Writing How-To: Can I get ranch dressing on my word salad?

Thursday, July 23, 2009
Continuing the writer how-to series, our next quickie topic: word salad.

That's probably not the best term, because there is a condition called word salad, but for the purposes of this tip it's the phrase I'll use.

Here's how you prevent this condition (and yes, I am screaming):

DO NOT RELY ON YOUR SPELLCHECK FEATURE! IN FACT, TURN OFF YOUR SPELLCHECK FEATURE!

I read a book in the past couple of weeks - yes, it was from a well-known romance publisher - where the heroine "shuttered." As in, she shook in fear.

The sad thing is, this made it through the author's self-editing process as well as an editor.

(*buzzer* Sorry, we have a nice consolation prize for you. The correct word is "shuddered.")

Even sadder, this was NOT the only instance of this kind of problem, and while the story was good, I doubt I'll buy any other books by this author or this publisher in the near future because frequent editing errors kept pulling me out of the story.

There are a lot of words that sound alike and are commonly misused/swapped. Sometimes this is accidental due to the writer typing so fast (holding up my hand) that their brain doesn't correctly signal to the fingers which version to use. Sometimes this is accidental due to a less than stellar grasp of the language and over-reliance on a spellchecker. Sometimes this is due to sheer sloppiness and failure to self-edit. It doesn't matter what the cause - letting errors like this make it through to a final, production copy is flat-out wrong.

Common offenders: it's/its, their/there/they're, two/to/too, through/threw/thru, by/buy, who's/whose, accept/except, than/then, affect/effect (that one STILL bothers me and makes me drag out a grammar handbook, so much so I'll frequently rewrite the sentence to avoid it entirely), toward (NOT towards), all right (NOT alright)

Another common offender: apostrophe-s used as a plural instead of a possessive (three dog's instead of three dogs)

So turn off your spellchecker and print out your manuscript and use that red pen well and often.

Here are some great resources for you:

http://wsuonline.weber.edu/wrh/words.htm
http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~brians/errors/index.html
http://www.noslang.com/spelling.php
http://helptutorservices.com/blog/the-32-most-commonly-misused-words-and-phrases/
http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/

(Stay tuned for our next tip: heroes speaking badly.)

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