meaning: I’ve written only two of the seven articles so far. Or, maybe better yet: So far I’ve written only two of the seven articles. As the word “only” moves around, the feeling of the sentence definitely changes.

“Unique” is a unique word. The way some people use this word sets my hair on fire! These days the word “unique” seems to  pop up everywhere, and it is misused to the max.

The definition of unique is and always has been one of a kind. If there were a Unique Detection Squad, the UDS (for short) would make a fortune just by issuing misusage tickets. Books, newspapers, radio, TV—nothing is safe. Those extraneous modifiers lurk like burglars waiting to grab the loot.

How often do you see descriptions like this: most unique, completely unique, absolutely unique, highly unique and this word that should mean one and only augmented by so many other modifiers? Surely you get the picture. If there is only one of this unique object or attitude, how in the world can it be anything beyond unique? Don’t be responsible for making an editor grit their teeth. Just drop the inapplicable word. Unique is “unique” and needs no superlative.

For more tips & tricks visit Morgan’s blog


Posted in Writing, Writing Tips | 5 Comments

5 Responses to Four pitfalls authors must watch out for

  1. mitch says:

    Are you saying stay away from the word only or test it for proper usage?

    Thanks for the tips.

    Mitchell L. Phillips
    Rent A Muse… My Novel on Amazon

    • It is fine to use words like “only,” “just,” and “that.” The problem is they get overused and often are totally unnecessary. Test it. If the sentence reads fine without it use your red pencil.

      • Caroline says:

        By July 2, 2012 – 10:00 amThank you for writing informative content. I’m impressed with your capability to write persuasive material. you have supplied me lots of thuikht-provogong views to consider.

      • peacnic: “In Rick Perry’s world, one man stands above them all: Mike Toomey.”Your point being that Rick Perry pays Mike Toomey too much money?

  2. Luis says:

    Hey, Morgan

    I almost took this personal… as I thought you were writing about me. Great article. Thanks.

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