A National Voice: Bringing Your Character Home

by Catherine Foster

For this week’s blog topic, we turn to some aspiring writers on Twitter. Many of you out there have questions about the writing process that aren’t ever answered directly in the manuals. No matter how thorough Strunk and White’s is or how detailed the chapter on commas in The Chicago Manual of Style, some individual questions arise that are unique and require specialized answers. Such a question came up recently thanks to Sophie O’Donnell @odonnellsl_. Sophie’s question was:

Trying to write an American character is a lot harder than I thought. How do I make them sound less British without creating a complete stereotype?!

This is a worthy question, and one I struggled with in reverse when I was beginning as a writer myself. I had a few stories that had been commissioned to be written for a British audience, and I was quickly confounded by the many “Briticisms” that I had never previously encountered or considered. Torches, lifts, digestives … and don’t even get me started on the difference in our pants and theirs. The point is, I understand Sophie’s point completely. While British English is the same language, technically, when I had to write a story for a British audience, it suddenly felt as though I needed to take a course or two on Duolingo, British style, and how to apply it to writing properly. It was easy to get overwhelmed in the little cultural differences that would point me out as a foreigner and an immediate fraud. What’s an author to do?

Well, there are two options here: one is to immerse yourself in the culture that you are trying to write about. It requires careful study and months-to-years of understanding their way of life. If you are going to be writing for that audience for an extended amount of time (like I did), then this is recommended. There will still be minute things that will always be off. You can’t know what you don’t know about the ways people talk and communicate, but you can and will pick up on general slang terms. It will be close enough that most people will understand, and all but the pickiest will be content.

The second option is this old writing chestnut: write what you know. It’s old but still around because it has value. Write your story; write it true to yourself, effortlessly and with all the characteristics of your own style. Write it how you would, with the details of your own daily life. It’s the best and most authentic way to write, and it will resonate with your readers. After you are done, go back for a round of edits and then change what you can. Some things that you might anticipate changing, you won’t necessarily need to change. You are British and you wrote that your character drinks tea? It’s true that Americans drink coffee, but we don’t eschew tea. That can be left in. It doesn’t have to be coffee to be “American.” The best thing is to be authentic. America is a melting pot, with many people and many traditions. There’s no one way of doing things here, and Americans understand and accept that as easily as anything.

Still worried that you said “bobby” when you meant “cops”? Fair enough. There are many writing groups that have beta readers who can help out with that. A lot of them offer the service for free. In my case, they called it “Brit-picking”: finding the terms that I used that rang a little false on the ears and offering alternatives.

If you are still uncomfortable and you want a perfect story, you can always rely on the services of a trusted editor: find one that has experience with foreign languages. Make sure you communicate whether you want a full edit or just a reading for the style elements that might stand out, such as the foreign-sounding terms. A proofing is much cheaper than a full edit, and can be done much quicker and for half the cost.

I hope this answers your question. Good luck and happy writing!

Black History Month

It’s February, which brings to mind Cupid, valentines, and that predictor of an early spring or a late winter, the groundhog. It’s also host to a far more important month long event: Black History Month! The United States’ celebration of Black History Month began in 1970, although its roots go back far longer than that. It originated as Black History Week in 1926 when it fell during the second week of February to encompass the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Today, Black History Month (sometimes referred to as African American History Month) is observed in Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.

This last week of February, The LetterWorks honors Black History Month by selecting and highlighting some of our favorite African American authors. This is by no means a comprehensive list; it is just a list of authors who have inspired us or impacted us in some way. We’d love to read about some of the authors who resonate with you, so leave us a note in the comments about your personal favorite Black History Month author and how they inspire you!

Alice Walker Pulitzer prize for fiction, O. Henry award winner … is there anything this woman hasn’t done? She’s a short story novelist, poet, essayist, non-fiction writer and novelist. If it can be written, she has, and won the award for it, as well.

Langston Hughes “Mother to Son” is one of those poems we were assigned to read in high school. If it’s been awhile, go back and re-read it. It gets better with age and wisdom. He really is worth all that hype. Not only that, he authored more poetry than they told you about, as well as novels, short stories, non-fiction books, children’s books and plays. Plays, for crying out loud!

Ntozake Shange One of the best poets you probably haven’t heard of. She’s a Tony, Grammy and Emmy winner, to boot. Go look her up!

