Sunday, July 20, 2014

Before or After?

I recently applied for work as an editor at a company and they gave me a grammar test that I had to pass before I could get hired.  When I looked at the questions, though, I knew why they were in need of an editor.  This was the question (and the answer choices):

Should the punctuation go inside or outside the quotations?
a. Inside       b. Outside

Well, this is a hell of a loaded question.  After all, there is no simple rule for anything in English grammar.  When it comes to quotations and punctuation, the same concept applies.  The gist of the rules is that if the quotation is an actual quotation - as in, somebody said something and now you're repeating it - or if the statement within the quotations is an exclamation or question, then the punctuation would go on the inside.  Otherwise, it goes on the outside.  For example:

You call yourself a "martyr?"  would be incorrect, because this is not a quotation of someone asking, simply, "martyr?".

The correct way to annotate this is:

You call yourself a "martyr"?

Now, if the sentence read:

The king addressed his subject, and asked, "You call yourself a martyr?"

In this case, the quote is an actual question, so the question mark goes inside the quotes.  But, if it read like this:

Can you believe he told me, "And you call yourself a martyr"?

In this case, the question mark goes outside the quotation marks because the quote inside them is not a question, while the statement outside them is.

Ok, so what fun is English without an exception or two?  In this case I'll give you one:

Can you believe he asked me, "You call yourself a martyr"?


Can you believe he asked me, "You call yourself a martyr?"

in this case, both of these are correct, because both the quote and the statement are questions, and the writer can use his discretion on which to use.

The issue is different when it comes to dialog, however, and the punctuation should go inside the quotations, such as in the following examples:

"I know you," he said.

"I do not care!" I shouted.

"What ever do you mean?" he asked.

Hopefully this boils the issue down so that if you ever doubted which way was correct, or if you were ever faced with a grammar test when applying for work as an editor, you could impress everyone and land that job.

As always, happy writing!


Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Most Important Tool For Writers

There is one tool that writers must employ to be successful.  I am not going to waste any time embellishing this: the single most important tool for any writer is ORGANIZATION.  Whether you're writing a book, novel, story, poem, article, sending agent queries or creating a blog post, there is nothing more important than getting organized.  This doesn't just mean having a tidy desk; rather, it includes everything from timing, scheduling, planning, and outlining.

If you do an online search to find your favorite writer's process, you will most likely find that he or she sets a set amount of time daily, weekly, or monthly to writing.  This means that you will have no disruptions during this time.  For me, I lock myself into my office and my family knows not to disturb me during this time - this is work.  I also leave my cellphone outside of my office so that I will not be disturbed.  Trust me, this can be difficult at first, but it will pay off in the end.

But it is not enough to have time and space set aside; planning and outlining is also key.  Without a plan, if you do stream of consciousness-type writing and plan to publish whatever comes out on that page, you run the risk of creating inconsistencies in your work.  Of course, stream of consciousness writing has its place, but to me it is in the warm-up or practice stage of writing.  It's like what doodling is to an artist.  Sure, you may get some great ideas out of this, but they will be raw ideas that need refining.  An outline will help your writing flow better, and it will help prevent holes in your story, which is incredibly important.

Keeping careful records of each character in each story (use character sheets - I have some available that you can use if you email me), each setting, location, and a graphic timeline of events and parallel events in your story.  This is important even when writing nonfiction or memoir, because inconsistencies happen even in those mediums.  And if you're into writing poetry and you haven't realized the importance of planning and outlining yet, then you need to get on it asap.

Additionally, it is very important to keep careful records when querying agents.  Because each agent has his own taste in literature and each work is different, it is vital to keep a separate list of potential agents for each work.  Also, you must keep track of which agents you've queried and when, and based on the information on their website, when would be a good time to follow up on your query.  Keeping a database (I use an Excel spreadsheet that I can email to you if you contact me at will prevent querying the same agent twice with the same work and from contacting a queried agent too soon.

Being organized will not only make you a better and more efficient writer, it will keep your writing tight.  The important thing to remember here is that, as the old adage goes, "if you fail to plan, you plan to fail."