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February 8, 2011
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For the short of time, patience or remaining-eyesight: here is a quick, ten-point tutorial for better prose.

The points are drawn from books, articles, casually-offered-advice and my own experience. Much like the Ten Commandments, they aren't all concrete rules. Just things to strongly keep in mind.


1. Vary sentence structure.
-> In particular, avoid starting every line with "I..." or "He..."
-> Try to vary your sentence length too.

2. Don't repeat words within a sentence.
-> Or too many times in sentences that follow each other.
-> Avoid repeated use of character names by using he/she where possible.

3. Avoid adverbs.
-> They clutter sentences and there's usually a better way.
-> Ask yourself, "Does this add any new information?"

4. Swap "which" for "that" where possible.
-> This is black magic. It just sounds better.
-> Also avoid "however".

5. Make pairs of adjectives different.
-> Think "big strong" as opposed to "huge gigantic".
-> Also try to avoid over-used or clichéd descriptions.

6. Check your metaphors. Double-check your similes.
-> They always need to make at least a small amount of sense.
-> If they don't, they'll jerk the reader out of the story.

7. Don't overuse exclamation marks or ellipses.
-> And really don't double them!!
-> Overuse of "exotic" punctuation can distract a reader from your writing.

8. Remove speech tags where possible. Where not possible, use "he/she said".
-> Words like "yelled", "screamed" and "cried" are distracting.
-> Make sure the reader always knows who's talking.

9. Avoid the passive voice.
-> "Bob carried Julia" is active. "Julia was carried by Bob" is passive.
-> Talk about people doing things, not having things done to them.

10. Read it out loud.
-> You can often hear problems better than you can see them.
-> At the very least, you'll catch more typos this way!
I know, I know. Two tutorials uploaded in one evening. I've been doing a lot of thinking around this sort of stuff while I try to edit one of my own stories.

Like it says at the top, try not to take this as some sort of Gospel truth. It's just the sort of thing I like to tape to my wall.

-

Found this helpful? Point your browser here for the rest of my tutorials.
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:iconkhateley:
Khateley Featured By Owner Jun 5, 2014  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Wow, three years ago? And I found this now?! Thank you so much!
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:iconmetalmagpie:
MetalMagpie Featured By Owner Jun 8, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Glad you like it. Thanks. :)
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:iconastrikos:
Astrikos Featured By Owner Jul 2, 2013   General Artist
Featured your helpful deviation here. :love:
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:iconmetalmagpie:
MetalMagpie Featured By Owner Jul 3, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks. :)
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:iconastrikos:
Astrikos Featured By Owner Jul 4, 2013   General Artist
:heart:
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:iconpt-piranha:
PT-Piranha Featured By Owner Nov 22, 2012
Never mind, I figured out what you meant, about speech tags.
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:iconmetalmagpie:
MetalMagpie Featured By Owner Jan 1, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Good good. Sorry if that isn't very clear.

(And sorry it's taken me so long to reply! My life has been chaos for the last few months.)
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:iconpt-piranha:
PT-Piranha Featured By Owner Jan 1, 2013
It's fine.
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:iconpt-piranha:
PT-Piranha Featured By Owner Nov 21, 2012
What do you mean by "remove speech tags where possible"?
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:iconryuu-izou:
Ryuu-Izou Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Love it! :D

Just one thing:

8. Remove speech tags where possible. Where not possible, use "he/she said".
-> Words like "yelled", "screamed" and "cried" are distracting.
-> Make sure the reader always knows who's talking.

Why shouldn't I use words like "yelled", "screamed" and "cried"?
Reply
:iconmetalmagpie:
MetalMagpie Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
This is an often-stated rule, but one that not everyone agrees with. The reason for it usually given is that words like "yelled" and "cried" are distracting, whereas words like "said" and "replied" are neutral and invisible.

If you have well-written dialogue, it should be already apparent how the character is speaking from the words they use and the actions they use around the speech.

Compare these two lines of dialogue:
1. "Well, I don't like it," grumbled Jane.
2. "Well, I don't like it," said Jane, folding her arms.

The second puts more emphasis on the character's words and actions. The word "grumbled" is used by the narrator to tell the reader how they should interpret Jane's mood. Readers tend to be more engaged when they're forced to do some of their own interpretation of scenes, instead of just being spoon fed. This is part of the "show, don't tell" rule.

