You and Mark Twain: A Good Story Well Told

Mark Twain 
(Samuel Clemens) 1835-1910
I picked up a paperback in a friend’s office. The 300-page book had dimensions of a sheet of copy paper. The author, a man in his eighties, spent a lifetime developing and promoting tourism in a popular area and wanted to share his experiences in book form as a lasting legacy. In the introduction, he noted that family members, friends, and a professional writer read his manuscript and suggested changes. However, he thought his book was just fine with colloquialisms and homespun humor and decided against making changes.

Not so fast
His introduction and the rest of the book were
riddled with misspelled words, grammatical errors, and imprecise sentence structures. What he took for local flavor came across as lack of education and care for readers. His motivation seemed on target, but his writing lacked quality. He probably thought readers would see his accomplishments as wonderful—they were wonderful and numerous –and overlook his technical mistakes. However, by writing poorly, he drew my attention from his achievements.

You may be motivated to write your memoir or life story by several strong desires: leave a legacy, tell of exciting travels, heal wounds, share your spiritual testimony, pass along your business wisdom, or dozens of other reasons. Regardless of motivation, you should strive for two outcomes: readers view you as credible and readers enjoy your story; note the focus on readers. You achieve those outcomes by the quality of your writing. You achieve quality by proofreading, editing, and formatting your manuscript. Too many beginning authors think finishing their manuscripts renders them done and they go directly to publishing. Not a good idea.

You and Mark Twain
Mark Twain said, “I like a good story well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.” You know your story better than anyone; here is how to make it well told:
  1. Use your word processor’s spelling and grammar checker. A note of caution: A processor won’t catch every error and you may disagree with what it finds, but it is still the best place to start.
  2. Proofread your manuscript. Read every word, sentence, paragraph and page to find errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation your word processor misses. See Twelve Common Errors, by the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Consider hiring a professional proofreader. Ask your librarian or local writing club for suggestions.
  3. Edit your manuscript. Some people give editing and proofreading the same definition, but editing is the next step after proofreading. Editing is looking for ways to improve your story by adjusting length, descriptions, dialogue, character traits, actions, and other elements. Ernest Hemingway said he wrote the ending to Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times “To get the words right.” See The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Well, by Laurie Rozakis, and On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. Consider hiring a professional editor.
  4. Format your manuscript. Formatting helps organize your work. Look like you know what you are doing when submitting to an agent or publisher. Even if you plan to publish by having a quick-print shop bind a few copies for distribution to family and friends, correct formatting enhances your credibility and the reader’s enjoyment. Don’t try to get fancy with formatting. Follow generally accepted formatting guidelines of the pros in Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, by Chuck Sambuchino, and "Proper Manuscript Format," by William Shunn. Don’t be put off that Shunn’s guidelines are for a novel; they also work for nonfiction. 
  5. Join a writing club or a small critique group. Ask your librarian for contacts. Limit the critique group to three or four persons, at least one of whom is a professional writer. Share your work by email, telephone, at a restaurant or coffee shop, or in a home. Schedule meetings at least once a month to keep you writing regularly. See "Join A Critique Group to Get Your Writing Moving," by Terry Whalin, and "Choosing a Writing Critique Group," by Writer’s Digest.
Bonus tip
Subscribe to free online newsletters that provide tips on grammar and punctuation. Two excellent ones I subscribe to are Lynn Gaertner-Johnston’s Business Writing, and Jane Straus’s

What are your most difficult proofreading and editing issues? 

Please let me have it between the eyes if you find punctuation, grammar, and spelling mistakes in this post. Keep in mind some writing is a matter of style, while other writing is just plain incorrect. 

Photo: A. F. Bradley/Creative Commons

1 comment:

  1. Excellent info for all writers, Wayne. I'll share this with others.