Oprah Winfrey This woman needs no introduction. Though we know her as actress, talk show host and activist, she is lesser known as author. Perhaps her inclusion on this list for O, The Oprah Magazine might raise a few eyebrows. I’ll point out that Forbes named that as the most successful startup of 2002. Another tidbit: her weight loss book of 2005 garnered her the world’s largest advance fee for a book, which had previously been held by Bill Clinton. Books are part literature and part marketing, and Oprah’s got a league of followers that we all wish we had.

Ralph Ellison A huge literary and pop culture icon of its time, Ellison was the man responsible for giving us The Invisible Man. An author dreams of having a smash hit like that, but most of us never achieve that level of success.

Malcolm X While not a conventional author per se, Malcom X was an influential minister and human rights activist who gave many speeches that are recorded and preserved for posterity. He also kept diaries that can be read and reviewed for later generations to understand his message and the importance of the movement he created.

Alex Haley If Malcolm X belongs on the list, so too does Alex Haley, who brought his autobiography to life. He also brought us Roots and Queen, among other works, ultimately winning a Spingarn Medal for his exhaustive research and literary skill.

Zora Neale Hurston Neale Hurston is a notable to this list in that her fame was bestowed decades posthumously. Another quality that renders her unique is that, while she was definitely an author, she was also an anthropologist. This is made even more exceptional given the fact that she achieved this distinction as both author and anthropologist in the first half of the twentieth century, which is a time that is noted for being unforgiving to women’s rights as well as academic achievements. The fact that Neale Hurston was able to accomplish these things, not only as a woman but also as a minority, is nothing short of miraculous.

Michelle Obama Another notable example to this list is the wife of a president. Obama authored one book while she was a current first lady and she wrote another when her term ended. Her husband was the first African American president of the United States, and at the time she published her first book, her popularity rating outranked his. To call her impressive would be an understatement.

Martin Luther King, Jr. No list would be complete without this man. His name alone is now equitable with love, peace and tolerance, justice and equality. He needs no introduction, but go read his words for yourself; this is a perfect time to feel strengthened by his message all over again.

Maya Angelou A personal favorite, Angelou helped guide me to my love of words. I think any author would agree that she had a way with them. Awarded with over fifty honorary degrees, a Tony, three Grammys, a Spingarn Medal, a Pulitzer Prize nomination, the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, perhaps the most fitting is to say that she was called “the black woman’s poet laureate.” Not just the black woman, not just the woman, but a poet laureate for us all.

I leave you with this list; remember, this is not complete, and I know we’re missing quite a few important dignitaries, luminaries and other important figures of the Black History movement. These are just people who resonate with me, specifically. Let me know who you’d like to see represented and why in the comments. Happy Black History Month!

Foreign Language: A Resolution Worth Keeping? by Catherine Foster

January: that time of year redolent with fresh beginnings, new starts, a bright future and all of those resolutions. There are a few resolutions that crop up January after January, those great promises that we make ourselves and intend to keep. Sometimes we do … or at least, we try our best to. This post concerns itself with a particular recurrent resolution that many people fizzle out on not long after they begin: learning a foreign language. For those of you who have decided that this is your year to finally conjugate those verbs in earnest: this message is for you! Especially if, as January draws to a close and February starts to dawn, your initial enthusiasm begins to wane a bit, and you’re beginning to think “Eh, what’s the rush? I’ve got a lot on my plate. Maybe some other time. Maybe next year …”

Not so fast! That resolution was a sound one, and you should keep it if you can. Learning a new language is tough, it’s true. It takes time, commitment, and effort. There’s no easy way, and anyone who tells you different is just trying to sell you their method. This post isn’t about how to learn a foreign language, but why you shouldn’t give up on it. In particular, why it has relevance and benefits to you, as a writer.

There are plenty of benefits of learning a foreign language. We have all heard them, and it only takes a second to Google the word “foreign language” before you are bombarded with endless lists detailing why you’ll be all the smarter and better for attempting it. But if you want to know how it will help you as an author, the field narrows. How does it help you write?

People who study foreign language must begin to pay attention to vocabulary, grammar, diction, syntax, conjugation … parts of speech and complexities of their native tongue that they already have through natural language acquisition as an infant and take for granted. In learning it anew, they must think about and educate themselves in the structure of not only the new language but also the native language. In short, they become an expert in their own language through being a student of another.

