Too many editors spoil the manuscript

So you’ve finally finished your magnum opus, your great American novel, the book that is going to change English literature forever. And you want said manuscript to be the best that it can be before you send it off to be abused, laughed at and soundly rejected, so that you can eventually self-publish it. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I once sent a query to an agent for my manuscript Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and got my form rejection letter 24 months later. So I understand not wanting to spend the rest of your life writing queries that are answered with Xeroxed “thanks but no thanks” letters.) Continue reading

Showing vs. telling what I'll be on Tuesday nights after 5/10

In honor of the final few episodes of ABC’s Lost, we’re going to briefly revisit last season’s storyline for help in understanding an oft-discussed issue facing writers of all stripes: showing vs. telling. Continue reading

Principle vs. principal

I am  your principle...uh, principal...I think...

I am your principle! Uh, principal...I think...

Here comes one that has stymied people for generations — the age-old duel between principle and principal. And why not? One is a rule you’d rather not follow and the other is a person you’d rather not run into in the hall. As always, there’s a way to keep the two separate, just like Rosie O’Donnell and Elisabeth Hasselbeck: one here, one over there.  But first, how about some definitions?

Principal means first, most important, chief or head.

Principle means a law, rule or doctrine.

Both are nouns, but as you can see, principle is an idea and principal is usually a person. So here comes Conan’s mnemonic device for how to tell the two apart: The principal is your pal.

Brevity: next to godliness

There, there. Let Mama read you some Hemingway.

I think I’ve finally figured out the genesis of wordy writing: high school English teachers. When my oldest daughter was a freshman, she took a final exam in which she was forced to write two full paragraphs on prompts like

Give three ways that Charles Dickens creates suspense in Great Expectations, and discuss the effectiveness.

What would a proper response be?

Dickens uses foreshadowing, mysterious plot lines and the slowing down of time to create suspense. Each element succeeds in making the reader interested in what will happen next.

These two sentences answer the prompt concisely and directly. Our student writer could then,  in succinct fashion, delineate how each of these elements succeed. But students are penalized for such brevity — they are required to hit a certain word count. Conan’s spawn was forced to use meaningless filler phrases such as

  • at this point in time
  • had an effect upon
  • in order to
  • for the purpose of
  • until such time as
  • with the possible exception of
  • in my personal opinion

Oh, the humanity!

In the interest of brevity, I’ll say no more.

Cassandra pointed out that my original draft was a little too brief. I’ve amended it based on her comments. Thanks, Cassandra!

Hyphens and dashes

Use sparingly.

Oh, great, you think to yourself. Punctuation. Fascinating stuff. Who cares?

Well, um, duh, I do. And as long as I’m alive, I will be beating you over the head with my Strunk & White. Okay?

This article was inspired by a friend of mine who recently made the pronouncement that comma usage in our modern age is kind of up for grabs. It’s a Ted Nugent free-for-all. Sprinkle those commas like Bac-Os all over your prose. All paths lead to punctuational correctness! Continue reading

Affect vs. effect

Dear Conan:

Maybe this is one you can write about in your newsletter—when to use effect or affect. I am usually good at this rule but am unsure of my usage here:

The brand of your company also effects first impressions.

Since I am writing an article on first impressions, I don’t want to appear stupid.


Dear Beth:

Amen, sis. That’s a sentiment I mutter on a continual basis, so I can relate. There’s an easy way to remember which is which, however, to cut down on the embarrassment factor (in this area, anyway). Thanks for the suggestion.

~Conan Continue reading

Hey! My cable guy’s a proofreader too!

I once edited a charming memoir written by a gentleman whose mother grew up in a North Dakota sod house. He wrote his book as a gift to his brothers and sisters, and he had it professionally published and bound. The final product will look great and is grammatically correct, so his family can concentrate on the content and not on the misuse of commas or the confusion of the words “then” and “than.” Continue reading