Editing by Ellie

How to Be a Better Writer #1: Don’t Count on Spell-Check

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Greetings, authors!

I’m Ellie, an editor by day and a voracious reader by night, and I’m thrilled to be a new member of the indieBRAG blog team. Each month, I’ll be sharing tricks and tweaks you can use to shine up your writing.

I’ve been reading books for indieBRAG for quite awhile and have discovered so many talented authors this way. But sometimes it’s hard to ignore my inner writer-editor so I can relax, have fun and just read (I’m sure you can agree!). Sure, it’s annoying, but that little voice has led me to some helpful insights into how we can all improve already good writing. One biggie has to do with spelling. Not the basics; more like spelling 2.0.

Poll your Facebook buddies about their biggest writing pet peeves, and you’ll see a lot of gripes about there/there/they’re or to/too/two. Makes perfect sense. Homonyms — sound-alike words that mean different things — are tricky stuff. Even so, readers tend to notice when they’re misused.

Your book could have a fantastic storyline that uses an impressively diverse vocabulary, but if you flub on words like the ones above, your writing’s bound to suffer. Speaking from experience, I’ve been completely immersed until I hit a sentence like, “After Thomas left her, Rose was so lost, she didn’t care weather she lived or died.” Then – speed bump! Reality takes over, and now I’m thinking about a long-ago English lesson. The author meant “whether,” I’ll say to myself, as my plot engagement disappears. (To refresh, “weather” is the noun for the meteorological stuff that’s going on outside. On the other hand, “whether” is a conjunction that can mean if or one way or another.)

How to avoid that oversight? Well, spell-check is a handy tool but it doesn’t always flag misplaced homonyms. In fact, Google Docs caught “weather” above, but Microsoft Word didn’t. Neither program flags them all, and definitely not as many as your readers will, hunched over a book or tablet. So instead of simply relying on an automated program, let’s all brush up on these words once in awhile. These are five offenders I see all the time:

1) affect/effect
affect (verb): To impact. Example: The new documentary affected the way Aaron felt         about sharks.
effect (noun): A result or outcome. Example: Jane’s makeover had a noticeable effect on her self-esteem.
(Notes: Affect can also be a noun meaning how a thing or event is observed or felt. And effect can be a verb meaning to make a change.)

2) pore/pour
pore (verb): To study carefully. Example: She pored over her grandparents’ long-lost wedding album.
pour (verb): To produce a steady flow. Example: The host poured wine for everyone at the table.
(Notes: Pore can also mean a small opening in the skin. Poor is another homonym in this set, but I’ve never seen this spelling misused.)

3) principal/principle
principal (noun): A person or thing of importance. Example: Flour is the principal ingredient in bread.
principle (noun): A theory, fact, rule or belief. Example: Susan got an “A” on her physics paper explaining the principles of gravity.

4) their/there/they’re
their (adjective): Belongs to them. Example: The robins were too busy building their nest to notice the rain.
there (adverb): At that place or point. Example: Tom went there on vacation.
they’re (contraction): They are. Example: Steve roots for the Chicago Cubs even when they’re not winning.
(Note: Use this same logic when deciding between your and you’re.)

5) to/too/two
to (preposition): In the direction of. Example: The family went to the movies once a month.
too (adverb): Very or also. Example: Last winter was too cold.
two (adjective): The number that comes after one and before three. Example: Sophie just turned two years old.

The English language is loaded with homonyms to consider. Check out software design guru and fellow author Alan Cooper’s extensive list here

Practice using these in everything you write — tweets, emails, birthday cards, cover letters to reviewers — where it makes sense, of course. And look for them when you’re proofing your own writing (another blog post entirely, by the way). Making the right choices will become second nature, and you’ll be explaining the affect vs. effect conundrum to another writer in no time.

What are your biggest homonym-related stumbling blocks? What tricks do you use to keep the words straight? Share in the comments below!

I’d love to know what you want to learn about in future indieBRAG blog posts. Email me your thoughts at ellie@elliemartincliffe.com. Or click over to my website, elliemartincliffe.com, to learn more about my work.

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