Are All Your Actions in Order?

plane and shavings

Assuming you’ve been following the advice I’ve been giving in this blog series, when you fact-checked your manuscript, or went on dangler patrol, or eliminated those commas in compound predicates, it was a little like planing a piece of wood, and misspelled brand names, danglers and misplaced commas fell to the floor from your manuscript, so to speak. The advice in this instalment, however, could lead to some sweeping up of manuscript shavings on your part only if you’re an author who tends to write a certain kind of sentence – namely, the type using participial phrases containing present participles (I’ll go into what that actually means in a moment). If you are one of those writers, you might just be making a couple of mistakes I often see in manuscripts and which I’m going to discuss here. 

Let’s nail down what I mean by participial phrases containing present participles – and no, I have no idea where this carpentry imagery is coming from, since woodwork is not my strong suit, evidenced by the fact that at school I couldn’t even produce a functioning dovetail joint. Nor was I any good at metalwork.

Now that I’ve somehow got on to the subject of making stuff out of wood and metal at school, and seeing as this is a blog about language, I think it’s only right I share my one abiding memory of metalwork lessons – conversations like the one that follows that came after my bewhiskered, Scottish metalwork teacher, whose name I forget, told me to do something, and I replied by saying ‘Alright.’ Scots Whiskers: ‘Stop saying “alright”, laddie. It’s not a proper word.’ Me: ‘Alright.’ Whiskers: ‘I said stopping saying alright!’ Me: ‘And I said alright. I’ll stop saying alright. Alright?’ Etc. Ad detention. Oh, the fun we had provoking the stick-in-the-mud teachers at our stick-in-the-mud school.

Fire axe pictureTo demonstrate what the phrases in question look like, I suggest we catch up with our drug-dealing anti-hero from the last blog, John Dudley, the so-called Snow King and the guy who, last time we met him, miraculously found a fire axe in Dunbad Prison, where he’s currently doing time, then proceeded to bury the axe in his cellmate’s head. Incidentally, you’re about to discover Dudley is still running free, if we can use that expression to talk about someone in prison. The reason the murder by Dudley of his cellmate didn’t lead to severe punitive measures being taken against him by the authorities is that I’m out of ideas for situations and characters with which to conjure up sentences illustrating grammar points, and I needed a guy I could rely on – a guy like John Dudley – to be going about his business as normal. Which adds up to a sad indictment of my imagination. So, without further ado, here come more slivers of action from the Snow King’s sordid life.

Hiding the bottles of hooch under his bed, the Snow King realised he’d be in deep trouble if the warders caught him with illicit booze again.

The Snow King sat on his bed, smoking a cigarette and thinking about his ex.

In these example sentences, our participial phrases are Hiding the bottles of hooch under his bed, smoking a cigarette and thinking about his ex. There’s a present participle in each phrase: hiding, smoking and thinking. (I explained how we form present participles in the last blog; scroll down if you want to see the explanation.) Notice how this kind of participial phrase tells us about things happening at the same time as what’s going on in the main clause. While the Snow King is hiding the hooch, he’s realising the depth of the trouble he will find himself in should he get caught with the booze. While the Snow King sits on his bed, he’s smoking and thinking about his ex, who presumably left him for another fella. (I wouldn’t like to be in that guy’s shoes and anywhere near a wood-chopping tool if Dudley gets out of prison.) These sentences are all fine and dandy. The following one isn’t.

Striding across the exercise yard, John sat down next to Big Phil and passed him a gram of coke in a wrap. 

John can’t be striding across the exercise yard, sitting down next to Big Phil and passing him coke at same time. What I’ve illustrated here with a sentence that exaggerates the error I’m trying to highlight is what goes wrong when writers try to indicate a sequence of events using participial phrases containing present participles. Unfortunately, sequencing isn’t something these phrases are capable of. Try to get them to show that an action takes place at a particular moment in a series of events and they’re all ‘Sorry, mate, that’s above my pay grade. No can do.’ Past-simple-tense verbs, on the other hand, positively lick the faces of sequences of actions that sentences like the one above fail to describe correctly.

John strode across the exercise yard, sat down next to Big Phil and passed him a gram of coke in a wrap. 

Here’s another example of a sentence illustrating the problem I’m talking about, this time with three phrases with present participles stacked up at the end of it:

John went through the office drawers and found a copy of Hustler, tearing the centre spread into small rectangles, placing a half gram of coke on each rectangle and wrapping up the powder.

I don’t know how John got the keys to whatever office that is, by the way. I suppose it goes to show that if nothing else, the guy’s resourceful and cunning. Anyway, let’s look at what’s gone wrong here. The first two actions – John going through the drawers and finding the magazine – are nicely arranged in sequence, but then our present participles come along and ruin everything. John can’t be going through the drawers and finding the magazine at the same time as tearing the centre spread into rectangles and wrapping cocaine in those rectangles. Nor can he be tearing up the paper, placing the coke on each piece he creates and wrapping up the powder at the same time, since though the guy is resourceful, he’s not some kind of human octopus. Once again, using the past-simple tense would bring clarity where currently there is discord.

