Two Crumbs

Posted by: on Sep 10, 2015 | No Comments

A simple crumb of advice can be profoundly deep. Two of the profoundest crumbs on writing I’ve ever received came from Cynthia Huntington, a magnificent poet who also happened to be a professor at my alma mater, Dartmouth College. Here’s what she says:

First of all, know the difference between “it’s” and “its”. This is confusing, because “its” is a possessive pronoun, and normally apostrophe-“s” at the end of a word means “possessive”. But not in this case – “it’s” is a contraction of “it is”. So while it’s (<--) tempting to write "the lion swished it's tail", no: "the lion swished its tail".

Once I grokked this, I noticed mix-ups everywhere. Drives me nuts! The larger point is that attention to detail matters. Mistaking “it’s” for “its”, describing something as “very unique”, or writing “a lot” as one word is just plain sloppy, it screams “I care less about words than you” to someone who knows better. And if you don’t care, why should they?

Second: When attributing dialog, always use “said”, or occasionally “ask” for questions. In other words, characters should never “murmur”, “speculate”, or – the absolute worst – “intone”. Using a verb other than “said” or “ask” is just distracting and annoying, calls attention to the writing in a bad way. Can this rule be broken? I’m not sure it even qualifies as a “rule”. But it’s like invading Afghanistan – good luck.

Using “said” for attribution is a perfect example of style over grammar. There’s nothing grammatically wrong with a character “intoning”, especially not a priest on Sunday. But stylistically it’s just awful, and style is so much more important than grammar, after all. A sentence can be grammatically miserable but somehow, through a trick of the writer’s brilliance, be transformed into a thing of beauty.

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