I often work with people who claim to be terrible writers, but I must admit that a truly talentless writer is a rare find. Most people have great ideas and a competent grasp of the English language, and just need to master a few rules.
A truth I’ve come to accept is that a huge part of being good at spelling and grammar is knowing what you don’t know. Confession: I don’t know all the rules. I don’t know how to spell all the words. What I do know is what I don’t know. In short: I know when I need to look something up. In addition to that, there are a handful of very basic things that always make me stop and say, “Wait, is that right?”
I’ll list a bunch of those now, and discuss them in more detail in future posts.
These little punks are at the root of many common grammar mix-ups, including they’re/there/their, you’re/your, it’s/its, and plurals/possessives. Whenever I see an apostrophe, I double check it belongs there.
Words with Twins
Homophones (different words that sound the same or very similar) are the downfall of many writers. There are way too many to mention here, but my eyes are trained to look out for them at this point, because it is far too easy to slide right past them and make a mistake. I know how to choose the correct homophone in most cases, but there are some that still make me second guess myself, and I know to look them up to make sure.
The rules for when to hyphenate phrases are so tricky that I rarely bother even trying to memorize them; I just look them up. When I see a hyphen, I know I should double-check that it belongs there. When I see a compound modifier (such as “a well-mannered child”) I make sure I am following the tricky rule of hyphenating it when it is followed by the noun it is modifying (“well-mannered” modifies “child”), and not hyphenating it when it stands alone: “the child was well mannered.”
Anything Underlined by My Computer
While spellcheck, grammar check, and all the various other checks my computer offers are far from perfect, if I see something underlined red, blue, or green, I am going to stop and make sure I’ve got it right. If it’s a word that is easy to misspell but not already in my computer’s dictionary, I will take the time to right-click the word and add it. That way my computer can alert me if I’ve messed it up, but will leave me in peace if I’ve gotten it right.
Constant Vigilance, and Lots of Googling
You’ll notice that a lot of the advice here is of the “look it up” variety. It’s impossible to look up every single thing, of course, which is why I say that knowing what you don’t know is the first key to improving your spelling and grammar. If you find yourself getting constantly bogged down having to look things up, or even just take the time to double-check yourself for rules you know well, just highlight anything that seems suspect, keep going with your writing, and then go back through at the end to check any questionable areas.
And of course, if you love to write, but hate the nitpicky editing part, that’s what a professional editor is for! There’s no shame in outsourcing the part of the job you don’t enjoy. Some persnickety soul like me will be thrilled with the opportunity to beautify your writing.