Language is something we acquire so early in infancy that we often don’t pay attention to it. Nor to the main purpose: communication. In becoming a student of another language, with its strange new sounds, we are forced to pay focused attention to the sounds we make as well as the sounds others make. This allows us to become better listeners, better communicators, and better writers. Writing is merely speaking in slow motion. Everything is related.

There are countless studies on the effects of foreign language on the brain, but one in particular is important to note here: a study of verbal achievement concluded that performance in reading comprehension, language mechanics and language expression was significantly higher in favor of people who study and learn foreign language than unilingual students. This study shows that the bilinguals outperform the unilinguals on a number of cognitive, linguistic, and metalinguistic tasks, even when the differences in intelligence are controlled. This is an important finding for people who are curious about how their language expression in their own language is impacted by bilingualism. The answer is resoundingly clear: it is one of the best organic ways to improve vocabulary, language expression and language mechanics, all critical skills for an author.

If you’re leaning towards learning a language, you don’t need to wait for next January or make a resolution to do so. There’s no better time for anyone, especially an author, to jump in and get started. Your brain will thank you, and so will your flagging manuscript! Try it and see!

The Order of Adjectives: Do YOU Know It?

When asked about why we write or talk the way we do, often native English speakers take pause. “I don’t know,” we are forced to admit. “That’s just how it is.”

Many of the grammar rules we learned in school—or even earlier, when we were first acquiring the language—stuck in our subconscious and we can’t even explain why some things are the way they are. We just know to use them instinctively or else it somehow sounds wrong to our ears, but we aren’t sure of an exact rule that would explain it. An example of this is the order of adjectives. Every native English speaker naturally employs the order of adjectives, but someone first learning English must learn this, or else they are in danger of sounding strange to us when they speak. We would certainly understand them, but they would stand out as being different, and we would correct them. For instance:

“That’s a red beautiful shirt you are wearing,” your classmate might tell you.

“Beautiful red shirt,” You would correct them. “Thank you.”

“Why?” They would ask. “What does the order matter?”

Here is where you would be stuck. What does the order matter? And how do you know where to put beautiful in relation to red?

The fact is, despite a lot of research many grammarians and linguists alike, no one can pinpoint the origin of the rule, but it is, indeed, quite important to our language. So much so that people learning English spend a great deal of time committing this particular rule to memory even though we take it for granted. The order of adjectives is as follows:

1. Opinion: nice, awful, gross
2. Size: small, large, gigantic
3. Age: ancient, young, old
4. Shape: square, round, triangular
5. Color: blue, pink, purple
6. Origin: American, Canadian, Japanese
7. Material: velvet, cotton, leather
8. Purpose: writing (paper), school (shoes)

Another thing to keep in mind is that, according to the rule, you wouldn’t use more than three adjectives in a row. According to this chart, you might say that you have a blue cotton shirt, but you wouldn’t say that you have a leather purple coat. Going up the chart always works, but if you go backwards, it immediately sends of klaxons of wrongness in the brain. In The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase, author Mark Forsyth discusses both this rule at length and also uncovers more idiosyncrasies about the English language, such as the “I before E except after C rule,” which is commonly taught to children to help them remember how to spell, but for which there are only 44 words that follow the rule as opposed to 923 exceptions. These rules and their exceptions make us one of the most fascinating languages on the planet, but also the most maddening. Even for native speakers, you may not know why you know what you know, and it’s never too late to stop learning about our beloved language. Keep reading and editing and from those of us at The LetterWorks have a happy New Year!

Surviving Burnout! A Must-Read for the Holiday Season

As November winds down and brings NaNoWriMo to a close, it’s time to discuss an important subject that many writers face but don’t like to talk about: writer burnout. All of us have or will come across this dreaded feeling; it’s akin to a sailor being stranded in the doldrums. One minute you’re flying along on the giddy wings of inspiration, and your fingers can’t keep pace with your ideas. The next, you stumble and stare at a blank page. What was effortless a second ago is now a drudge. The words are there, but they jumble inside your mind and they won’t come out. Is it writer’s block or are you tired? This happens to us all. It’s unexpected, it’s not preventable, it’s frustrating and there is no way of knowing how long it’s going to last. The only cure is patience. Writer burnout can strike anyone at any time. So what can you do when it happens to you?

We’ve talked a lot about how to use strategies to overcome writer’s block, but burnout is different. The definition of burnout is: “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.” It’s important to identify the events or times in your life in which you may be suffering high amounts of stress that could contribute to sudden and unexpected burnout. NaNoWriMo is a big culprit. The holidays are another. Tests, exam dates, family visiting, changes to a schedule … these are all valid reasons that one might suffer burnout, especially at this time of year.

