Writers are creatures of habit. Unfortunately, many of these habits are not good ones. True, we would expect our friends and significant others to show some understanding when we don’t come to the dinner table on schedule because we’re right in the middle of an exciting dialogue exchange that has to be finished. If we don’t remove ourselves from our desks or laptop hidey-holes for the occasional bath or teeth-brushing, you know we’ll promise to make good once the first royalty checks arrive. For now, though, we’ll set these habits aside and focus on the few ticks that I, now wearing my editor’s hat, believe are more irritating than the itching, sweat-encrusted band of said hat…seeing as how I haven’t washed it in a while since I’ve been so busy working.
When you prepare a final draft of a manuscript for an editor or publisher, you want to be sure it is as free as possible of spelling and grammar errors. This does some require some diligence on the author’s part, seeing as how word processing spell-check programs cannot be wholly trusted. As an editor and publisher, I do understand the probability of human error. I can forgive the occasional “your” used for “you’re” if it doesn’t happen too frequently, and if you consider the list below you will find many of these are common mistakes. They are committed by seasoned writers and novices alike – I’ve been guilty of at least three offenses myself. These are not necessarily contract killers, and you might find an editor pointing these out to you if you are given a contract. Just take this list into consideration as you revise your final works, or prepare new ones.
1) Looking at “looking to” – Where action in dialogue is concerned I see “look to” used often, sometimes in places where “look at” is better used. I think the reason this type of mixup is most common is because it is rather difficult to explain why other words are better. Consider these two sentences.
Denise looked at Brian. “Would you like something to drink?” she asked.
Denise looked to Brian. “Would you like something to drink?” she asked.
Now, they both may look and sound correct, but if you really study these sentences, you will detect why “looked to” may be misused here. When a person looks “at” another person, he is conveying an action. He is putting focus on another and directing attention to that person. Here, Denise wants to know if Brian wants a drink. She looks “at” him and asks.
When a person looks “to” something, the meaning is slightly different. Looking “to” somebody implies a silent plea for support, respect, or something similar. When we “look up to” somebody, we hold that person in high esteem. Looking “to” somebody implies we wish to be reciprocated that respect. We may also “look to” or “look toward” a specific direction to confirm something. Make sense?
Let’s take a look at these sentences:
Denise looked at Brian. “Would you like a drink?” she asked.
I looked to see what was going on, and noticed Denise offering Brian a drink.
“I look to Brian for support. We are friends,” said Denise.
These, in my opinion, better convey the use of “look at” and “look to”.
2) Begin to edit – While not grammatically incorrect, constant use of “begin to” in a work is a personal pet peeve. I cannot speak for other editors and publishers, but when I read a story for a possible contract one thing I look “at” is how the action progresses. I perceive the use of “begin to” or “began to” in a sentence as describing an action that hasn’t fully happened yet. It’s a matter of personal preference, but I believe characters should do what they must without being so hesitant all the time.
Example 1: Denise began to wonder if Brian was an alcoholic.
Denise wondered if Brian was an alcoholic.
Example 2: Denise turned on the faucet and began to wash the glasses.
Denise turned on the faucet and washed the dishes.
In example one, the second choice make a more direct impact on the action of the story. Since she is rationalizing internally the possibility of a friend’s alcoholism, it makes more sense for her to immediately think about it than to “begin to” think. In example two, however, the first sentence carries a better sense of realism. Denise has performed one action and prepares for a second action. Depending upon the pace of the story, though, either sentence would work. Sentence one works for a lingering scene at the sink, perhaps if Denise is carrying on a conversation with somebody in the kitchen. Sentence two may work if the pace is hurried up a bit to move onto more pressing issues.
Regardless of whether or not you include “begin to” or “began to” in your prose, I think it is wise to keep the usage to a minimum.
3) Companionable, Compatible Companions – This is a tricky one, so I’ll be brief here. Things may be “compatible” with each other, suggesting a type of harmony. A software program may be compatible with a PC or with a Macintosh. Compatible defines a perfect fit between two objects. Companionable, however, suggests a more human relationship, an harmonious companionship between two people.
I mention this due to a popular phrase I see in manuscripts: “compatible silence.” Denise and Brian ate dinner in compatible silence.
Or did they?
To read it with the proper definitions in mind, the phrase suggests two silences that go together. More than likely, the author is trying to convey a “companionable silence” between Denise and Brian, as they are companions and the silence emanating between them is neither awkward nor tense. They are merely two people who get along so well that there is no need to speak, and the silent harmony evokes a pleasant dinner atmosphere.
As fiction varies in style from author to author, one can argue for different rules pertaining to my above examples. When in doubt, consult a dictionary or thesaurus, or the proper style manual to make sure what you are trying to say is the correct way. The more you are able to polish your manuscript before submission, the less strenuous the editing process may be in the future.