I always suspected I was a little weird about words (strange, odd, peculiar, uncanny—yes, I prefer uncanny). Recently, I taught a seminar for Delve Online which proved I was absolutely correct.
As a kid I was a voracious reader, but I was also a ruthless one. If I caught a typo in a book, it was like a betrayal. How could these professional writers make such a blatant mistake??
To which the sane response would be: egads, go outside and play with some others kids, would you?? My response: pull out a piece of paper and write a letter to the writer to let him know the error of his ways.
Like I said, I’m uncanny. Or maybe just weird. It took many years and an infinite number of typo sightings for me to realize that two things were happening: one, humans were at work and humans make mistakes (lord knows with all the typos I’ve released into the world, even typo fascists aren’t perfect). And two, I had a unique eye.
They just jump out at me, and every time, I have to think about what the correct grammar or punctuation or spelling would be. Have to. So OCD.
At this Delve discussion of editing last weekend, I joined Tiffany Yates Martin, another self-proclaimed Word Nerd and professional editor for a raucous good time discussing typos. Okay, our attendees began slipping out the door one at a time, no doubt in fear of their safety, but Tiffany and I had a blast. You can’t put two Word Nerds together without us gleefully and loudly sharing favorite examples of our obsession.
Hers: “His brothers John and Jim went into town.” Harmless enough, right? But without commas, she doesn’t know if it’s “his brothers, John, and Jim,” ergo a whole gang of folks, like, at least four, or was it just two people? Ergo, John and Jim are the brothers.
My example was the use of the onomatopoeia “klunng” in a fight sequence. When I first read it I stopped cold and thought – why two n’s? The answer seemed obvious: three n’s would make the reading humorous (klunnng), and this was a serious scene. Meanwhile, one n doesn’t provide that ominous resonance to which the writer aspired.
Yes, this was the content of our delightful session. Don’t judge.
I say thank goodness for people like Tiffany and me and Conan the Grammarian.
We obsess so you don’t have to.
Like many with this crazy fixation, I’ve turned it into a service I provide for other writers. Part of my Story Consultant business includes copy editing. This goes beyond just fixing commas; I have the idea that if writers can understand their own grammar tics, they can overcome them and thus improve their writing on a line-by-line basis.
For example, writers have a tendency to start every sentence the same way. Or suddenly we’ll go on a thirty page jag of ellipses…or em-dashes—
Or, we’ll use the same phrase, one that’s cliché, one that’s sure to turn off the readers (they smiled at each other; he gazed at her; he turned away—ugh!).
I love that stuff. Not just because they just sort of leap out at me (again, in other people’s writing; I hire an editor for my own), or that it soothes my OCD. I love it because once a writer starts tuning herself in to those grammar tics, she’s plugging into the heart of writing. No, the story won’t be better for having excised every double space between sentences, but it will be better told for it.
And you won’t risk having some pesky twelve-year-old writing to let you know that on page 28, you mixed tenses, and on page 74, “letters” was plural when it should have been singular…
Trai Cartwright, MFA, is a 20-year entertainment industry veteran and creative writing specialist. While in Los Angeles, she was a development executive for HBO, Paramount Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. A new Denver arrival, Trai currently teaches creative writing, film studies and screenwriting for Colorado universities, MFA residencies, writers groups, conferences, and one-on-one as an editor for fiction and screenplays. Learn more about Trai and her work at her website.