John went through the office drawers and found a copy of Hustler. He tore the centre spread into small rectangles, placed a half gram of coke on each rectangle and wrapped up the powder.

I’m saying here that participial phrases containing present participles can only be used to describe actions that happen at the same time as the action in a main clause, but maybe there is a little bit of wiggle room. There certainly is according to Raymond Murphy, the author of English Grammar in Use. He says if one short action follows another short action, it’s okay to use a participial phrase containing a present participle, and he uses this as an example:

Taking a key out of his pocket, he opened the door.

I have to say I don’t like that sentence much. Maybe I’m too literal-minded, but when I read that sentence I try to visualise someone taking a key out of his pocket and opening a door at one and the same time and I can’t, because that’s not possible. However, this is Mr Raymond Murphy talking here, so I have to sit up and listen – or prostrate myself in front of him and listen, because that’s the kind of respect he and his book deserve. English Grammar in Use is a legend within English teaching circles and contains probably the clearest explanations you’ll find of grammar rules formulated for people for whom English is not their first language. (I’m almost tempted to post another book-as-shrine photo, as I did for The Chicago Manual of Style, but the cover of my copy is too crinkled from use to serve as a model.)

Don’t confuse the participial phrases I’m talking about here with a similar construction, having + past participle, which is used specifically for sequencing. (If you need to know what past participles look like, scroll on down.) Here’s an example of having + past participle in action:

Having wrapped ten grams of coke, John made his way to the rec room to deliver five wraps to Tyneside Mac.

The opening phrase, Having wrapped ten grams of coke, is doing good work and indicating that an action happened before the action in the main clause – John going to the rec room. Nice one, having + past participle!

Now to the subject of dangling present participles at the ends of sentences, which I said I’d cover in this instalment. Let’s remind ourselves what danglers are. What happens in sentences containing danglers is that there’s a disconnect between a modifying phrase – in the case we’re going to talk about, a participial phrase containing a present participle – and the noun it’s supposed to modify. Hence, we can refer to the phrase as dangling: it’s been left hanging and lacks a proper connection with the thing it’s supposed to be attaching to. Take a gander at this: 

John looked at the nudie picture, lying on his bed.

This sentence is a little ambiguous, no? It’s not clear whether the intention was to say John is lying on his bed and looking at the nudie picture, or John is looking at the nudie picture that is lying on his bed. Since it was I who wrote the sentence, I can exclusively reveal to you, ladies and gentlemen, that I was imagining myself as an author who meant to say the picture was on the bed. That means lying on his bed is dangling, because it’s not attaching properly to the thing it’s supposed to be attaching to, the nudie picture, and sort of attaching to John instead, but not quite really doing that either. (Maybe it should be defined as a hesitant and indecisive dangling participle.) There’s a simple fix:

John looked at the nudie picture lying on his bed.

If my intention had been to say John was lying on his bed and looking at the picture, which would presumably be on the wall in that case, a good way to rework the sentence would have been:

Lying on his bed, John looked at the nudie picture.

Self-Editing Checklist

1. Check back over your work and establish whether you’re the type of writer who uses participial phrases containing present participles. 

2. If you are, look out for two things. First, make sure you haven’t used participial phrases with present participles to indicate events happening in sequence. Second, make sure the phrases don’t dangle.

3. Rewrite any sentences that have gone wrong.

Photos: © Words: © Marcus Trower 2013. Feel free to pass on the link to this post using Twitter, Facebook, a carrier pigeon, Morse Code and a torch, etc.


Are Your Danglers on Display?

Man in Stocks

Big mistake. Honestly, I don’t know what came over me. There I was, perusing the online edition of The Guardian, looking through the books section, when I chanced upon an interview with Sharon Olds, a poet apparently. (I’d never heard of her and still know nothing about her, for reasons about to become clear.) This was the piece’s intro:

Sharon Olds has the wrong surname. At 70, you can see the young woman in Olds – in the sweep of her long hair and her gentle voice.

Normally I switch off copyediting me when I’m reading for pleasure, but that second sentence activated copyediting me and put him on grammar alert. What we had here, people, was a living, breathing dangler. Not only that, but this baby was big. And so I made the silly mistake of adding a smart-arse comment at the bottom of the article.

So I’m going to have to wait till I’m 70 to see the young woman in Sharon Olds, since that’s what the second sentence of the article says. Will it be worth the wait? I’ll get back about it in 25 years’ time.

I naively imagined the writer of the article, Kate Kellaway, or a Guardian sub-editor would see the comment and amend the second sentence. What actually happened was I got a good pillorying – in a polite Guardian arts pages sort of way, of course. Someone called Cathy replied with:

How boring can some people get? A marvellous interview, some really subtle and complex ideas shining through, and then your response.

