Have a Clue

Hey Folks,


This morning (as I write this) I read a new post on a site I often reference. I was stunned, and not in a good way. I was reminded again of the preacher in the film “Oh God.” The problem was, the preacher was a hypocrite.

God (played by George Burns) said, “The guy ought to be selling Earth shoes.”

That sums up my philosophy about entirely too many so-called writing instructors.

I won’t reference the site today. I don’t want to advertise it or the author who wrote the article. Suffice it to say, other than the major faux pas I list below as an example, the article is rife with inaccuracies and flat-out wrong information.

If you know me at all, you know my number one irritant is people who go about teaching things of which they are ignorant. When I come across an example of this, I actually lose sleep. How much sleep I lose depends on how heavily the offense registers on my That’s Some Seriously Wrong Crap scale.

Why does this bother me so much?

Because I’m a writer and an editor and a writing instructor who DOES know what I’m talking about. If I don’t know something, I don’t teach it, period. And I’m conscientious about the reader (your reader) and the reading experience. They and you deserve no less from a writing instructor.

Now, to be clear, not knowing something about the language doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write. We’re all learning via the process of writing.

But it does mean, in spades, you should go to your doctor and have your mouth sewn shut rather than hold forth on a topic you don’t know intimately to other writers.

And as a writer who’s striving to improve your craft, when you hear something that doesn’t strike you as factual, you should question it. No matter the source. Yes, even me. I’ll gladly field your questions.

The most memorable example of writers succumbing to bogus information arose while I was teaching a very basic writing seminar awhile back on the use and application of punctuation, including quotation marks.

One class member asked why I found it necessary to put quotation marks around dialogue.

I said, “Because those two little ink tics before dialogue indicates to the reader that what she’s about to read is spoken aloud. And the two afterward mean the character stopped speaking.”

The student said, “But Cormac McCarthy doesn’t do it that way, so why should we?”

Seriously? In ONE of Cormac McCarthy’s books he tried that. In millions or even billions of books, writers successfully used quotation marks around dialogue, yet she’d picked as an example of what to do the one book that didn’t.

I gave up. I shrugged and said, “You’re the writer. Do it however you like.”

I wish I’d said, “What was the book about? Can you give me a synopsis?” Because I’d bet anything she couldn’t. What she remembered wasn’t the story, but the fact that the author hadn’t used quotation marks.

I’ve also heard repeatedly, “But my writing instructor at Blah Blah Academy said….” I could give you examples, but the list is practically endless. Maybe I’ll write a nonfiction book about it.

At any rate, the “writing instructor” was wrong. And I had to clean up the mess, and then defend myself for doing so.

This morning I ran across an example that was equally basic and equally egregious.

The professional-writer-turned-wannabe-instructor put forth this group of words and called it a run-on sentence:

“Why does it have to be a fire crime, I hate fire crimes, Cam must remember that, he should have told me.”

If you believe this group of words is a run-on sentence, Don’t Tell Others. You’re only showing your ignorance.

It isn’t, by the way. It’s a series of comma splices.

Neither is a run-on sentence a really long sentence, even if it’s so long that it’s difficult to comprehend.

A run-on sentence is any two or more independent clauses joined by nothing. In other words, they “run on” from one sentence to the next. No periods. No comma followed by a coordinating conjunction. No semicolon.

For the example to be a run-on sentence it would have to look like this:

“Why does it have to be a fire crime I hate fire crimes Cam must remember that he should have told me.”

Now THAT is a run-on sentence.

A comma splice is the same thing with one important difference, hence the name. A comma splice is any two or more independent clauses that are joined only with commas.

Again, a period (or semicolon, but those aren’t used much in fiction) in place of the comma in a comma splice would solve the problem. Or inserting the appropriate coordinating conjunction after the comma would correct it.

(The acronym FANBOYS is a convenient way to remember the coordinating conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.)

So if you fix the example, it might look like this:

“Why does it have to be a fire crime? I hate fire crimes. Cam must remember that, so he should have told me.”

I’m certain some of you are rolling your eyes, and I don’t blame you. This stuff is basic. I understand that. But not everybody was in class that day, and of those who were, not everybody got it.

And to be sure you understand, as you’re writing, you should NOT be thinking “Oh gosh, did I just write a comma splice?”

This is the stuff that most of us learned at some point in school. From there it seeped into your subconscious, and it comes out automatically as you write. You know, like capitalizing the first word of a sentence or enclosing dialogue in quotation marks or putting a period at the end of a sentence.

So it isn’t necessary to allow your conscious mind into the writing process by “watching” for comma splices and run-on sentences as you write.

But if you’re one of the unfortunates who missed class that day, well, that’s why God created copyeditors.

A good copyeditor will correct the copy, but he’ll also teach you as he goes. For one thing, he wants you to improve. For another, he wants to lessen his workload so he can more fully enjoy your story as he reads through it.

To see what I can do for you as a copyeditor, click http://harveystanbrough.com/copyediting/.

To see the 2nd edition of my book, Punctuation for Writers, click https://www.amazon.com/dp/B004SBO8Z0 for Amazon or http://www.handsandheart.info/telecharger/b004sbo8z0-punctuation-for-writers-english-edition. Actually, I didn’t know this listing existed until just now.

As for the professional writer who put her ignorance on display this morning? Well, she might or might not be a good writer, but she’s no writing instructor. In that regard, she should be selling Earth shoes.

‘Til next time, happy writing,


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2 thoughts on “Have a Clue”

  1. I can guess the site, since I posted a comment above yours. The writing advice on the site is very much for beginners, though the social media information is often very good. I do comment when the writer is wrong, she disagrees with me, for the most part because the disagreement is friendly and civil.

    • Not sure we’re talking about the same site. The topic of this post was not on a writer’s website and was not a guest post. You might be talking about the one I railed against in the Journal the past couple of days. (You and I visit a lot of the same sites.) But I’ve found salvation. Wait ’til you see today’s Journal post. 🙂

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