Let’s talk about a pet peeve, okay? Something that required me ravaging a tree on my property this morning. All right, I was trimming it, enthusiastically, but I needed that sort of physical activity before I could approach this like a sane man.
Whatever you’re writing, it begins with research. That research may be as simple as ordering your own thoughts and perceptions in a few simple notes or a bare bones outline, or the in-depth fact-finding required for historical works, be they fact or fiction. Once having completed that process, you gather your ideas, notes, references (what all) and sit down at a keyboard. Your fingers assume their position and you begin. Eventually, with a lot of hard work, coffee, liquor, and a good bit of scatological tension relief, you make it to the end of your endeavor, typing in “The End”.
Pat yourself on the back, especially if you’re an aspiring novelist. Far more works of fiction are started than are ever finished. But are you really done? Maybe you should run Spellcheck one more time? Go ahead, I’ll wait. Are you done now?
If I were you I’d set this magnum opus aside for a day, or a week, or maybe longer. Then get back to researching. Not on what it was that you discovered or concocted to begin your labor. No, I suggest you open to page one and start reading. But before you do, go find yourself a good dictionary – And a thesaurus – And a manual on style – And a grammar guide. Why? Because I’ve seen more times when relying on Spellcheck produced the perfectly wrong word for the completely wrong use.
As you read, if you aren’t one hundred percent sure of a word’s definition and proper usage – LOOK IT UP! Pay attention to the context around it. The precisely defined word may not be the best one for where you’ve decided to plop it down.
If you’re using a particular word repeatedly, get out a thesaurus. What are the words that mean the same or relatively same thing as the one you’re beating to death? Have you made the mistake of using a homonym or homophone? Words that are spelled or sound alike. If you’re comparing or contrasting characters or qualities, what are the proper antonyms?
Are you familiar with the concept of hot and cold words? Aspiration? Metaphor? Simile? Alliterative progression?
By now you’re probably saying, “Hell, all I want to do is write.” My answer for that is, “No, you started writing because you wanted to get published.” If you don’t pay attention to the craft and mechanics of your own language, you’ll greatly reduce the possibility of reaching that goal. I’ve sat on editorial committees for journals and periodicals. One of the fastest ways into the “Thanks but no thanks” pile was to give me the impression that you felt rewriting your submission was my job. I hate to disillusion you, when I’m bingeing through a hundred or more manuscripts of varying length in a day or so, if you give me the impression you don’t understand the complexities of your native tongue, or somehow regard me as the hired help, your acceptance rate just plummeted.
Use a dictionary, a thesaurus, Strunk and White’s, “Elements of Style”, “The Chicago Manual of Style”, and any other resource you can find. Find an authoritative reference for formatting your manuscript, your queries, your cover letters. Learn how to do it by the book, then, after more practice than you can stand, show an editor you know how to bend the rules in imaginative and scintillating ways.
For God’s sake, if you want to be a writer, behave like one!