Frankly, she had a point. I was being a bit of a bore. Making the comment was out of character for me. I’m not one of those people who think civilization is in jeopardy when I see a misplaced apostrophe on the menu board at the local pub. In my defence I wasn’t drawing attention to something trivial, such as a typo, but to a dangler, front and centre, that made unfortunate, unintended sense. Anyway, it was too late. I’d said what I’d said, and I had to live with the consequences. It wasn’t long before Cathy’s comment had accumulated over 20 recommends, and I felt like a social pariah. It was as if I was languishing in the village stocks, and each recommend was a rotten tomato splatting me in the face. I hit back with:

You’re making the point behind my comment. The problem with bad grammar is that it makes you focus on the grammar and not the content. Some people won’t be able to read past that second sentence. I couldn’t, so I’m never going to know whether it was an interesting piece or not.

But the tomatoes kept splatting me in the face, and next someone using an alias that was a combination of numbers and letters wandered over to have a go at me:

But it doesn’t say what you think it says at all. Failure to understand non-simple sentence structures says more about your failure as a reader than the writer’s failure.

Ouch. Not only was I boring, but I was also failing as a reader, something that, were it true, would be fatal in my line of work, as would an inability to understand non-simple sentence structures, which I’m guessing is a non-simple way of saying complicated sentences. I’m more of a go-for-the-ball-and-not-the-man kind of guy, and I came back with an explanation of the problem:

It doesn’t intend to say what I know it says, more like. What you have at the beginning of the sentence is a dangling modifying phrase. The subject of the sentence, ‘you’, comes after the initial comma, and that’s what the modifying phrase modifies in grammar terms – ‘you’. If you’d like to refute my analysis, please go ahead, but do so in grammar terms. As a professional editor, I ‘succeed’ at reading all the time, thanks.

I braced myself for more criticism and wondered what would happen if the situation spiralled out of control. What if clicking Recommend on Cathy’s comment became the cool thing to do, sweeping the Internet with the viral virility of the ‘Gangnam Style’ video and even spreading to the remote village where I live? If that happened, would the guy with the farm on the corner ever sell me fresh eggs again? Or would he instead pelt me with them the next time I approached him with an empty egg box in hand? 

Fortunately, it was at this point that Billy Mills, a contributor to The Guardian, and a poet and publisher to boot, got my back. 

Spot on; if ‘At 70’ was replaced by ‘Today’ the ambiguity would disappear and everyone would see that it qualified ‘you’, as it is, we know what it means to mean, and so make a mental adjustment.

And once Mr Mills had spoken, the public pelting came to an end. 

So what did I learn from the experience? Well, I’ve returned to my default position of avoiding pointing out these kinds of errors, even if they are big ones. If I was really bothered by the dangler, I should’ve sent a private message about it to the subs’ desk at The Guardian, which was what I wanted to do originally, but because I couldn’t find an email address for the subs, I went ahead and made a comment in public. Kate Kellaway’s article also reminded me how easy it is for writers to go into print with danglers. I should know, because I’ve done so myself. If the online edition of The Times didn’t operate behind a paywall these days, I’d sheepishly provide a link showing an article I wrote a while back in which I erred, too. In the first sentence. What was that about throwing stones and people living in glass houses? I can’t say I remember exactly. 

Danglers are discussed a lot by people offering grammar advice, but I haven’t seen them talked about specifically from the perspective of writing and editing genre fiction – and they need to be. Also, though I’m sure you authors have been listening to the advice out there telling you to avoid writing danglers, you’re not being completely successful in following it, because – believe me – they’re getting through. I would say there are danglers in eight or nine out of every ten manuscripts I see. I sometimes work on novels that have already been copy-edited once or twice, and I usually see danglers in those, too, so these critters have a habit of holding on. 

I suspect that one reason danglers get there in the first place is that they are a feature of spoken English, and there’s a tendency for authors with a conversational style of writing to use them in their fiction without realising. (By the way, has anyone ever picked you up for using a dangler in conversation? No, I didn’t think so. Wait a moment; who said yes? Did someone say yes?) Imagine, for example, a guy called Tony is telling a mate what he did Friday night in Highbury, and he says the following five minutes into the conversation: 

Walking home from the pub, it struck me I should’ve asked her for her phone number.

Euston, we have a dangler. Tony, the person going home by foot, isn’t mentioned where he should be, after the comma – which means the phrase Walking home from the pub is dangling, since strictly speaking the sentence doesn’t tell us who was walking home from the pub. But it sounds like a natural thing to say, no? And we get the intended meaning, even though the syntax is a bit wonky. Look at how wordy the following corrections are in comparison:

As I was walking home from the pub, it struck me I should’ve asked her for her phone number.

Walking home from the pub, I was struck by the fact I should’ve asked her for her phone number.