But writing is how I combat stress in my life, you might say. I agree, as writers do. It can be a cathartic outlet and is a form of stress relief. So why then would one be burned out from doing the thing they love? It is when there is a schedule involved, such as writing for a deadline, editing a project, contributing to a literary journal, composing an academic paper, contributing to a competition or hosting a blog which one might find pressure building. This brings a different sort of expectation to the writing than one would have in writing for pleasure. Typically, writers take pride in their skill and they are so at ease in their craft that they are writing far more than they realize. They may craft a paper for school and discount that as “writing” because it was so easy for them. They may put out a quick blog post but not consider that “real writing.” Then when they come home to work on their novel, they don’t realize that they have been using their talents all day. It may not seem like much, and it may be enjoyable, but it is still writing and requires work. When we are under stress from different areas of our life, the words dry up and we are left wondering if they will ever return.

A big contributor to burnout is the holiday season. Whether you love it or hate it, it is tough on the life of a writer. Most cultures celebrate holidays of some kind, and no matter what time of year they fall, they tend to involve a disruption of schedule. Writers need time to practice their craft, and they require uninterrupted concentration. This is in short supply when relatives are visiting and the flow of the day is different due to celebration. Increased responsibility and attendance at festivities means that writing needs to take a backseat to whatever event—or events—are occurring. These events could be a day or even span the course of several weeks. Some families are accepting and accommodating of writers’ needs during this time, and others are less so. This can lead to frustration and guilt for the writer. This slurry of disrupted scheduling and emotional havoc is a major contributor to burnout.
What can be done? Be patient and forgiving of yourself, especially during a time of year when you expect to have increased responsibilities that will take away from your writing time. Plan when you can write and set aside those moments so that you can be assured to have time for yourself in the chaos of the holiday season, but know, too, that you might not be able to keep to your regular output. Understanding that beforehand will alleviate anxiety. Many people who participated in NaNoWriMo choose to take off the month of December. A pause is something to consider, and know that you may come back in January invigorated and refreshed.

Understanding that burnout doesn’t just happen to some—it happens to all—is a helpful point to remember. This is something that is stress-induced and can be managed, but in the end every writer has been in this position, and you are not alone. From Shakespeare to Virgina Woolf, if you wield a pen, at some point you will feel betrayed by your inspiration. It’s the badge that marks you as an author, and something only time and patience can cure. But by keeping in mind that you are in good company and you, too, will survive, hopefully your holidays will be a little less stressful to begin with.

Memoir vs. Autobiography: Does It Really Matter?

Happy November! For most of America, the transition from October to November heralds the end of trick-or-treating and pumpkins and the anticipation of Thanksgiving and the bigger winter holidays, whatever your family celebrates. For writers, however, November first means only one thing: the start of NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month! Our staff has covered this venerable tradition in the past, and we’ve got advice for you if you’re participating this year for everything on staying motivated  to the importance in staying connected with like-minded individuals to reviewing your work after the big rush . Here are some links to get you started:

This post is for the portion of our friends out there who swim in the autobiographical end of the writer’s pool or for those who are thinking about testing those waters this November. We are seeing more and more of a trend towards autobiographical submissions. This is becoming a very popular category of the nonfiction section, and why not? It’s easy to see why people might want to draw from their own personal histories to create an epic novel; there’s an endless source of inspiration to draw from. Anyone can do it, from celebrities to political figures to a person with a story to tell. But hold on a second: does anyone remember that moment in time back in 2006 when A Million Little Pieces was first hailed as a masterpiece then ultimately crucified as a work of fraud? Written by James Frey, the book was billed as a memoir, but on January 8, 2006, The Smoking Gun published an article exposing large portions of the book as fictionalized or gross exaggerations. Mr. Frey was interviewed by Larry King to defend his book three days later, but the real media storm happened on January 26 when Mr. Frey made an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He was confronted by her and admitted to fabricating many sections of his memoir, which he had previously stated had been fact-checked by his publisher. This ultimately caused an ensuing controversy in which Mr. Frey’s literary manager dropped him and his publisher broke a two-book, seven figure deal. A legal settlement for readers who felt defrauded was also reached, and people were entitled to a refund of their book. That’s a massive consequence for someone who embellished the truth a bit. So where’s the line? Should writers be expected to remember every conversation they’ve ever had when they are recording memories to the page? Is any creative license allowed, or are we in danger of being sued by some disgruntled cousin who doesn’t remember the family reunion going down the way we do? How can we sort through what is fact and what is reasonable fiction? Luckily, there’s an answer to these questions and more.
Everything on this list falls under the umbrella of non-fiction. If I think of writing as dessert, then autobiography is cake. Memoir, narrative nonfiction, personal essays and roman à clef are all just slices of the same cake. Let’s break it down:

