A Feast of Grammar and Grace {Preserve Your Story ~ Day 23}

We gather around to feast on grace, to celebrate the bounty of the year or to thank Him for the way He’s helped us muscle through hard times, all things through Him who gives us strength. We squeeze tight at the table in the name of family and faith with good gifts all around, all these extras, the butter on the tray, the gravy in the little silver pitcher.

But along with it all, there is the underside of the season, the too-full bellies, the tryptophan, the kids running wild and sometimes our mouths running wild, too. Later, always, I regret the words I let loose before polishing them, clumsy moves coming through like an untrained dancer stepping on toes.

We don’t have a delete key or an edit-undo option on our mouths, but thankfully, we have them on our keyboards. Either way, whether in person or in print, don’t let your words go out into the world without a thorough polishing.

Already, we’ve talked about revision, the process of firming up the big ideas and taking out the ones that don’t do much for the story’s taste. Now that the content is better developed, it’s time to focus on the delivery.

Depending on your audience and format, you’ll have different requirements for how much attention to pay to whether or not to hyphenate a compound word, or when to use a numeral and when to spell out a number in whole. When I’m writing in the more casual environment of the blogosphere, I don’t feel the need to sift all of my words and sentences with a grammar guide next to me. I often go from intuition and feel fine about making my own decisions as long as I’m spelling correctly and being consistent in the formatting I choose. But, I also have a background in language and a good foundation in the style books from my time in college.

If you’re feeling rusty in your grammar and punctuation and formatting skills, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to skim the Chicago Manual of Style (used widely in the publishing world) or the AP Stylebook (used for more journalistic writing) and then take a few of your existing blog posts or essays or stories and run them through the sieve. Click over to this website for a  primer of blog posts comparing the two main stylebooks.

Don’t forget though, that this polishing stage is just as much about making the words more palatable as it is about getting the formatting right. Here are some ways to work on your words after revising the big ideas:

  1. Read your work aloud to listen for repetitive words or phrases, which can interfere with a smooth reading. Delete or rephrase with new words for better flow.
  2. Listen for rhythm in your paragraphs. Are many of your sentences the same length, creating a monotonous sound? If so, cut unnecessary words or turn one sentence into two to clean up the cadence.
  3. Look at the beginnings of your paragraphs and sentences. Do many of them begin with the same pronoun or proper name? Unless you’re using this as a language device in a certain segment of your piece, you should vary your start words and thereby better your document as a whole.
  4. Check for wimpy words that tell rather than show. Go easy on adverbs and passive verbs (am, is, are, was, were…) and heavier on active verbs and concrete nouns, things the reader can picture.
  5. Get rid of clichés, over-used word images and phrases. Peter Selgin of Writer’s Digest says: “The real problem with clichés is that they deprive us of genuine details, which, though less sensational, are both more convincing and more interesting.” Click here for a short list of what to watch for.
  6. Comb through your commas and apostrophes. Their absence or correct placement can change your meaning entirely. As the funny example going around on the internet points out, a comma in its correct place can mean the difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma,” as in Grandma is joining us for Thanksgiving dinner, and “Let’s eat Grandma,” as in Grandma is on the menu. Apostrophes can get you in trouble, too. Check this chart to get your apostrophes in working order.
  7. Finally, while it is fine to write conversationally in blog posts and less formal venues, sometimes our everyday language hiccups sneak their way into our writing. Be sure to check your spelling on words and phrases like should have (not should of), a lot (not alot), definitely (not definately), weird (not wierd), judgment (not judgement), mischievous (not mischievious), jewelry (not jewlery). Check the definitions on words like weather/whether, effect/affect, then/than, principle/principal, there/their/they’re, your/you’re, edition/addition, compliment/complement, and peak/peek/pique to make sure you’re using the one you intend.

The work of polishing can feel like a burden at times, but in reality our heartfelt meaning comes through more freely in the structure. Like C.S. Lewis said, “The pattern deep hidden in the dance, hidden so deep that shallow spectators cannot see it, alone gives beauty to the wild, free gestures that fill it….” Grammar and grace.

{What are your biggest hang-ups in polishing your writing? Take some time today to work through an existing piece with a grammar website, a stylebook, or a friend who knows her stuff.}

This is Day 23 of my series 31 Days ~ Preserve Your Story, linking up with The Nester’s annual 31 Days of Change.

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