Friday, March 9, 2012

Guest Publisher and Author Nell DuVall on the Importance of the Basics in Writing

What makes a writer? Ideas help, but knowing how to express them and to enthrall readers matters. Integral to that is learning how to write and develop a good story that holds the reader's interest. To communicate we need words, the right words used correctly in the right place. Spelling, sentence structure, grammar, and proper punctuation are necessary. The author's obligation is to provide the best version of their material in the cleanest form possible.

 Competition for agents and editors is fierce. More authors than ever before are submitting material. Wasting their time with an unreadable manuscript will place you on their DO NOT READ lists. Once authors have a reputation for sloppy writing, they risk losing the opportunity to submit to that agent or editor again.

 Agents and editors want a rousing story told in a unique voice, but will never find it if a manuscript is loaded with errors. Publishers in particular want material ready to print. Most publishers expect the manuscript to be clean and free of errors. Copyeditors are an increasingly rare breed. Good ones command premium salaries.

 Here's a quote from Etopia Press's Executive Editor Annie Melton.

"Self-editing skills. This is a different skill set entirely. Self-editing requires you to put aside your ego and take a good, hard, objective look at your story under harsh lighting conditions. Read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by King and Browne. Do the exercises and don’t make excuses for why the rules don’t apply to your particular story. They do. Even if you’re already published, your writing can always be tighter. Stronger. It’s amazing that I still reject stories over and over for the stuff in this one writing reference alone."

 So, what's an aspiring author to do? Read, listen, and learn. What are agents and editors buying? Study the published stories like the ones you want to write. What draws you into the story and keeps you reading? Do agents or editors offer any guidelines or style manuals? If so, use them.

 Most people learn the rudiments of English grammar in school. However, less emphasis is placed on the mechanics of language than on free expression. If authors are lacking in any of the basics, they should remedy their lacks. Additional classes, books, style guides, and critique groups can help, but first make use of the tools available.

 Wordprocessors offer spell checkers and grammar and style advice. Use the tools, but also be aware of their limitations. Words spelled correctly but used improperly will remain unless the author reads and corrects them. The tools suit most, but they do not always work well on fiction.

 Hiring editorial services is possible, but costly. One useful means is to read a piece aloud and see if anything doesn't sound right. If it sounds off, chances are it is.

 Punctuation is a difficult area for most writers. Plenty of punctuation books and style manuals are available. Use them. Misplacing punctuation can change the entire meaning of a sentence or an entire piece. The following example from Lynne Truss' Eats Shoots & Leaves, provides examples. One such shows how punctuation changes the meaning of 'a woman without her man is nothing.'

A woman, without her man, is nothing.

A woman: without her, a man is nothing

 Another source of help is a good critique group, provided you make your piece as clean as you can. Critique groups, whether formal or informal are formed to help authors refine their material to the publishable level. However, with error-filled manuscripts, it is difficult to grasp the author's intent or to focus on a poorly written submission. The cleaner a manuscript, the more likely the author is to get useful feedback. Many critique groups are comprised of other authors who may not have strong editing skills. Good ones are invaluable. Too, critiquing others also makes the writers more aware of any similar faults in their own material.

Good writing takes effort. It doesn't just happen. Learning the craft of writing will make material publishable and readers happy.

Nell DuVall at a booksigning
World traveler Nell DuVall has visited all the continents except South American and Antarctica. She participated in marine surveys and archeological expeditions in Scotland, Ireland, the Channel Islands, and Turkey. Train to Yesterday was her first published novel. This year three more will published: When Lilacs Bloom, another time travel romance, and Beyond the Rim of Light, science fiction, in May, and Selvage, a murder mystery in August. She has a book of short stories and appears in two anthologies. She also regularly reviews speculative fiction for and mysteries for under Mel Jacob. Her nonfiction Domestic Technology provided a chronology of household technology. A member of the Internet Writing Workshop, she administer the Lovestory list. She also founded a small POD for illustrated children's, Sprite Press (


  1. Good post, Nell. Another thing about punctuation is that every editor has their own 'take' on it. I've had my manscript edited by three different editors for the same publisher and the second and third times, I just felt it wasn't my punctuation they were editing any more :-) rofl.
    That said, I'll roll with whatever it takes to get the best out of my story :-)

  2. Deb, Thank you so much for having Nel Duvall share this informative and helpful blog post. It's my pleasure to tout your blog, and also Nel Duvall, on Montana Scribbler, at

    Mona Leeson Vanek