Autobiography: An autobiography can be distinguished from the others on the list as the most factual of the bunch. It is told in a linear fashion and should relay all the major life events of the subject in a chronological order. It concerns itself with the entire scope of a person’s life and all of the events, people, places and subjects that relate to a person’s existence as they move forward through their life, not just a few key years, events, feelings or observations of the narrator.

Memoir: This form gives someone more creative license. It can cover a few short years or a major event. Examples might include how someone survived their time in a concentration camp or how they overcame an addiction. It doesn’t have to be harrowing, but it may just focus on one developmental stage and is more likely to reflect strong feelings. It is generally less factual and more emotional. It is far less encompassing in scope than an autobiography. It is generally less formal and may have a more literary feel.

Narrative non-fiction: Narrative or creative non-fiction is a somewhat new and emerging genre. It draws on real-life scenarios, usually something journalistic, but incorporates elements of fiction to become a readable novel. According to literary critic Barbara Lounsberry, there are four recognizable elements to narrative nonfiction: the topics and events must exist in the real world (not in the mind of the author), there must be exhaustive research, all scenes must be in context, and it should all be presented in a literary style. Some examples of narrative nonfiction are The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee and Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.

Personal essay: This is exactly what it sounds like: an essay that is personal to you. It is generally just a short memoir. A great example of a classic personal essayist is David Sedaris.

Roman à clef: Roman à clef is from the French, meaning “novel with a key.” It began as a way for people to write an expose of famous social and political figures without the risk of reprieve. It is truth with an overlay of fiction. Names or identifying situations can be changed to avoid persecution, but the general public could still understand and enjoy the jab. This could be done for protection of the author or for satirical purposes. The Marquis de Sade often employed the roman à clef to skewer prominent religious and political figures of his day. Today, the roman à clef is still in use for various reasons, including satire, but it can also be used when you’d like to write a memoir but perhaps you would like a bit more creative license than your own story affords you. This is where certain authors—cough, Mr. Frey, cough—could simply have stated his work was inspired by real events. That little disclaimer would have saved him seven figures plus and a whole lot of embarrassment.

These are all just guidelines. Most of them bleed into each other. The important thing to remember is if you have a story to tell that you don’t fret which category you bill it as, but that you get it all down on paper, especially this November! A good editor can help you decide how your memories and your story fit together and what you’d like to call it. Happy writing!

Author Spotlight: Ed Myers

Over the course of a week last September, I had the opportunity to administer a series of in-person interviews with the subject of our latest author spotlight, Mr. Ed Myers. I usually conduct my business via e-mail, so this was a rather unusual medium for me, but it turned out to be an unexpected blessing. I don’t use the word blessing lightly; with its overt religious overtones, it can alienate those who disdain the subject, and it can carry a distinctly heavy sort of preaching when it is put into use. I can’t deny that it fits in this case, however; to meet with Ed in person when I would normally choose the more modern route was a blessing to me. I had to consider that, while I am far from tech-savvy, I have taken refuge in insulating myself from much of the lesser social graces that come with meeting someone in person if I can avoid it. That’s the beauty of e-mail and text! I have embraced skipping over that awkwardness that comes with making small talk and chit-chatting about the weather, the uncomfortable pauses, having to listen and feign interest while someone talks about their kids and then trying to decide when it’s too soon to extricate myself from the meeting without being rude. All of this is a moot point over e-mail: it’s quick, to the point, and we none of us must suffer each other’s annoying personal qualities. What could be a more efficient arrangement?