But the main problem with using too many colourful alternatives to "said" is that - when a lot of them are used together - it can make the prose style appear cluttered. Again, this draws focus away from the lines of dialogue themselves.

"Quick!" cried John. "The zombies are breaking through!"

"What are we going to do?" whined Alice.

"We're all going to die!" screamed Mary.

"Shut up all of you and listen!" roared Albert. "I've got a plan!"


With more "interesting" words in place of the simple "said", the reader notices them a lot more. And none of them are required. The content of the lines themselves should be enough to tell how each one is spoken.

"Quick!" said John. "The zombies are breaking through!"

"What are we going to do?" said Alice.

"We're all going to die!" said Mary.

"Shut up all of you and listen!" said Albert. "I've got a plan!"


However, everyone has their favourite alternatives to "said" that they refuse to stop using. Mine are "muttered" and "snapped". The first one I use because I struggle to demonstrate that a character is talking quietly without it. The latter I think has more punch than "said" for certain lines.

The important thing is not to completely rid your prose of these words, but to be aware of how many you use and (more importantly) be aware of why you're using them. There are often far better things you can do to get the same information across.
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:iconfehnwrites:
Fehnwrites Featured By Owner Oct 25, 2012  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Lol while I agree with the top part, replacing the "louder" words with "said" in those for lines brought me back to a Scooby-doo trap. If you ever watched it, you might remember their set-up's.

Shaggy, completely straight faced: "Oh no... my foot appears to be stuck in this crevice! I guess I'll just have to wait for the big scary monster to come get me. I'm sooooo scared."

xD That's just how I imagined it. Even with the exclamation marks, "said" seems very repetitive and bland to me.
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:iconryuu-izou:
Ryuu-Izou Featured By Owner Feb 28, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Wow, thank you for that generously big reply :D

I will try to remember this when writing. Could I get your email, I would love to discuss writing with you, if you are interested. You just seem to be a very good writer, and having you as someone I can talk to about my writing would be a great honor. :)
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:iconryuu-izou:
Ryuu-Izou Featured By Owner Mar 3, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Thats fine. :3

And I will, and there is actually one question I want to ask you. I have been working on making my own fantasy world for a while (it's not going very fast though.. :P) and I just wanted to ask if there are any "pits" I should avoid when going about making the world?

And do you have any tips on where I should start so that the world makes sense somewhat? :P
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:iconmetalmagpie:
MetalMagpie Featured By Owner Mar 3, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
I don't generally give out my email address on dA. But you can send me a private note if there are things you want to discuss about your writing. I check this site almost every day and I always love hearing about people's projects. :)
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:iconryuu-izou:
Ryuu-Izou Featured By Owner Mar 3, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Thats fine. :3

And I will, and there is actually one question I want to ask you. I have been working on making my own fantasy world for a while (it's not going very fast though.. ) and I just wanted to ask if there are any "pits" I should avoid when going about making the world?

And do you have any tips on where I should start so that the world makes sense somewhat? :)

Oh and I post this again in case the one above doesnt reach you, as I didnt use the reply button :P
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:iconmetalmagpie:
MetalMagpie Featured By Owner Mar 10, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
(Sorry for the delay in replying. I've been really ill lately and still haven't quite recovered.)

My best tip for constructing a fantasy world is to pick a central concept to act as the foundation and build everything off that. For example, if you pick your central concept to be "connecting with nature", then you can have: a magic system based on plants and/or animals; a religion based on nature worship; a villain intent on deforestation; etc.

By doing this, you stand a far better chance of making sure the world keeps a coherent feel and doesn't come across as a bunch of fantasy elements stapled together. Of course, you don't have to religiously stick to your theme, but it's a good place to tie your fundamentals to. An especially good thing to work out early on (and tie to some sort of theme) is the magic system (assuming you have one), the mechanics of which can be plot important.

If you're going for sword-and-sorcery, another good starting point is to pick the real historical era and location you want to base it on. For example, 16th century Italy. Even if you subsequently change quite a few things, having picked a particular era gives you something to fall back on when you get inevitable questions like "what should the horse tack be like?" or "what meals should people have?" or "what types of weapon have been invented?". You can just look it up!

By the combination of the above two ideas, you can come up any number of unique fantasy worlds that feel believable.