These sentences are also more formal in register than the original, and they sound like writing rather than chat. All the essential scene-setting information was actually contained in the original opening phrase, Walking home from the pub. The guy who’s listening to Tony knows Tony’s talking about himself, because that’s what he’s been doing for the past five minutes, so who was walking home from the pub doesn’t need to be established again. 

Have I just gone and justified the use of a dangler? I think I have. However, I’m talking about danglers in speech rather than writing, so this discussion isn’t relevant to fiction, right? Well, no, it is. Since dialogue is a big feature of fiction, if the reality is that people speak in danglery sentences, then maybe danglers have a right to make it into print in dialogue. Maybe they should even be allowed in narration in some cases. Perhaps you’re writing a book using first-person point of view and your narrator has a colloquial, conversational way of expressing himself or herself, and danglers are right for that person’s voice. 

It’s at this point that I hold up my hands, smile and say that the decision whether to include danglers in your novel is a creative one for you, the author, and I’m not getting involved. I suspect, however, that most – if not all – of the writers who submit manuscripts with danglers in them simply don’t realise they are there and didn’t consciously decide to include them for creative reasons. You would have to be brave to intentionally allow danglers in your novel, because unless you can engineer a way to make it clear to readers you know you’re using them, you risk losing credibility in the eyes of people like that pedantic middle-aged guy who comments on the Guardian website – though everyone says that dude’s boring and incapable of grasping the non-simple, so maybe you shouldn’t care what he thinks. 

Dangler Dynamics

Before you search your manuscript for danglers, you need to know what they look like. Kate Kellaway’s second sentence is a good starting point, because it betrays a couple of traits frequently shared by sentences containing danglers in both journalism and fiction.

At 70, you can see the young woman in Olds – in the sweep of her long hair and her gentle voice. 

‘At 70’ is a modifying phrase – a prepositional phrase, to be precise – and it’s supposed to be giving information about Olds. But it isn’t doing that. Instead, it’s modifying you, a pronoun referring to the readers of the article. In this case, the thing the modifying phrase should modify, Olds, is given, just not given in the right place; it should come after the comma. If the sentence were rewritten and the opening phrase retained, it would start like this:

At 70, Olds . . .


At 70, she . . .

In this instance it’s not possible to rewrite the sentence that way and get in all the ideas Kellaway wants to. (Try it yourself; you’ll see what I mean.) But that’s not our concern here. Sometimes the noun a dangling phrase is supposed to be modifying isn’t present in the sentence at all. Here’s an example:

At 70 years old, life is good.

This sounds like something someone might say, doesn’t it? It is, however, a dangler. Life isn’t 70 years old; it’s Sharon Olds who is that age – and she’s not mentioned. Life, on the other hand, is billions of years old, apparently. What happens in sentences containing danglers is that there’s a disconnect between a modifying phrase – At 70 and At 70 years old, in the cases above – and the noun it’s supposed to modify, which is either not where it should be in order to be read as the thing being modified, or simply not present at all. Hence, we can refer to the phrase as dangling: it’s been left hanging and lacks a proper connection with the thing it’s supposed to be attaching to.

How I imagine you've been spending the winter.
How I imagine you’ve been spending the winter (posed by models).

I said that Kellaway’s dangler displays classic traits. Well, while you people have been drinking red wine and joking and laughing and frolicking on a sandy beach with a Dalmatian – which is how I imagine you’ve been spending the winter while I’ve been holed up in a cold farmhouse on Gozo without hot water or central heating, wearing a beanie and five layers of woollen clothing – I went the extra mile for you by scouring fiction manuscripts I’ve edited for danglers, stripping out 40 in total and placing them side by side in a separate document. Before I was forced to burn said document in order to provide myself with a fleeting moment of warmth, I analysed the sentences in which the danglers occurred and looked for common features. (Okay, 40 danglers isn’t a huge sample, but I think it’s large enough to allow me to harvest some useful information.) I’m going to share the fruits of that research with you here.

How I've been spending the winter (artist's impression).
How I’ve been spending the winter (artist’s impression).

Sentence Position

Out of the 40, two danglers came at the end of a sentence. (I’m going to put the subject of danglers at the ends of sentences aside for the moment. I’ll cover it in the next blog, since I want to clear up another common issue I see in manuscripts at the same time.) The vast majority of danglers in my sample – 33 of the remaining 38 – were initial modifying phrases followed by a comma followed by . . . Well, it was what they weren’t followed by that was the issue: the noun they were supposed to modify wasn’t there. So, over 80 percent of the danglers in the sample came in sentences with this structure at the beginning:

Initial modifying phrase + comma + something other than the thing that’s supposed to be modified by the modifying phrase

Types of Dangling Phrase

In ten sentences, representing 25 percent of the total number of sentences in the sample, the dangling initial modifying phrase was a prepositional phrase – a phrase beginning with a preposition – similar to Kate Kellaway’s one. Here’s a variation on the theme:

With her shiny hair and gentle voice, you can see the young woman in Sharon Olds.

