There are none.
There I said it. This is what I say in the silence of my own mind whenever I smile back at a person who just told me “I can proofread your work. I’m really good at spelling and grammar.”
Oh man. Wow. Where do I start? (Perhaps I’ll start by prefacing the body of this blog post by warning you its a bit ranty. Yes! I’ll start there.)
This post might be a bit ranty. You’ve been warned.
Language has always evolved. It does this over time. Its inevitable. We change. Our technology changes. Its inevitable that our language does.
Twice in this blog, I’ve done something that wouldn’t have been done ten years ago. I wrote “Its” and I didn’t use an apostrophe. Guess what: that’s no big deal. The little word “Its” is now acceptable without the apostrophe. Its (see what I did there) part of the evolution of language.
In previous years, there would have been an apostrophe there regardless of whether it was plural or possessive.
Now, just because there are no irrefutable laws of grammar due to the evolving nature of language, doesn’t mean there aren’t any golden rules.
Consistency is one of those golden rules. If you start a manuscript using Australian English, don’t switch to American English half way through, or decide to use American spelling for some words. If you decide you do need an apostrophe in “its” then use it the whole way through your manuscript. If you decide on using the Oxford comma, use it all the way through your piece.
Consistency is one of those things that you need an editor for. Often a writer will lapse over the course of a manuscript and switch to another style. A good editor will pick this up. My weakness is quotation marks. This can be a problem if you write thought sequences and dialogue close together. I usually use single quotations and italicised text for thoughts, and double quotation marks and non-italics for dialogue. But…sometimes in the heat of creativity, I get mixed up.
Consistency with spelling, grammar, capitalisation, quotation marks and formatting make a manuscript stand out. So that’s golden rule #1 in my book.
Keeping a watch on descriptive words is another golden rule. Okay, it might not be a golden rule for everyone but it sure should be, especially in creative writing. I read one novel (which was amazing) but it had this little irritating factor: the main character was always giving a ‘sardonic’ comments/smirks/demands/etc. It was like she found a new word and went “Oh! I like this one. I’ll put it in everything.”
Another book I read featured a main character who looked like she was an Irritable Bowel Syndrome sufferer, simply because the only way she expressed emotion involved her stomach. (her stomach twanged/pinched/lurched/tightened/etc. This type of repetition in descriptive words can get a little old after a while!
There are some words that you can’t avoid repeating in a paragraph: the, there, that, and, or, the – that sort of thing. However, repeated descriptive words can be avoided. If you have described something as “unruly” once in a paragraph and are tempted to use the word again, try “unkempt” or another descriptor. It keeps the writing fresh. Thesaurus.com is a wonderful tool! You even learn stuff.
Good punctuation is absolutely a golden rule. I like to make sure I’m not overusing exclamation marks, so that when I do, they’re effective. I also like to decide whether or not to use the Oxford comma and then stick like glue to that style. Capitalisation is also a tricky thing. Decide at the beginning what you are going to cap and stick to it. This does hail back to the consistency rule, but it rated its own mention because it has to do with commas and such. If you don’t nail it on punctuation, you won’t nail it on expression.
Now, all of this sounds easy – right? Anyone can check over a big manuscript for this type of thing, right?
In fact, it isn’t all that easy. It takes a trained eye. An untrained eye will (hopefully) get caught up in the suspense of your storyline and forget to see whether you are consistent in your hyphenation, punctuation, capitalisation, descriptors, etc. Sure, the big typographical errors will be more obvious, but some won’t. For example, if you are really into a story and not reading every word individually “the” and “they” will sound the same in their heads. There is no misspelled word, so it gets through.
Just a few little flags for you! There are many more golden rules in the great and grand world of grammar. But these are the only three that would fit in a blog post on a Friday afternoon. I’ll return with part two. But for now, I’m off to celebrate another week closed and another book published!