:bulletblue: 18th Century Japan - construction/architecture
- cities stretch far into the stratosphere, held up by stone magic
- mages are architects, and carry beautiful swords to show their status
- a villainous character has a plan to remove all magic from the stones, destroying the beautiful cities and killing tens of thousands

:bulletblue: 1st century Europe - demonology
- a great empire spreads across most of the world, sweeping all resistance aside with highly disciplines armies
- demon worship is widespread, but hated by the empire
- a small faction hopes to use demon-summoning to throw off the shackles of their oppressors

You get the idea.
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:iconryuu-izou:
Ryuu-Izou Featured By Owner Mar 10, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
(No problem. Recover and by all means take your time :) )

This is very helpful! :heart:

And well, my world (called Asoria) is supposed to be a place where magic is highly abundant. Where the land itself is teaming with magic (depending on the location of course, some areas are complettely emptied of magic, and those places will naturally be less "alive" then those places with heavy consentrations of magic. Magic is more like a force of nature then it is a mystic art. (That does not mean there aren't any hidden and mysterious sides to it though. ;) )

And the world is also supposed to have all kinds of cultures and the like, all depending on where you are. But then again, that only mean the central concept will change from location to location, so your teachings are still appliable. :D

Now, would you be interested in checking out what I have written about the capital city?
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:iconmetalmagpie:
MetalMagpie Featured By Owner Mar 16, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Sure, I'd be interested in reading what you have so far. :)
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(1 Reply)
:iconleanai:
Leanai Featured By Owner Feb 27, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
I love your tutorials :D

I have one question though:

9. Avoid the passive voice.
-> "Bob carried Julia" is active. "Julia was carried by Bob" is passive.
-> Talk about people doing things, not having things done to them.

What if the main character would be dragged out of a room. Would you say:
-> He/she was dragged out of the room by two guards.
-> Two guards dragged he/she out of the room.

Because he/she is the main character, would it be different or not?
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:iconmetalmagpie:
MetalMagpie Featured By Owner Feb 27, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Glad you like the tutorials. :)

To answer your question:
Two guards dragged John out of the room. <- This is active. The guards are doing something to John.
John was dragged out of the room by two guards. <- This is passive. John is having something done to him.
(I submitted in a name to avoid he/she.)

"Voice" is a grammatical concept. It's not affected by who the main character is. Look for who is doing the action (in this case, dragging John out of the room).
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:iconleanai:
Leanai Featured By Owner Feb 27, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Thank you for taking time to explain :D
I just read all of your tutorials and I really like the way you explain. it makes me laugh a lot but it's organized and clear :D

Are you planning on making more tutorials?
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:iconmetalmagpie:
MetalMagpie Featured By Owner Feb 27, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks. I'm really glad I managed to make them fun to read as well as helpful. :)

I've got a tutorial focused on villains in the works that I hope to get finished at some point. Other than that, I'm always open to suggestions.
Reply
:iconhavetales-willtell:
HaveTales-WillTell Featured By Owner Oct 16, 2011  Professional Writer
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief: your tutorial is good.
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:iconmetalmagpie:
MetalMagpie Featured By Owner Oct 29, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Cheers. :D
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:iconanapests-and-ink:
anapests-and-ink Featured By Owner Aug 31, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
I like the brevity. It makes things much simpler. :)

I do have an issue with #8, though. I have seen this advice many times, but I'm still ambivalent about it. Personally, I don't find "said" to be invisible at all. It's only invisible when you aren't paying attention. That's harsh, but it's how I feel about it. I agree that context is everything, but changing up your verbs can't hurt (much :)).
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:iconmetalmagpie:
MetalMagpie Featured By Owner Sep 2, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks. There are a lot of long tutorials around about writing, and I thought a couple of short, quick-to-read ones would be good.

In some ways, it's a matter of taste. Simple words like "whispered" and "shouted" rarely cause me much bother, but dressed-up words like "exclaimed", "gasped" and "roared" have the power to break me out of the story if used clumsily.

What I've read quite a lot of on dA is prose like this:

"How dare you!" roared Mike.

"What did I do?" whimpered Steve.

"You know what you did," snarled Mike. "And now I'm going to kill you."

"No!" shrieked Steve. "Please!"


Etc.