At and with are common opening prepositions in prepositional phrases that have been stood up by the noun they were supposed to be on a date with. Just over half the danglers in the sample were dangling participles (21 out of 40), and most of these (13) were present participles. Dangling participles are the big-brand danglers that everyone talks about, and my sample demonstrated they do represent a real menace in genre fiction, so let’s take a good look at them. But first I’d better go back a step, since some writers won’t be familiar with what participles look like.

There are two types of participles: past participles and present participles. Let’s deal with the first kind first. If you study a chart for English verbs of the kind used for teaching English to foreigners, you will see that each verb has three forms given: the infinitive, the past-simple-tense form, and the past participle. For example: 

to riot, rioted, rioted 

Notice the past participle of this particular verb has an -ed ending. Most past participles do, but some don’t – for example, known, fallen and built. Here are a couple of sentences that begin with past participles:

Built in 1967, Dunbad Prison was a concrete monstrosity.

Known by fellow prisoners as the Snow King, John Dudley was the cons’ drugs dealer of choice.

Built in 1967 and Known by fellow prisoners as the Snow King are called participial phrases. Let’s intentionally create a dangler using the first sentence as our raw material.

Built in 1967, no one would choose to do time in the concrete monstrosity that was Dunbad Prison.

The sentence is saying that no one was built in 1967, which doesn’t make sense. The thing that was built in 1967, Dunbad Prison, is adrift from its correct position, after the comma.

The results of my little research venture tentatively suggest that dangling past participles like the one above are less common in the genre fiction I edit than are dangling present participles. I imagine that’s because the use of past participles is characteristic of an information-giving style of writing that’s more the norm in, say, journalism. Anyway, let’s move on to looking at present participles. Here’s a correctly formed sentence that starts with a participial phrase with a present participle in it: 

Raising the fire axe high above his head, John blocked out any thoughts about the consequences of what he was about to do to his cellmate.

Raising is our present participle. It’s formed by adding -ing to the bare infinitive form of the verb – that’s the infinitive without to. (Here’s the math, as it were: to raise minus to equals raise, plus -ing equals raising, with the e erased.) If you’re scratching your head and wondering how raising can be called a present participle when it’s being used here to talk about something that supposedly happened in the past, keep scratching that head. Present participles can be used to talk about past, present and future events, as can past participles. Both terms are a little misleading, but you’ve got to work with what you’re given, even if that makes everything more non-simple than it might otherwise be. Here’s a danglerfication, as it were, of our example sentence:

Raising the fire axe high above his head, John’s thoughts were everywhere but on the consequences of what he was about to do.

That can’t be right, since John raised the axe above his head, not his thoughts. The guy may be a psycho and about to murder his cellmate – where did he find a fire axe in prison, by the way? Who writes this stuff? – but he’s not a psychic psycho with a talent for psychokinesis. Though a preposition will always be the first word in a prepositional phrase, a participle won’t always be the first word in a participial phrase. The following is a participial phrase, too, for instance:

While raising the fire axe high above his head . . .

Euston, We Don’t Have a Dangler I

You shouldn’t waste time and energy subjecting gerunds to interrogation in the hope of exposing them as dangling present participles; gerunds don’t dangle. The reason you might find yourself asking gerunds searching questions about their status is that both present participles and gerunds have the same spelling. The difference between them is in function: gerunds work as nouns. Look at this:

Murdering fellow prisoners diminishes your chances of getting parole.

Murdering is our gerund and it heads a gerund phrase, Murdering fellow prisoners, that is the subject of the sentence. A way to distinguish between present participles on the one hand, and lone gerunds and gerunds that head gerund phrases on the other, is to replace the word ending in -ing in question with it, ignore the extra words in the cases where you are probing what might be a gerund phrase, and see if what you’re left with makes sense. If it does, then you’ve struck a gerund. For instance, in the example above we end up with:

It diminishes your chances of getting parole.

Nothing to see here, then, and we can move along.

Euston, We Don’t Have a Dangler II

There’s a class of participles called absolute participles, and these can’t dangle. You are more likely to see absolute participles in dry forms of writing, such as news reports, corporate writing and academic texts, than you are in fiction, but they do crop up. Here are some examples of absolute participles: assuming, allowing, concerning, considering, given and providing. Here are a couple in action:

Considering how poorly equipped Dunbad Prison is to meet the needs of a modern penal system, it is scandalous that the government continues to support the establishment.

Given the high rate of recidivism among prisoners who serve custodial sentences at institutions such as Dunbad Prison, the question naturally arises, does prison work?

Well, I hope I haven’t managed to over-non-simplify the subject. There are other kinds of danglers you should look out for – dangling infinitives and dangling appositives, for example – but I’ve covered what I believe are the most common ones in fiction. 

