Happy New Year: now write properly

by | January 6, 2022 | General | 6 comments

By Ashley Lister

Not only is this a time for celebrating and overindulging, it’s also time for me to issue an annual reminder for how to improve your writing.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, when I’m not blogging for ERWA, or writing stories that amuse me and my modest readership, I lecture in creative writing. Around this time of year I end up doing a lot of marking and I’m repeatedly struck by the common errors that are made in student submissions.

This is a list of my top four bugbears.

1. Apostrophes.
There are two reasons for using an apostrophe: to show omission and to show possession. Apostrophes of omission are the ones we find in words like they’re, don’t and we’ll. Apostrophes of possession are the ones that show ownership, as in the boy’s books, or the girl’s guns. Apostrophes of possession become potentially confusing when we deal with plurals but it’s not really quantum physics. If we’re looking at books belonging to several boys, the apostrophe goes after the pluralising s (i.e. the boys’ books). If we’re looking at guns belonging to several girls, the same rule applies as before and we write the girls’ guns.

2. Run-on Sentences
Somewhat ironically, this is the definition of a run-on sentence from Wikipedia: “A run-on is a sentence in which two or more independent clauses are joined without appropriate punctuation or conjunction, and this is generally considered a stylistic error, though it is occasionally used in literature and may be used as a rhetorical device, and an example of a run-on is a comma splice, in which two independent clauses are joined with a comma without an accompanying coordinating conjunction, and some prescriptivists exclude comma splices from the definition of a run-on sentence, but this does not imply that they consider comma splices to be acceptable.”
Admittedly, run-on sentences can suggest an unconventional mindset, or give an idea of stream of consciousness writing that reflects the reality of our chaotic mindset. However, unless they’re being used to create a specific effect, sentences should be used to express a single thought with clarity and concision. Anything else is going to drag a reader out of the narrative.

3. Dialogue Formatting
In short: start a new paragraph for each speaker and keep all reported speech and punctuation within speech marks. For a lengthier overview of dialogue this link to a MasterClass article might be helpful

4. Proofreading
Typos are inescapable. We all make occasional mistakes or suffer at the helpful hands of autocorrect. But printed typos will only ever bite you in the arse and the best way to eradicate them is to thoroughly proofread everything prior to hitting the metaphorical SEND button. This is not my way of saying everything needs to be perfect and typo-free. I’m the last person in the world who could argue for that. But the fewer mistakes on the page, the easier a text is to read. This is a link to one of my favourite poems on the subject of proofreading

Reading over this I realise I’m starting 2022 in a grumpy mood, which is probably not a bad thing. The last couple of years have been difficult for all of us and I hope this one finally gives us the respite from tension and stress that we all deserve. Happy New Year xxx

Ashley Lister

Ashley Lister is a UK author responsible for more than two-dozen erotic novels written under a variety of pseudonyms. His most recent work, a non-fiction book recounting the exploits of UK swingers, is his second title published under his own name: Swingers: Female Confidential by Ashley Lister (Virgin Books; ISBN: 0753513439) Ashley’s non-fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines, including Forum, Chapter & Verse and The International Journal of Erotica. Nexus, Chimera and Silver Moon have published his full-length fiction, with shorter stories appearing in anthologies edited by Maxim Jakubowski, Rachel Kramer Bussel and Mitzi Szereto. He is very proud to be a regular contributor to ERWA.


  1. Jonathan

    Yay, you included Taylor Mali! Yay! He is GOOD!

    • Ashley Lister

      I do love Taylor Mali – one of my favourites.

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    My top three bugbears:

    — Pesky participles: people who start a sentence with a participle phrase, then continue with the main clause that has the wrong subject

    “Creeping into the room, the gun in her pocket felt as though it weighed fifty pounds.”

    — Inappropriate use of commas of apposition.

    “Famous defense lawyer, Perry Mason knew what he wanted.”

    (I see this at least once a day in people’s blurbs. Makes me want to pull my hair out.)

    — Incorrect speech tags.

    “I know what you want,” Henry smirked.

    (“smirked” is not a speech act!)

    Sigh. I’m sure my typos drive some people crazy too.

    Happy New Year, Ash!

  3. Rikki de la Vega

    Following George Orwell’s sixth rule of writing (“Break any [previous] rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”) I’ve actually used run-on sentences to describe sex scenes, including sensations & emotions. A friend of mine calls it my “breathless style” of erotic scene-writing.

  4. Brian

    One thing that grates on me is to read (or hear) phrases like “That’s him!” or “That’s me!” Having endured an English course that taught sentence diagramming, I have flashbacks to the requirements for the differnet cases and the distinction between a direct object and a predicate nominative.

    Language evolves, and that this evolution inevitably begins with usage that is “wrong” according to previous rules. There is no more significant instance of this than rules for referring to persons of indeterminate gender. Thirty years ago, my (very progressive, very feminist) English teacher insisted on use of masculine pronouns when referring to persons of unknown or unspecified gender. Example: “Every individual has the right to express himself.” A modern author might write, “Every individual has the right to express themselves.” If she were still alive, my teacher would inevitably point out out that the singular subject and plural reflexive don’t match. She would be technically correct, but it’s also clear (as John McWhorter has recently discussed) that usage has evolved to blur the distinction.

    This evolution of language is what I try to keep in mind when I cringe at a “that’s us!” and the like. Offenses against punctuation, and bad sentence structure, still deserve all the opprobrium they’ve gotten above.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Oh yes, Brian!

      Both about the evolution… and the cringing!

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