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Words to the Wise

Pick Up a Style Guide and Polish Your Words

We writers love language. We care deeply about our published words, so much so that a little book on punctuation called Eats, Shoots & Leaves becomes a runaway bestseller. We engage in "spelling flame"—outraged arguments about correct language usage that often derail any conversation about the piece of writing itself.

Then why is so much published stuff so shoddy? We all notice it, and, as in the spelling flame, we rail about it—the grammatical mistakes in newspapers, the typos in novels, the chaotic punctuation in blogs. You would think that with the remarkable popularity of style and usage guides, everything published would be perfect, or at least very good.

There are lots of explanations—excuses, really—for the poor quality of much that is committed to print, the main one being that publishers can't afford editors anymore. In the burgeoning world of self-publishing, the blame is fastened onto the writer, which, if you think about it, is exactly where it belongs.

What is a writer to do? Well, there are two obvious answers. One is to hire an editor. Experienced writers swear by their editors. Just read the acknowledgements in any book. They positively gush, and that's because the authors know at every level of their writer-being that they could not have produced a book of that quality without an editor. But new and emerging writers have a really hard time getting this—until they take the plunge. Then they say things like, "I'm sure glad I was persuaded to put my manuscript before an editor. It's so much better now," and "Wow, Joyce, you caught things I would never have noticed!"

The second answer—for writers who are loath to hire an editor and that's just the way it's going to stay—is to teach yourself. Take the time to learn about this gorgeous, sprawling, ever-changing, always-adapting language we call English and how it's put together. Pick up a good, up-to-date, not-too-big style guide, like Guide to Canadian English Usage, 2nd edition, and check the difference between imply and infer, learn what a dangling modifier is, and set yourself up with a sensible, consistent style for your commas (four and a half pages in the Guide, that’s all).

OK, I know. Only a pedant and a crank would suggest you read a style guide with your morning coffee. But isn't English a beautiful thing? Wouldn't you like to understand it better? You're a writer, a lover of words, of good prose and poetry, so it behooves you to polish your work. Your readers and your editor (oops, sorry, I forgot you don't have one) will love you for it.

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