Right, then. Next on the agenda for me: what else can I burn to provide heat? Actually, you know what? Now that I’m subscribing to Oxford Dictionaries Online, that copy of the Oxford English Dictionary on the shelf does suddenly look redundant and more like a heat-giving brick of fuel than a source of spellings and definitions . . .

Self-Editing Checklist

1. Make a creative decision about whether you should allow danglers in dialogue and even, perhaps, narration. 

2. Should you decide not to include danglers, incorporate dangler patrols into your self-editing process.

3. Use the information I’ve given – and will give in my next blog – to spot them. Be on high alert when you come across a sentence that starts with a prepositional phrase or a participial phrase. Often the thing it modifies should come after the first comma, so be on the look out in particular for the following structures at the beginnings of sentences: 

prepositional phrase + comma + something other than the thing the phrase is supposed to modify

participial phrase + comma + something other than the thing the phrase is supposed to modify

4. Don’t concern yourself with gerunds and absolute participles. They can’t dangle.

5. Whenever you do come across a dangler, rewrite the sentence in which it occurs. I’m not going to try to tell you how to do that. You’re the artist in this relationship. Just make sure you don’t give birth to another bouncing dangler baby in the process, okay?

Assuming I continue to survive the cold this winter, I’ll post the next part of this blog in about ten days. Should there be a subject that bugs you while you’re self-editing your novel, send me a message with details. I may be able to cover the topic in a future post.

Photos: © Words: © Marcus Trower 2013. Feel free to pass on the link to this post using Twitter, Facebook, an Enigma machine, body language, etc.

Why You Shouldn’t Believe a Word You’ve Written

Paulie image
“Paulie’s watching you, his gun is loaded, and he’s going to treat you with as much contempt and brutal violence as he’d treat an FBI informant if you so much as put a hyphen in Tic Tac.”

I’ve got some good news and bad news. The bad news is, while you’re reading this, factual errors are festering a few clicks away in your manuscript. I’m not talking about internal inconsistencies, like Sean Stevens’ surname becoming Stephens on three occasions on page 167 because you changed the spelling during the second draft, thought you’d spotted all the alterations but missed a thicket of Stephenses. Yes, there are probably a few errors like that in your novel, too, but those are not my subject here today. I’m talking about the fact that, though you’ve populated an imaginary world with fictional characters, that fictional world intersects with the real world, and you’ve mentioned real things, such as places, people, brands, film titles, song lyrics, events, and so on, and some of that stuff you’ve got anywhere from slightly wrong to utterly and totally incorrect.

How can I be so sure without having met you, especially considering you’re a really nice person of above-average intelligence with a wide circle of friends? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a manuscript without these kinds of errors in it, ranging from the relatively benign (a brand name misspelled here and there) to the potentially fatal (repeatedly using a song title as a motif, then thematically interweaving it with the action at the climax of the story – only, the title was wrong). You probably see factual errors fairly frequently, too, even in traditionally published books, which, you would think and hope, are rigorously edited. (I’ll come back to that subject later.)

But don’t beat yourself up about making mistakes – I’m here to do that for you. No, only joking, but it’s not surprising that mistakes of the sort I’m talking about happen. Eighty to a hundred thousand words or more is a lot of word-count real estate for an author to preserve in an error-free condition, which means that as a writer who wants to be taken seriously, you need to have a fact-checking strategy in place. Ideally, you should make fact checking part of your writing process, not wait till the end to fact-check everything. If you’re writing historical fiction, or you’re a crime writer who goes into the specifics of investigative procedure, or you’re writing a story set in another country, you’re probably intensely aware of this and spent a lot of time researching particular topics relevant to your story before putting digits to keyboard. But even you people need to be careful: perhaps you’ve focused in on researching certain key subjects but neglected looking at the bigger picture. 

Pick up errors early on and, if they are of the more serious variety, you should be able to strip them out of your novel before they contaminate the whole, or a chunk, of your story. So, you need to set up regular error patrols while you’re writing your novel, but I’m going to assume that you haven’t done that and you’ve finished your book without having fact-checked it. Actually, even if you had been going on regular error patrols while writing, I would’ve still suggested you go on a big fact-checking offensive afterwards, because important things are at stake here: your credibility, your readers’ trust in you, and your avoiding the acute embarrassment that comes from seeing one-star reviews of your book posted on Amazon detailing all the factual errors you made and citing page numbers. 

