Monday, September 21, 2009

Storyteller Tips 4: Style and Grammar

Writing Right
This is the final entry in Cliffhanger Books’ four-part writing series. If you’re a submitting author, it will help your short story conform to our standards. Sloppy style, grammar, syntax and punctuation can cancel out an otherwise intriguing story’s value. I’m a very picky copy editor, so following these rules will make your polished manuscript require fewer changes. That will improve your chance of acceptance in our upcoming anthologies as well as other publishers’ books. You’ll even find out why it and there are the two most misused words in the English language. Avoid these frequent mistakes to enhance your writing style today.

Pesky Style and Grammar Rules
In addition to enthralling ideas, well-written and edited stories follow basic grammar principles. While many style variations exist, Cliffhanger Books will follow those listed below for consistency throughout our anthologies. Correct typos, improper usage and passive voice before submission. MS Word will check spelling, grammar, style and punctuation, but so should you because it may be wrong. Ignore suggested changes if you know better or I’ve instructed otherwise.

• In most cases, put dialogue, actions, observations and thoughts in separate paragraphs.
• Write in complete sentences as a rule except for some one-word or brief dialogue/thoughts and occasionally for emphasis. You may interrupt dialogue/thoughts or leave them unfinished if you end the sentence by inserting the symbol special character Ellipsis with a final period or the Em Dash.
• Alter the stilted pattern of starting subsequent sentences and paragraphs with the same word.
• Avoid run-on sentences by splitting. You may start sentences with And or But when informality is appropriate.
• The English language features so many wonderful words, why repeat the same ones? Use synonyms for variety.
• Spell out all words including numbers, states and anything else you might abbreviate.

• Use correct grammar unless a character’s educational level or social station calls for inept expression, syntax, slang or regional dialect.
• Refrain from repeating the same sentence structure. Alternate patterns for better flow. Use a subject-verb-object sequence for one sentence. Follow it with a dependent clause-independent clause separated by a comma.
• Make passive voice active. Change “She was watched by the man” to “The man watched her.”
• Use it only as a pronoun with an antecedent as in: “She liked the music. It moved her.” But if
it doesn’t mean anything, rewrite. Change “It was cold” to: “The temperature was cold.” I know people talk this way. But with a little practice, you can break this bad habit by being specific.
There describes a place. If it doesn’t, revise.
Replace There was music playing with Music was playing. Delete the unnecessary words and start with the subject. Change “There were too many choices” to “She had too many choices.” Everyone else may use there inappropriately, but you can avoid that pitfall by being explicit.
• Avoid be verbs. Replace them with vivid action verbs.
• Watch out for misplaced modifiers and split infinitives. Change “He cautiously eyed her” to “He eyed her cautiously” and “She began to heartily laugh” to “She began to laugh heartily.”

• Use just one space, not two, between sentences in a paragraph.
• If you separate one character’s dialogue into two paragraphs, omit the close quote from the first paragraph.
• Place commas and periods inside quotation marks.
• A comma doesn’t belong before the last and in a series or between dependent clauses.
• Use a comma between independent clauses (each has a subject and a verb).
• If you insert the symbol special character Ellipsis at the end of a sentence, add a final period.
• Insert the symbol special character Em Dash to separate thoughts instead of using one or two hyphens.

What’s Next?
If you’ve read my four-part Storyteller Tips and the Cliffhanger Books submission and formatting guidelines on our website, you’re ready to create your original tale. When you’re done, refer to our submission instructions at And remember, your story must reach us by midnight Sunday, Nov. 1, 2009.

Keep checking this blog and the Cliffhanger Books website for more details, selected stories, publication dates and future anthologies in this and other genres.


  1. The serial comma is omitted for AP Style; however, the serial comma is used when writing according to the Chicago Manual of Style.

    To say a comma "never belongs" before the word "and" in a series is erroneous; omission or inclusion of the serial comma depends on one's style guide or house style.

    I work as an editor for a communications company. When editing for Corporate Communications we omit the comma per AP Style; however, for internal communications we use Chicago and include the serial comma.

    I prefer the serial comma and many authors use it. So, I would not write that a comma never belongs before "and" in a series. Instead, I would write that your submission guidelines call for omitting the serial comma and perhaps explain why.

    I am a paranormal fan (Art Bell, George Noory, A Haunting, Ghost Hunters etc.) and dabble in romance fiction, so I may give this a try.

  2. Everything listed in my Storyteller Tips blog reflects Cliffhanger Books' style, which includes omitting the final comma in a series. Using a comma before an "and" indicates an independent clause follows. I am a seasoned AP-style corporate communications and publication writer/editor. We're glad to hear from a male paranormal romance fan and hope you will submit a story.

  3. I like how you pointed out misuse of "there" as in "There are many reasons why people write fiction." which is better phrased "People write fiction for many reasons." or "Many reasons exist why people write fiction."

    I was an English major years ago at St. Michael's college. Funny you say you double majored in English and Journalism. My college has excellent departments in both disciplines and some students did double major. What college did you attend if you do not mind sharing.

    I appreciate your explanations and am starting to craft my paranormal romance. Have shadow people or time travelers been explored before as characters?

  4. I’m glad to hear from another writer who understands the too-frequent misuse of “there.”

    I started out at Texas Christian University as an English major and French minor. After a journalism class my sophomore year, I added it as a double minor so I could still graduate in four years.

    “Paramourtal” will be Cliffhanger Books’ first paranormal romance anthology. Your story may feature any supernatural entity and otherworldly phenomenon. Good luck with your submission.