What Authors Need

Perhaps the writer's requirement for coffee or other caffeinated beverages is accepted as a universal  truth, because it didn't appear once in the top 40 results for 'what authors need'. What I did get, multiple times, was what authors need to know about publishing contracts, including everything from how to get one to how to wriggle out of it later.

Needless to say, I immediately dispensed with that lot, instead opting for the 5 tips that follow, on the basis of their rank position or repetition.

1. 2 Key Things Writers Need to Know About the Oxford Comma
Andy McPhee

When deftly placed, a punctuation mark is a marvellous thing. When daftly placed it entirely transforms meaning, as Lynne Truss expertly highlights in 'Eats, Shoots & Leaves'.

A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then pulls out a gun and shoots the waiter. "Why?" groans the injured man. The panda shrugs and walks out, tossing a badly punctuated wildlife manual over his shoulder. When the waiter consults the book, he finds the explanation for this behaviour. The entry for "panda" reads: "Large black and white mammal native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

It could be argued then, that the most important of all punctuation marks, in Oxford or bog-standard form, is the comma. Andy McPhee demonstrates:

  • The patient was visited by his wife, a co-worker and a friend.
  • The patient was visited by his wife, a co-worker, and a friend.
In the first, the wife was apparently the only visitor. In the second three people showed up.

I would contend that in both of the above statements the number of visitors in attendance is ambiguous. The first variation (without Oxford, or serial, comma) could mean that there is only one visitor - the patient's wife, who also works with him and is his friend. However, in the second, the two commas could potentially be read as parenthesis:

  • The patient was visited by his wife (a co-worker) and a friend.

This now indicates the presence of two visitors and is semantically correct in a contemporary context, where a spouse is likely to be a 'friend', although historically this may not have been the case. Nonetheless, if we assume that there is only one visitor, then the colon provides a clearer alternative:

  • The patient was visited by his wife: a co-worker and a friend.

On the other hand, if there were three visitors, a statement to this effect aids clarity:

  • The patient was visited by three people: his wife, a co-worker(,) and a friend.

In this instance the inclusion of the Oxford comma is a stylistic / publishing choice and given that McPhee is subtitled as 'Author, nurse, and acquisitions editor publishing textbooks for healthcare education', he is likely referring specifically to the publishing requirements of healthcare textbooks.

Thus, if you are producing a particular type of non-fiction, then previously published work in your specialist area (of which you will have read plenty, it is hoped) is perhaps the best indicator of conventions in punctuation, linguistic style, referencing and so on. This might not work quite so well in fiction; following the stylistic features of other authors 'to the letter' removes individuality from your own work. That said, basic punctuation rules still apply... most of the time.

He sprinted to the car, fumbling in his pocket for the keys, his assailant hot on his heals, the blade flashing menacingly in the beam of each streetlight passed. The keys caught in the lining of his jacket and he tugged desperately, tearing the fabric to free them. It was his best suit, the one he wore at his wedding, but it didn't matter. He jabbed frantically at the fob; the headlights flashed their response and he clambered into the driving seat, slamming and locking the door behind him. The man was nearly upon him now and that knife would make easy work of the convertible's soft top. Hardly able to draw breath, he readied his foot on the accelerator and turned the ignition. Nothing.

In conclusion, when it comes to the Oxford Comma, or any other punctuation mark for that matter, your judgement should be based on the requirements of the work being published.

2. Thirteen Things Writers Need to Know About Twitter By Patsy Terrell
Writing from the Peak

"To enjoy Twitter you must build a network. Twitter is as interesting as the people you’re following. If your Twitter Stream isn’t holding your attention, follow smarter people."

This is sound advice, although it might be helpful to consider the kind of network you want to build. Separating our private lives from our writing is tricky on Twitter, but consider how the some of the most successful celebrity Twitterers accomplish this:

@stephenfry: Simply adoring all your vodka tweets. I may accidentally have spilled half a bottle of Grey Goose down my throat...

@jamieoliver: so what's going on with everyone then? loving the weather today...maybe its summer ay?!

@eddieizzard: I am in Paris having a bite to eat and doing my French conversation lessons. What's everyone else doing?

@derrenbrown: Now over Reading. WTF? Everyone has a trampoline. http://yfrog.com/kiddekxj

This is about striking a balance: we need to present a public face, but with personal insights, so that our followers get a sense of connection. Likewise, we should choose carefully who we follow when building our network, to ensure these insights are both interesting and appropriate.

@ZacharyLevi: That last tweet was done while on the toilet. I shall call it a twoop. Thankful it wasn't twiarrhea.

OK, so that's quite amusing, but you see what I'm getting at!

3. The Very Basics: Ten Things All Writers Need To Do - Andrew Jack Writing
Andrew Jack

Write And Learn To Write Well: You might be thinking ‘no kidding?’ right now, but you would be amazed how many writers simply don’t write. This says nothing about their skill level, they may in fact be excellent writers... when they actually get down to it. But it can be easier to talk about and research writing than to actually do it. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but my writing skills didn’t improve until I started writing on a consistent basis. Put simply, writers write.

If you don’t write, you’re not a writer.

Hear hear!

4. Seven Things An Author's Website Must BE

I can't comment on the credibility or efficacy of Romance University (tagline 'RU Ready?'), but their purpose is stated as:

Dedicated to helping writers establish and advance their careers, introducing readers to a variety of authors, and delving into the ever-inscrutable male mind.

Without putting too fine a point on it, the male mind, when considered in this kind of abstract (euphemistic?) context, is rarely inscrutable and the statement reminds me of the Windows 7 / IE8 advert of the man browsing for an 'anniversary gift': "No-one knows what you've been up to. Your secret's safe."

Anyway, the one point that RU make that I can agree with is that authors need to ensure that their websites are:

Bottom line: a website’s no good to you if no one can find it.

Now, there are a few things you can do to ensure that your website is findable, which, let's face it, means Google-findable. These include using meta-tags for your site's description and keywords, including information on your index page that clearly indicates the nature and purpose of your site, using descriptive names for other pages / sections of the site and so on.

Beaten Track Publishing don't build websites, but if they did...

Joking aside, we can help you optimise your website so that it can be found. You'll also need to ensure that your online presence elsewhere is obviously connected to your website.

5. The One Thing Authors Must Do in 2011

The original post comments on how publishers are already getting to grips with what is required of them in this new publishing era, but that one thing authors must do, it says, is build a list of readers and fans.

...authors are too uneasy about marketing/branding/position. It is high time authors get on the horse. Become the brain trust. When you ignore VITAL skills that help you sell what you produce, you will always end up selling used cars.

I have run out of coffee!

Do you have any top tips for other writers? Comments welcome, as always.