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Back to Literature
A Literary & Poetry column
By Carolyn Howard Johnson    Follow Us on FaceBook

2016 Past Columns
What I Learned from Carolyn See


What I Learned from Carolyn See

West coast writer and amazing supporter of literature and other writers died this week of cancer at eighty-two. I was surprised to learn how old she was. I didn’t know her well but she had an aura of perpetual youth and energy. Perhaps it was her passion for the literary world.

We both served as instructors for UCLA Extension’s renowned Writers’ Program. But she was a veteran and I was new and feeling insecure. She showed up at a panel I served on at the venerable (and ancient by independent bookstore standards—more than 100 years old!) Vroman’s in Pasadena. When I introduced myself she grinned. “I know who you are,” she said.

It was one of the small indications of her generosity to her readers and other and to other writers. There it was. A casual remark that makes a fellow writer feel good. The other gift, of course, was showing up at the event.

So, I’m using this short column to remind both readers and authors to show up and be kind. It’s a pass-it-forward kind of thing. In honor of Carolyn See.

And, Oh! I can’t resist. In lieu of flowers or tears, do yourself a favor and read her Golden Days. That’s the best kind of gift we who love literature can give to another.

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.)

Instead of the usual abbreviated “Tips and Tidbits” that you usually find here, I’m substituting a list of books that I recommend for a better understanding of all the gremlins’ favorite snares in The Frugal Editor. Things like style choices vs. grammar rules. Wordiness. Word trippers. And, yes, out-and-out grammar errors. There are other recommendations in the Appendix of that book, but these are great starters.

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 Chiarellais 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.

Join me in my battle with the gremlins. But have fun doing it!

2011 Noble list Please nominate a book that fits within the parameters listed in this year's Noble Back to Literature column. Explain in 25 word or less why your nomination is a work of literary merit and sent directly to me. Nominations must be signed with your real name, e-mail address and a URL if you have one. Email

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Carolyn Howard Johnson

Carolyn Howard-Johnson is a multi award-winning novelist, poet and author of the HowToDoItFrugally series of how-to books. She occasionally teaches classes for the renowned UCLA Extension Writers' Program.

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