In meeting with Ed this week, particularly for such an extended session, I came to see that there is something more important than efficiency. A connection is forged in that awkwardness borne of face-to-face interaction; there is a certain beauty in the pauses and there is the heart of human experience to be found in time spent in the presence of a person, even a person we don’t know that well. This is lost over e-mail. It may be uncomfortable and inconvenient, it may be time-consuming, but it is necessary sometimes. Especially when the topic is writing or poetry, which deals primarily and fundamentally with the subjects of the heart and how one can best explore those emotional connections. As a writer, I know I am an introvert. As an editor who works with many other writers, I am comfortable in stating that I believe many of my clients also exhibit introverted tendencies, as well. This leads us to the path of avoidance sometimes: avoidance of social contact, uncomfortable situations, and new people. In meeting with Ed this week, I’d like to share that these new experiences wake the sleeping talent in us. They revitalize our creativity even if the cost seems high and we’d prefer to shy away from that source of discomfort. I’m not counseling anyone into a panic attack, but I am pointing out that it is easy to hide behind our wall of technology and forget that human interaction is the best and most important inspiration there is for a writer. I’d like to thank Ed for reminding me of that and for giving me back my inspiration. Now, without further ado, his interview and a poem he wanted to share:

Catherine Foster: Did you like to read poetry growing up?

Ed Meyers: Yes. Edgar Allan Poe was my favorite.

CF: How long have you been writing poetry?

EM: About thirty-five years.

CF: Do you write out of passion or in hopes of publication?

EM: both

CF: What is your inspiration?

EM: Shannon

CF: Your poems are often very emotional and deal with subjects such as love, loss, longing and grief. Many authors struggle to be so open about these feelings. Do you have difficulty tapping into deep emotions and sharing them on the page for others to read?

EM: Yes and no. It’s easy to let my feelings out. It’s not easy to let people read it.

CF: Tell me what you love most about writing.

EM: The chance to express my feelings. It makes me proud.

CF: Poetry is an art form that requires an abundance of patience to master, which you have cultivated; Do you have any words of advice for your fellow poets who may need some direction?

EM: Let it flow.

CF: Thank you for your time with me. Do you have anything else you’d like to say?

EM: It’s hard work to write poetry, but the end product is usually worth the effort. It’s easier to write poetry if you write it with feeling.


Playing the role of a broken heart

is not easy,

No, not easy

Way to proceed

Like putting

the horse behind the cart.

Being with you

is simple, satisfying, serene; an art.

Tactics to endure.

You move out of the past

but it’s hard to be sure.

Being with you

is so simple

Like learning how to breathe,

for you are the reason for my reprieve.

I’d like to thank Ed for the time he spent with me and for the enormous amount of patience he had with me during these interviews. I’d also like to extend my sincere gratitude to the staff at Origami, particularly Bethany Simon and Kaitlyn Cavazos, for helping facilitate this process.

The Ultimate Guide To Style Manuals: What Do They All Mean?

By Catherine Foster

A writer and editor must work in tandem to produce a high quality and error-free document. But what is considered an error? Sometimes it’s very clear: a misspelling or a comma out of place constitutes a mistake that can be fixed by either party at any stage in the editing process. However, some rules are more ambiguous. Should italics or quotations be used when denoting a title? Is it proper to use a numeral when referring to age or is it better to spell it out? Oxford comma: yay or nay?

The answer to these questions and more can be found in the form of a style guide. A style guide is the list of rules for a particular writing discipline. For example, when there is ambiguity in grammar (mostly in punctuation for citations and references), the style guide seeks to provide a standard set of rules for one area of writing. This guide is essential when one is seeking to submit a document for publication. The style guide that a journalist might use when attempting to submit to The New York Times is vastly different from what a doctor might need when publishing in The New England Journal of Medicine, for example. Understanding the subtle differences in each style guide is crucial and could mean the difference between acceptance and rejection—regardless of the content of the manuscript itself. While a full distinction of the guides is beyond the scope of this post, below are a list of the major style guides (in the US) and their respective disciplines:

AMA Style for medicine

APA and ASA Style for social sciences

AP Style for journalism

Bluebook Style for law

CSE Style for physical sciences

ACS Style for chemistry

USGPO and AGPS Style for government publications

Oxford and Chicago Style for academic publishing

MLA Style for academics, literature and humanities

House Style This is a blanket term referring to a publisher’s individual and unique set of rules for formatting or punctuation

While a writer isn’t typically expected to know all the rules of these style guides by heart (and there are many more individual resources within each discipline that exist to help clarify), they are expected to adhere to the guide of the discipline that they are submitting to. House styles within even the literary community can vary widely, so a savvy author will take a moment to check the style guide and either adjust accordingly before submission or employ the services of a knowledgeable editor. Preparation is the key to publication! Knowing the difference to different style guides is half the battle. Good luck and happy writing and editing!

