Following on from last month’s post about swearing, I thought I’d bring up yet more dirty words:
Spelling, grammar and punctuation.
Yes, yes, booooooooring: Fingers in ears, LA LA LA LA, talk to the hand, etc. Finished?
Right. Let’s get down to business. It comes down to this: You’re a writer. You should be able to write well. And if you can’t? You should be able to fake it. Also well. Yet SO many submissions fall down on spelling, grammar and punctuation it makes this trained English Teacher’s eyes BLEED and heart CRY. And guess what: It DOES make a difference… Maybe ALL the difference!
Look, I get it. School was a long time ago. Or maybe it wasn’t, but a teacher so INSANE and TRAUMATISING taught you, punctuation now gives you palpitations, spelling makes you sick and grammar gives you the heebie-jeebies.
But if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you need to get a handle on your spelling, grammar and punctuation issues. It is not optional. Yet lots of writers believe they can’t do anything about these issues.
NEWSFLASH: Even if you are dyslexic or have another special educational need, there ARE strategies and things you can do to improve how your screenplay looks on the page. Ipso, Fatso as Bart Simpson would say. Let’s take a look:
1. Know What Readers’ Biggest Pet Peeves Are.
I’ve been reading for a long time now and from talking to my script reader colleagues, I’d venture the biggest reader pet peeves are:
• Spelling. Consistent typos throughout a manuscript, especially those that end up creating another word, ie. “cleaver” for "clever," or “lightening” for “lightning.” Take an interactive Spelling Challenge, with 3 different levels “easy,” “difficult” and “fiendish.”
• Punctuation. Consistent apostrophe confusion, especially “its / it’s” and “your/ you’re” confusion, but also using contractions for plurals, ie. “two kid’s walk down the path.” Take an apostrophes quiz online.
• Grammar. Consistent use of mixed tenses, especially use of the past simple and present continuous (aka progressive) together, i.e. “she is sat down” / “they are stood at the bar.” Complete list of English Tenses, plus definitions and exercises.
Note use of the word CONSISTENT. No reader worth his or her salt minds the occasional error. Mistakes happen… It’s when they keep happening that readers’ eyes begin to roll back in their heads.
2. Know What Your Personal Weaknesses Are.
As a writer, it is your responsibility to know where you need help and what you need to do about it. Think of it as professional development. So, look carefully through your own work. What’s your spelling, punctuation and grammar like? Check it against other writers’ work. Run your own diagnostic. And most of all, BE HONEST with yourself.
As a back up, ask a friend to check through it too – see if your notes match up. Find out if there’s anything you’ve missed.
3. A Test A Day Keeps The Script Reader Away!
In the age of the Internet, there are lots of fab FREE resources online to help you improve your spelling, punctuation and grammar.
Believe it or not, if you really struggle with English, one of the best things to do is approach it as if it’s a foreign language – even if you’re a native speaker. If you Google “ESL” or “English as a second language resources” or “TEFL” or “Teach English As A Foreign Language resources” you will find STACKS of fun interactive exercises and worksheets to download, most of them free.
If you have intermediate issues with English, this brilliant and comprehensive resource from The University of Bristol is the one I refer my Bang2writers to most often.
If you do a test or worksheet every single day, even for just five minutes, you will be proficient in a matter of weeks. TRUE FACT. Isn’t it worth the investment of your time?
4. Get The Books …
… But not those expensive, scary ones. Look, you need a quick and easy reference guide, not a big language tome designed for English grads. That’s why I recommend my students and Bang2writers get The Ladybird Book of Spelling And Grammar. Seriously! It’s a great book, full of helpful hints and tips. As necessary to every screenwriter as a dictionary or copy of Aristotle's Poetics, I reckon. Find it here.
Also, acquaint yourself with your dictionary and thesaurus. Know where it is on your computer… and what its limitations are. Make sure you have a decent HARD COPY one too. I’m a big fan of the Oxford English versions, but Merriam Webster and all the others are just as valid, provided they have a good range. Oh, and don’t leave them shut. Consult them often. The more you SEE words and read their definitions, the more you will learn and ensure you don’t make obvious mistakes.
Plenty more from where all that came from… Get out and find them!
5. Believe In Yourself!
A small but significant contingent of my Bang2writers is dyslexic, which is unsurprising, as dyslexics are often highly creative people. Often due to the legacy of poor schooling or other previous traumatic experiences, dyslexic learners may insist they “can’t” improve. However, from my dyslexia training as a teacher, I can tell you: I have seen literally HUNDREDS of my dyslexic writers and students improve. You are no different. You CAN do this. Aside from a good dose of self confidence, to improve as a writer (dyslexic or not), you need to do the following:
• Use all the technology at your disposal. Don’t skimp; look for everything in your price range (even if that price range is "free"). If you feel you need specialist software for your computer in order to check your writing, get it. Several of my Bang2writers swear by this software. Here’s a list of apps, some free, that may also help you.
• Use a word bank. Every time you make a mistake and get corrected by someone (or something, such as your computer), write down the word that gave you trouble in a little notebook. Make sure at the top of the page it’s spelled correctly by consulting a dictionary, then write down the incorrect way you spelled it. Return to the page and write down other incorrect versions as they happen, too. This will help you identify those words and word groupings that give you most trouble and give your brain ammunition to deal with them.
• Read. ALL writers can avoid reading and dyslexic writers are no exception. But “reading, to write better” is very much part of our journeys as writers. It doesn’t matter WHAT you read, but make sure you read magazines, novels, non-fiction or screenplays for at least an hour EVERY DAY, online or offline.
That’s just the start of course: other writers swear by any number of methods, including one chap I know who claims he practices aversion therapy by electrocuting himself in the nads every time he spells words wrong (not sure I believe him, though).
6. Hire a proofreader LAST!
Proofreaders usually cost quite a lot of money, so it’s still a good idea to do the first five steps on this list BEFORE hiring one, to ensure you get the best value for money.
Also, doing so will enable you to GROW as a writer, rather than outsource it to someone who does not love your story as much as YOU do. What’s not to like?
When it comes to writing, don’t let yourself off the hook and say you had a crappy education or you “can’t” improve. Writers should always be learning, so make this part of your journey. You can only benefit!
- More Submissions Insanity articles by Lucy V. Hay
- Submissions Insanity #1: The Basics of Online Script Submissions
- Good in a Room: 17 Phrases That Make You Sound Like a Hollywood Rookie
Tools to Help: