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Back To Literature, Past
A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

How The Web Can Kill Your Career

For Writers or Anyone Who Writes


I recently read a grammar and editing column in my local newspaper, the Glendale News-Press. In June Casagrande’s “A Word Please,” she groused about the problems so many writers having with hyphens. She noted the sad (or not so sad) influence of the Web on our grammar, punctuation, and style choices and there are enough of them to give the average author who pulled down As in English a big headache!

June mentioned the disappearing hyphen as one of the things we authors must contend with. but that is just the beginning. The Net also encourages us to push all kinds of words together. Let’s call that the "domain name influence" or, perhaps the domainnameinfluence. Do we write “book” or “bookcover?” “Bookfair” or “book fair?” “Backmatter” or “back matter?” “Hard copy” or “hardcopy?” You’ll never know because generally the trusted Chicago Style Guide doesn’t weigh in on these trends and dictionaries haven’t caught up with the quickly changing domainnameinfluence either. And the spell checker in Word? Well, it doesn’t put a red squiggle under either “Hard copy” or “hardcopy.” That leaves the writer—whether she’s writing fiction or a resume in a style-choice pickle.

In The Frugal Editor, I suggest the zero-tolerance approach to keep authors out of hot water with agents and publishers (and therefore make it more likely they'll get published). Still, I admit I love to stick words together. It isn’t really a new thing. I mean, word-bonding is a time-honored tradition in English. The word therefore is an example. We’ve been using words like that for eons. Word-gluing goes back to the English language’s Germanic roots German is a creative language. The Deutsch do things like push the words for finger and hat together to make the word for thimble (fingerhut).

Poets have pushed words together for ages, too. So, except when I am trying to get something like a pitch or a query or a book proposal past a gatekeeper, I make combined-word style choices for myself and let the so-called rules be damned. We authors can have it our way—we just need to be careful where we choose to exercise our independence!

Back to the zero-tolerance thing. If you want to impress a literary agent or prospective boss, please don't put hyphens in words they are convinced are correct only one way. If you think your contact believes it's nonfiction, not non-fiction, there is no point flaunting your style choice You won’t get a red squiggle with either version from your Word spell checker (or spellchecker), but that doesn’t mean your run-of-the-mill agent or future employer won’t be more judgmental.

I could go on and on about the way the Web has mislead us. It practically coaxes us to overuse ampersands and most don’t haven’t the faintest idea we’re being mislead. We see question marks and exclamation points and caps and titles overused. What if we emulate those affectations because they start to become so familiar we think they’re being used correctly? Agents and publishers will hate it, that’s what. And that can be disastrous for our careers.

Then there is improperly punctuated dialogue. We see it on the Web and even in books. There’ are many other grammar idiosyncrasies that your English teacher never told you but that are sure to annoy the feature editor at The New York Times or the powerful agent you want to impress.

The list is endless. Lucky that writers have June Casagrande's grammar books like Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies (Penguin), and my multi award-winning book, The Frugal Editor, to help them through the grammar and syntax swamps, isn’t it.

Tips and Tidbits

(Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a Tidbit that will help authors write or promote better. She will also include a Tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.)

Writers' Tidbit:

In this box, I list a Tidbit that will help authors write or promote better on the months my “Back To Literature” columns appear and includes a Tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published. This week, however (because everyone is a writer), I want you to improve your style choice sense so I’m suggesting these books on editing taken directly from my multi award-winning The Frugal Editor .



Lapsing Into a Coma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print—And How to Avoid Them by Bill Walsh.
Concordance is a text-analyzing computer program that makes indexes and wordlists, counts word frequency, compares uses of a word, analyzes keywords, finds phrases and idioms, and publishes to the Web.
Writing Help is a collection of computer programs by Roger Carlson, including highlighters for passive words, prepositions, and adverbs as well as an “Adverb Eliminator,” “Word Frequency Counter,” and “Count Lines.” You need some computer expertise to set your computer’s security settings to accept macros, reboot your computer so the new settings will take effect, and install the programs.


Barbara McNichol, editor and writer, was introduced earlier in this book. Nonfiction only.
• For an editor with a UK sensibility (though he edits for Yanks, too, including this one), check Dr. Bob Rich.
Yvonne Perry, owner of Writers in the Sky, is a developmental editor for fiction and nonfiction. She also has team members who copyedit.
Robin Quinn provides all aspects of editing from developmental consulting and manuscript evaluations, to proofreading services.


AP Stylebook by Associated Press, Especially good for those who write for newspapers and some magazines.
Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer’s Guide to Getting It Right by Bill Bryson
Chicago Manual of Style by the University of Chicago Press Staff .
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss. Especially good (and fun) for those writing for the UK market.
Far From the Madding Gerund by Geoffrey K. Pullum et al.
Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner is excellent for Americans. For our purposes—that is not to rile an agent or publisher—choose the more formal of possibilities it offers. If the suggestion feels stilted, rearrange the construction of your sentence.
Grammar Snobs Are Big Meanies: Guide to Language for Fun & Spite by June Casagrande, published by Penguin. Use this book when you want to be informed and confident enough to edit on your own or to judge the expertise of the editor you hire. It is an excellent source (and a fun one) to learn more about style choice vs. grammar rules. A more formal tome that helps with basics but isn’t as fun is The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage by Fowler and Burchfield.
Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs—Even If You’re Right by June Casagrande. The more you know about choices, the better writer you’ll be. You will not always need to cater to gatekeepers.
It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences by June Casagrande. This is the best single book to review before you begin to edit any major writing project.
StyleEase for Chicago Manual of Style by Kate Turabian.
A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Seventh Edition: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers by Kate L. Turabian is an excellent resource for academics.
• Perrin and Smith Handbook of Current English has been around a long time. When you have read it, you will know the difference between temerity and timidity—or at least know to look them up. “Half knowing a word may be more dangerous than not knowing it at all” is the kind of truth you will find within its pages. Trouble is, you may need to search for it in a bookstore that sells used books or watch for it at garage sales.
The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition, by William Strunk Jr., E. B. White, Roger Angell. See my cautionary notes in this book about using Elements as if it were The Ten Commandments.
The Describer’s Dictionary: A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations by David Grambs. One of my favorite references for creative writing.
When Words Collide: A Media Writer’s Guide to Grammar and Style (Wadsworth Series in Mass Communication and Journalism) by Lauren Kessler and Duncan McDonald. Perfect for freelance writers, copywriters, journalists, and media writers.


  • Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella is a must-read because poor dialogue technique is a glaring tipoff to editors and publishers that a manuscript is written by a beginner who has not taken the time to learn his or her craft. It is one of those books I wish I had written myself. No need. Chiarella did it.
  • Writing for Emotional Impact: Advanced Dramatic Techniques to Attract, Engage, and Fascinate the Reader from Beginning to End by Karl Iglesias. Fiction writers can learn a lot from screenwriters and playwrights and vice versa.
  • Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. I recommend this book to all my editing clients.
  • How to Blog a Book: Write, Publish, and Promote Your Work One Post at a Time by Nina Amir. A Writer’s Digest book that encourages and inspires—and makes the writing of your book a little easier.


Many professional organizations share their print conventions with authors. Just ask. I list a few so you will see there might be an appropriate one for you even if your topic is . . . well . . . esoteric.


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