The point about only using "said" is not such much that it's an invisible word (it's less noticeable, but that's not the same thing), but more that it promotes the idea that you should contain as much of the emotion of your dialogue as possible in the dialogue itself, or in actions surrounding it. The first line spoken by Mike doesn't need the "he roared" because we should be able to guess that from what he says.

To be honest, the above snippet would not be greatly improved by just making it all "he said". It would be greatly improve by removing as many of the tags as possible entirely, and letting us know who's talking with actions instead.

Mike stormed into the room. "How dare you!"

"What did I do?" asked Steve, shrinking back against the wall.

"You know what you did." Mike picked up a knife off the counter. "And now I'm going to kill you."

Steve tried to flee. "No! Please!"


Still not great, but better. Swapping out "whimpered" for "asked" in the second line means we're forced to show his emotion through an action, rather than through simply describing how he's speaking. Which - to me at least - is more active and so promotes livelier prose. Removing "he roared/snarled/etc." from the rest of it forces us to weave in yet more action.

I take your point that "said" being an invisible word is a bit of a myth. And that not all alternatives are bad. ("Whispered" - for example - is hard to avoid without using a dreaded adverb.) But I do think that for beginner writers (i.e. the types of writers who are likely to read ten-quick-tips articles!) the "only-use-said-and-remove-it-where-possible" rule promotes better writing habits.

As you can probably tell, I like discussions about writing. ;)
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:iconwordswithout:
wordswithout Featured By Owner Aug 7, 2011   Writer
Useful! I have such an adverb-overuse problem and definitely need the reminder now and then.
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:iconmetalmagpie:
MetalMagpie Featured By Owner Aug 8, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Glad it's useful. I hoped writing something short like this would be a helpful alternative to all the longer tutorials out there. :)
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:iconrobonightmare:
Robonightmare Featured By Owner Apr 28, 2011  Student Writer
This is great advice, definitely keeping this in mind. Thanks a lot!
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:iconmetalmagpie:
MetalMagpie Featured By Owner Apr 29, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Glad you find it helpful. :)
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:iconravenwolfe0:
Ravenwolfe0 Featured By Owner Apr 27, 2011
Faved and printed to check out soon.
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:iconmetalmagpie:
MetalMagpie Featured By Owner Apr 28, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks. Hope it's useful. :)
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:iconravenwolfe0:
Ravenwolfe0 Featured By Owner Apr 28, 2011
Thanks I will let you know :)
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:iconlongdragon92:
Longdragon92 Featured By Owner Apr 26, 2011
I don't understand #9... Can you explain that idea to me?
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:iconmetalmagpie:
MetalMagpie Featured By Owner Apr 28, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
The idea of the "fourth wall" comes from films and TV shows. To make filming easier, sets often have a wall missing. (In shows like "Friends", it's fairly obvious which one.) The camera can then shoot all the action from the position the fourth wall ought to be. Breaking the fourth wall - in this context - is when the characters notice the missing wall and the camera!

More generally, breaking the fourth wall is when someone inside a story (either characters or the narrator) appears to be aware that they're inside a story. An obvious example is when characters actually discuss the fact that they're inside a story, making references to plot inconsistencies and genre clichés. But the narrator can also break the fourth wall in more subtle ways by - for example - talking about things the POV character can't know. Breaking the fourth can be used very successfully for comic effect, but it also breaks immersion.

All that said, I'm actually just about to swap #9 for something else as I've decided that breaking the fourth wall is a storytelling point, not a prose one. ;)
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:iconlongdragon92:
Longdragon92 Featured By Owner Apr 28, 2011
Ah, okay. Thanks for clarifying! :)
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:iconsilkwormparadise:
SilkwormParadise Featured By Owner Apr 26, 2011
This really helps people a lot.

Thank you.

Of course, it helps the people who can't find resources

themselves.
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:iconmetalmagpie:
MetalMagpie Featured By Owner Apr 28, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Thanks. Glad you think it's helpful. :)
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:iconlinaket:
linaket Featured By Owner Apr 20, 2011   Writer
I agree with some of these, but disagree with #8. Too much "he said/she said" would then violate your rule #2 about repetition. Although it should be taken out whenever possible, adding a different timbre to the voice of your characters by using different descriptors when it comes to the dialogue is far more interesting. If you simply stick with "said, said, said" everyone would be simply speaking in a flat monotone.