It’s amazing how quickly a mistake can ruin the credibility of an otherwise sound work of fiction. When I was eleven, twelve years old, I was into tanks. I made model tanks from Tamiya kits, went to The Bovington Tank Museum in Dorset, daydreamed about building my own tank from bits and bobs from a scrapyard, and I read all of Sven Hassel’s novels, which tell the story of a mischievous German tank crew fighting during the Second World War. Wheels of Terror(In case you’ve never heard of Sven Hassel, he sold over fifty million books worldwide and died only a few months back, aged 95. Here’s a good blog post about his influence on readers like the twelve-year-old me.) So, it was tanks, tanks, tanks, tanks, tanks and more tanks for me back then. Anyway, the first time I saw the film Patton, about the legendary US general of that name, played by George C Scott – you know the movie, right? – I was captivated, since it was big on armoured warfare. Captivated that was until I saw the tanks that were being passed off as Second World War ones. In the place of my beloved Tigers, Panzer IVs and Shermans, everyone, including the Germans, was driving around in post-war American tanks. ‘I don’t believe it!’ I probably said while no doubt gluing a .50-calibre machine-gun to the commander’s cupola of an M4A3E8 Sherman. (You know, the one with better suspension than earlier Shermans. Oh, I’m sorry, I thought everyone was interested in tanks.) ‘Those are M47s and M48s from after the War – and they’re all American!’

As an adult, I can be forgiving about the film-makers’ use of American tanks. Presumably there weren’t any large formations of intact Second World War German panzers and Allied Shermans knocking around in Spain, where the tank battle scenes in Patton were filmed, in the late 1960s. The film’s producers didn’t make a mistake exactly, just solved a logistical problem in a cost-effective way. I can forgive the film-makers, but that doesn’t change the fact that I find it impossible to watch the film once the battle scenes start, because whatever the realities were when it came to sourcing tanks in the late 1960s, those tanks in the film are plain wrong. Which is a shame, since had I not once been a tank buff, I might agree with the people who say Patton is one of the best war films of all time. But once those post-war American tanks come into view, I have to switch the TV off, the movie-watching equivalent of throwing a book across the room. 

As a writer rather than a film-maker, you have no excuses for getting this kind of stuff wrong. It costs you nothing to do whatever your equivalent is of type ‘Panzer IV’ rather than ‘M47’, just the time it takes to establish the facts through a little research. If you do make a mistake, it will put a hole in the hull of your credibility in your readers’ eyes, and it doesn’t take more than one, two or three holes for that credibility to sink to the bottom of the ocean. Readers are a knowledgeable lot and they will spot any mistakes. I’m sure we all have subjects we know more about than the average person. The ones I do include tanks and Brazil, as I lived there for a couple of years and still go back when I can. If a character in a novel says the Amazon is being deforested to make way for coffee plantations (coffee is only cultivated in the south and southeast), or Rio De Janeiro is the capital of Brazil (Brasilia is, of course, though Rio should be), or – heavens forbid – Spanish is the first language in Brazil (I don’t have to tell you Brazilians speak Portuguese, right?), then putdownable or throw-across-the-roomable the book he or she says it in suddenly becomes. (Those were all examples taken from real books, by the way.)

Now I said at the outset that I have some good news as well as bad. Well, the good news is that the Internet has made it easier than ever to check facts, though of course you need to take care and find reliable and credible sources. I’ll come back to that in a moment, because there’s more bad news I need to share first: if you thought there were any incorrect facts in your manuscript, you would’ve corrected them by now. Unfortunately, right now, while those errors lurk in your story, you actually think everything’s fine, and you’re probably spending your time trying to work out how to leverage Twitter to market your novel instead of thinking about things like fact checking.

So here’s what I suggest you do. You need to break the bond with your novel first and get some distance from it, if you’re not in that position already. I can’t tell you how – I’m sure you know a way. Once you’ve done whatever it is you need to do to get that important distance between you and your manuscript, look at it again, but I wouldn’t want to hear anything like the following, were I to be a fly on your wall with keen hearing and an understanding of English: ‘Have I missed the boat with prologues? Someone’s agent said they’re now out.’ Or, ‘The way that I, the author, become a character in the story on page 254 really adds a postmodern frisson to the narrative architecture.’ You’re not looking at your novel in terms of stuff like that here. Don’t be seduced back into being the creative person who gets a buzz out of your own writing. You’re on fact-checking duty, soldier. Nuts and bolts, people. 

In true self-help style, I’m going to gift you a technique – a mantra no less – that will aid you as you fact-check. But it’s not so much a self-affirmation as a self-defamation. Before you start going through your manuscript, I want you to close your eyes and repeat this ten times: ‘The person who wrote my book is an idiot and gets everything wrong.’ Ten times. That’s right: I recommend you don’t believe a word you wrote. Doing so will improve the factual credibility of your novel no end, because since you have no idea what you’ve got wrong in your story, you’re going to have to check everything, which means telling yourself you get everything wrong is the only way to shake you out of your complacency and make sure you end up getting everything right.

Remember, I want you to be someone else here. You’re your own copy editor, not author you. (Now you’ve joined the ranks of copy editors, by the way, I’d like to extend a big welcome. Can I interest you in a subscription to The Journal of Contemporary Hyphenation? No? Some small talk, then: so, what’s your favourite typo? Wait a moment, you’re only acting the part of copy editor and you don’t want to do this stuff full-time. Okay, sorry.) Right, so as I said, remember the person who wrote your book is a complete idiot; it’s now up to you to sort the mess out and make the manuscript safe for readingkind. Starring you and coming to a book store or Kindle near you soon. 