The Great Copy Editing Cheat Sheet

We’ve all been there: we’re reading someone’s Facebook post when we’re confronted with that most annoying of offenses: someone who uses your when they meant you’re. “I’d never do that!” you think, reveling in the self-righteous glory that comes from someone who knows a possessive from a contraction. You may be right; you’re probably the sort of person who double checks your texts to make sure that they don’t autocorrect to the wrong their/there/they’re, and you might even know your who from your whom. But even the most seasoned grammarian has a weak spot; the following are a list of common words that might make you think twice, even if you’d rather not admit it. Remember: there’s no honor lost in having to pull out your dictionary to double check a phrase once in awhile, especially if you edit a lot. Editing tends to loosen our moorings. When we see something wrong on the page enough times, it starts to look right after awhile. Even if you aren’t an editor by trade, there are some words or phrases that may just have an evil hold on you (in the interest of full disclosure: I still question how to spell privilege each and every day). Check this out and see if there’s something on this list that you struggle with, too:

lay vs. lie

Perhaps the most complicated pair on the list (at least for me!), lay and lie are deceptive in that they are easy to understand at first. They are both verbs. Lay means to place an object down. Lie mean to recline or to be placed.


Lay the hat on the table.

Lie down on the bed.

It becomes confusing when you consider the past tenses. The past tense of lay is laid. The past tense of lie is lay.


The hat was laid on the table yesterday.

You lay in bed last night.

The past participle of lie is lain. The past participle of lay is laid.


They have laid many hats on this table before.

You could have lain in bed for days.

Layed is a common misspelling and does not exist. Use laid.

may vs. can

These two words may take you back to your childhood. May simply refers to a possibility and can to an ability. In speech, there is a somewhat formal-sounding tone to ask “may”, and many people forgo it for the less-formal can, (similar to the way should has replaced shall) however, there is still a place for may. When we consider the question “May I go to the bathroom?” vs. “Can I go to the bathroom?” the questioner is asking permission, but in using can it sounds as if he is asking if he is able to go instead of if he is allowed to go. Thus, may still retains value and should be considered.

may vs. might

Many people use these two words interchangeably, but there are two important distinctions between the two. Let’s tackle the first thing you need to know. May refers to situations that are factual and possible, whereas might is used when the possibility is less remote or hypothetical.


I may go to the movies later.

I might buy a boat if I win the lottery.

May gives a sense that things could happen, and might is for more speculative situations.

The second thing to know about these words is that might is the past tense of may. The only time when one would use may have would be when one is asking for permission, as in the previous section (May I have another slice of cake?). Otherwise, it would only makes sense to write might have.

Ex.: I might have driven around the accident if I had known about it.

One would never have an occasion to write may have, since may is the present tense.

further vs. farther

This is pretty easy. Further refers to anything metaphysical and farther to strictly distance. Thus, I wish to take my career further, and I will be willing to drive farther to do so. While this rule of grammar has fallen out of favor somewhat in recent years and it is more permissible to use these terms interchangeably, it is still good to know the difference and to apply them when possible.

issue vs. problem

The rampant misuse of these terms have become a widespread problem in recent years. We don’t tend to see people writing much formally about the words problems and issues, but it is spoken about and thus it crops up in informal writing, such as texts and in emails. Many people are not aware that there is a difference in the terms, and they use the word issue to mean problem, believing it to have a less … problematic sounding tone. Perhaps it sounds more official. Whatever the recent shift to issue, this is an incorrect word to substitute when one really means problem. A problem is something with a solution. An issue is a debatable topic. Examples of problems would include broken computers, a hardware malfunction, a measles outbreak, “Houston, we have a” … any number of things that trouble us because they are pressing matters and they have gone wrong and need fixing. Examples of issues are political debates such as Roe vs. Wade, gun rights, civil liberties, etc. Issues may also be problems, but problems are not usually issues.

i.e. vs. e.g.