Though like I said, I agree with almost everything else here and therefore I don't have to write a guide that is similar so YAY.
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:iconmetalmagpie:
MetalMagpie Featured By Owner Apr 21, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
I've come across the argument in more than one place that "said" is an invisible word that readers tend not to notice. (Whether or not this is true is down to the individual reader, I guess.) In any case, I try to avoid using too many "said"s in a row by making use of context to define who's talking.

Bob lit a match. "So what's this all about?"

To be less Spartan for a moment, "asked" and "replied" are (I think) often perfectly acceptable substitutes. In fact, my English teacher used to crack my skull against a wall if I had the audacity to write the following.

"So what's all this about?" he said.

According to that all-knowing Master-of-the-English-Language that was Mr Barker, the sentence should correctly be:

"So what's all this about?" he asked.

(I still don't know to this day if it's actually grammatically incorrect to have a character "say" a question, but the "ask" habit has stuck.)

What a lot of writers warn against is this sort of thing:

"There are zombies outside!" Mary yelled.

"Yeah, right," Bob spat.

"What's that noise?" Jane whispered.

"I'm telling you," Mary whined. "It's zombies!"


There's a widespread insistence (which I mostly agree with) that too many of these "dressed up" words for "said" get distracting. The above snippet reads a lot better to me as:

Mary slammed the door. "There are zombies outside!"

"Yeah, right," said Bob.

"What's that noise?" asked Jane.

"I'm telling you," said Mary. "It's zombies!"


The "flat-monotone" effect is (again, I think) best avoided by breathing life into the actual dialogue. "Yeah, right" can pretty much only be said in a sarcastic way.

But - much like the adverb question - different writers have different opinions on how "severe" one should be in following the "he said" rule. I personally have a guilty habit of using "muttered" and "murmured", which I'm trying my best to kick.

Anyway, long-winded reply is long-winded. (I'm terrible once you get me going.) Glad you liked the rest of the tips! :D
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:iconmonstroooo:
monstroooo Featured By Owner Apr 24, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Regarding the question of

"So what's all this about?" he asked/said.

I think both are grammatically acceptable - but 'asked' is certainly more appropriate. You ask a question, you don't say a question :nod:

I actually misread #8 on first read. I thought it was advising against said/asked. That's what skim reading will do for you :hmm:. I think I'm on Linaket's side here. But it's a style thing, rather than a grammatical thing. Both approaches are prone to abuse, too, producing flat prose. Perhaps a better tip would be avoid over-using speech 'tags'?

The 'context' tip is a great way to avoid overusing 'said/asked/yelled'.

Does anyone know what these verbs are called when they're used to modify speech?
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:iconmetalmagpie:
MetalMagpie Featured By Owner Apr 28, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
One of these days, I plan to buy a big book of grammar and nail all this stuff for good. There's so much stuff I only vaguely remember from school. :shakefist:

And I've changed the phrasing of #8.
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:iconmonstroooo:
monstroooo Featured By Owner Apr 28, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
I know exactly what you mean. It's a nightmare sometimes.

I have, occasionally, tried to google for rules in this thing. The results tend to vary from the indecipherable to the inconsistent. Especially when you factor in UK/US differences. Damnable yanks :censored:
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:iconsleyf:
Sleyf Featured By Owner Apr 20, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
:lmao: wow I do a lot of the things you suggest not to do :giggle: thank you so much for these useful and easy to understand tips
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:iconmetalmagpie:
MetalMagpie Featured By Owner Apr 21, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
I think we're all guilty of some of them. ;) But they're only general guidelines and I'm doing my best to improve. :shakefist:
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:iconsleyf:
Sleyf Featured By Owner Apr 21, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Well hopefully now that you've pointed them out i can remind myself when i notice I'm doing them
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:iconmonstroooo:
monstroooo Featured By Owner Apr 19, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Some really handy little pointers :) I particularly like that it's concise as well as accurate.
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:iconmetalmagpie:
MetalMagpie Featured By Owner Apr 21, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
It's the sort of thing I like to pin above my desk for easy reference. Essays and articles on writing are all very well, but it's hard to keep them in mind all the time.
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:iconmonstroooo:
monstroooo Featured By Owner Apr 25, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
You're absolutely right - that's why my group has featured you here [link] :)
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