I suggest you break your novel down into units – single chapters or sections should do it. Go through each unit one at a time and highlight and check absolutely everything you wouldn’t stake your life on being correct or true. It might help to imagine, say, Paulie ‘Walnuts’ Gualtieri from The Sopranos (pictured, top) sitting in an armchair in the same room with you, cradling a shotgun, ready to off you, should you fail to correct even the slightest error. How sure are you now that something you’ve written isn’t based on a false assumption, or isn’t an urban legend masquerading as fact, or a common error propagated on the Internet, or a common misspelling of a brand name? Paulie’s watching you, his gun is loaded, and he’s going to treat you with as much contempt and brutal violence as he’d treat an FBI informant if you so much as put a hyphen in Tic Tac.

So, where do you go to check your facts? I said the good news is that it’s never been easier to fact-check, because of the Internet. Well, what I meant by that is when I started out as a magazine copy editor (‘sub editor’ in sterling) on a music magazine over twenty years ago, it was my job to fact-check every feature or review I worked on, and a lot of the time that meant picking up the phone and calling people, which could be tedious and time consuming, but was also very necessary. In the Internet age, with so much information on so many topics so few clicks away, you’ve never had it so good. But of course some sources are more reliable than others, and it’s not always easy to differentiate between the reliable and unreliable ones. 

I’m not going to give a long list of good sources here, partly because you haven’t told me what your book’s about, but also because the most important thing, as you go on your mistake-hunting mission, is that you have the right attitude of total mistrust in yourself, plus a healthy mistrust of sources. Once you have that, everything else should fall into place. We have to mention Wikipedia though, right? It used to be the butt of jokes about its credibility, however I find it can be a pretty good resource these days, and I use it a lot when I fact-check. It’s definitely a port of call for me. Do I trust Wikipedia? You must be joking. Just the other day I was double-checking that Keystone Kops is spelled like that, with a second K, and looked in Wikipedia, only to find it erroneously spells the name with a C. (I said I wasn’t going to list good sources, but here’s a good site for films, TV and actors: You should be very stingy in allocating trust to sources. Most of the time, it’s essential to consider information given by a number of them, but even if more than one source is saying the same thing, that doesn’t necessarily make it so. They may be quoting the same font of misinformation. Which might be Wikipedia.

I said most of the time, because there are some sources you should be able to trust without having to go further. If you’re checking the spelling of a brand name, for instance, the relevant company should spell the brand name correctly on its website. Use that. Bear in mind, though, that if you’re setting your novel at a different time, a familiar brand name may have had a different spelling back then. Walmart, for example, was spelled Walmart from 1962 till 1964, when it became Wal-Mart, then changed to Wal*Mart in 1992, then came back full circle, becoming Walmart again in 2008. Wow, what a journey it’s been for the retail giant. 

I said I’d come back to talking about fact checking in the context of traditionally published books. Copy editors working for book publishers should fact-check each manuscript as a matter of course, especially since the publisher’s credibility is at stake as well as the author’s, yet I wouldn’t take it for granted that they actually do. If you’re having a book published, check with your editor. But even if your editor tells you that yes, a copy editor is going to fact-check your novel, there will be a limit to how far that person is prepared to go while on a fact-checking expedition through your fictional landscape. If you’ve written a book with a nuanced setting – a thriller set in Cuba in the years leading up to Castro’s takeover, say – your copy editor will probably check the spellings of real names and places, for example, but is unlikely to verify that what you’ve said about real people and places is actually true. 

Ultimately, whether you’re self-publishing or being traditionally published, you need to take responsibility for ensuring your novel doesn’t contain any factual errors, because if you don’t and you get stuff badly wrong, you’ll lose your credibility and might pick up a few of those embarrassing one-star reviews on Amazon in the process.

Self-Editing Checklist 

1. Establish some distance between you and your manuscript, then come back to it. 

2. Tell yourself you’re an idiot and get everything wrong. Do this ten times. Now break down your novel into sections and go through each section, highlighting everything you wouldn’t be able to stake your life on being correct or true. 

3. Check, double-check and triple-check all the highlighted information.

4. When you’re writing in future, make sure you regularly patrol your manuscript for factual errors. Obviously you don’t want to disrupt your creative flow by doing this, so find a way to regularly integrate a bout of fact checking into your schedule that works for you. If you don’t, you risk building your narrative on errors, turning them into bigger problems than they might otherwise be. 

* Every post in this blog series deals with an issue I commonly see in manuscripts.

I intend to post a new part in this series of blogs about once every ten days or so. If there’s a subject that bugs you while you’re self-editing your novel, feel free to send me a message with details. I may be able to cover the topic in a future post.