These Latin abbreviations are often misused. It isn’t much of a problem, since the point of language is for us to understand each other and communicate our intentions. As long as we all understand each other, that’s what matters. Still, you’ll impress others if you are in the minority of people who know difference between these abbreviations and how to apply each of them correctly!

i.e. stands for id est and means “that is” or “in other words.” It is often used erroneously to list things out. The correct use for this is when you need to clarify something, use a metaphor or restate it more simply.

e.g. stands for exempli gratia and means “for example.” This is when a list can and should be used.

wherein vs. whereby

Wherein means “in which” and whereby means “by which.”

was vs. were

Was and were are both used in the past tense. Was is used in the first and third person singular past, and were is used in the second person singular and plural and first and third person plural. Was is used for statements of fact only. Were is used in the subjunctive mood to indicate unreal or hypothetical statements (The words if and wish usually indicate the subjunctive mood.)


When I was a child, I was very short.

If I were rich, I’d buy a mansion.

Hopefully, you’ll find some of these distinctions useful. If you’re like me, you’ll have to keep looking up one or two even after many years. Good luck, and happy editing!

The Great Copy Editing Quiz No. 2

by Catherine Foster

Do you want to be a copy editor? Maybe you just enjoy catching other people’s grammar errors and rampant punctuation mistakes. Do you think you have what it takes to find the flaw in every phrase? Take our quiz and find out!

Choose the correct sentences:

A) The girl thought that all of her pudding were missing.
B) The girl thought that none of her pudding were missing.
C) The girl thought that some of her pudding were missing.
D) The girl thought that some of her pudding was missing.

A) Neither Erik nor Christine have played violin.
B) Neither Erik nor Christine are playing violin.
C) Neither Erik nor Christine is playing violin.
D) Neither Erik nor Christine were playing violin.

A) Either of us were capable of doing more work.
B) Either of us are capable of doing more work.
C) Either of us have been capable of doing more work.
D) Either of us is capable of doing more work.

A) Some of the cookies is on the platter.
B) Some of the cookies has been on the platter.
C) Some of the cookies was on the platter.
D) Some of the cookies are on the platter.

A) Here is the blue ballpoint pens you requested.
B) Here’s the blue ballpoint pens you requested.
C) Here are the blue ballpoint pens you requested.
D) Here are the box of blue ballpoint pens you requested.

Please correct the following sentences:

6. It is us whom must decide whether to eat pizza or buffalo wings.

7. Between yourself and I, this movie is boring.

8. Whom do you think you are to give me advice about the test?

9. Whomever makes up these silly games?

10. Whomever do you think should come in first place?

11. Our puppy is much more sweeter than his sister.

Answer Key:

1. Correct Answer: D The girl thought that some of her pudding was missing.
Explanation: Some is a portion word that is singular or plural depending on the object of the preposition. In this sentence, “pudding,” is the object of the preposition, so use “was.”

2. Correct Answer: C Neither Erik nor Christine is playing violin.
Explanation: when neither and nor connect two singular subjects, use a singular verb.

3. Correct Answer: D Either of us is capable of doing more work.
Explanation: “Either” is the singular subject, which requires the singular verb “is.”

4. Correct Answer: D Some of the cookies are on the platter.
Explanation: see Explanation 1.

5. Correct Answer: C Here are the blue ballpoint pens you requested.
Explanation: the subject is “pens,” so use “are.”

6. Correct Answer: It is we who must decide whether to eat pizza or buffalo wings.
Explanation: After “is,” use the subject pronoun “we” to rename the subject “It.” Also, use “who” as the subject of “must decide” because you would say “we must decide,” not “us must decide.”

7. Correct Answer: Between you and me, this movie is boring.
Explanation: “Between” is a preposition and the pronouns that follow are objects of the preposition, so use “me.”

8. Correct Answer: Who do you think you are to give me advice about the test?
Explanation: despite the tricky word order, the sentence is actually asking, “Who are you, do you think, to give me advice?”

9. Correct Answer: Who makes up these silly games?
Explanation: “Who” is correct because we would say, “He makes up these games.”

10. Correct Answer: Who do you think should come in first place?
Explanation: despite the tricky word order, the sentence is actually asking, “Who should come in first place, do you think?”

11. Correct Answer: Our puppy is much sweeter than his sister.
Explanation: never use “more” with a comparative adjective (“sweeter”).

Extra Credit

As lover of language, we never tire of a good discussion on the topic. So please choose your favorite subject and tell us about it. Do oft-overlooked rules of ellipses fire you up? Should/can you use the virgule in formal writing? Do you have a stance on the Great Oxford Comma Debate? What’s your take on rampant semicolon abuse? From the differences to em-dashes, en-dashes and hyphens to the subject of adverbs, we want to know what makes you a passionate editor. Here’s your chance to shine!