The Mechanics of Writing
Created by Julie
Mechanics is the term we use to describe the technical aspects of writing, such as spelling, punctuation, capitalization, etc. Many fiction writers, myself included, would say that mechanics are not the most important part of writing. They come second to other elements such as a good storyline, well-developed characters, and so on. However, mechanics are still very important. If your story is not mechanically well-written, many educated readers will not even bother to read it, either because it’s too hard for them to figure out what you’re trying to say, or they just assume the story won’t be good because it doesn’t appear to be well-written. Despite the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” appearance matters in fanfic. If your story doesn’t look worth reading, people may not read it. Good mechanics make a story easy to read, and that will attract more readers.
If you’re not sold on the importance of mechanics, read the following paragraph, borrowed from this site:
they are the memorable students in any class they participate fully in any mischief they see no point in volunteering for extra jobs they delight in distracting their classmates they take no pleasure in learning they are never satisfied
Not only is the above example difficult to read because of the lack of punctuation and capitalization, but it also impossible to understand the meaning of it. If it had punctuation, it could be read in either of these ways:
They are the memorable students. In any class, they participate fully. In any mischief, they see no point. In volunteering for extra jobs, they delight. In distracting their classmates, they take no pleasure. In learning, they are never satisfied.
They are the memorable students in any class. They participate fully in any mischief. They see no point in volunteering for extra jobs. They delight in distracting their classmates. They take no pleasure in learning. They are never satisfied.
So are these “memorable students” good students or bad students? Based on the original text, we have no way of knowing. Can you see how important mechanics are to meaning?
I am studying to be an elementary school teacher, and I have always been a bit of a grammar police at heart, so I have to admit, some of the poor mechanics I see when reading fanfic make me cringe. I decided to write up this tutorial so that any writer who cares about the quality of their writing can read it and brush up on their mechanics. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and not everyone is good with the grammar and mechanics side of language. Not to mention, there are plenty of fanfic writers who don’t speak English as a first language, and sometimes the mechanics differ from language to language. However, once you have a solid understanding of the mechanics I’m going to cover in this tutorial, you won’t think twice about using them correctly in your writing, and your readers will thank you for it.
Let’s start with the basics. To put it simply, a sentence is a complete thought or idea. [I write fanfic] is a sentence. Like all complete sentences, it has two main parts, a subject and an action. I is the subject, or noun. Write is the action, or verb. [I am a fanfic writer] is another sentence with the same meaning. In this case, I is still the subject, and am is the verb, though it does not really describe an action. (It is called a linking verb, linking I to fanfic writer, which are one in the same.)
Some sentences contain more than one thought or idea. These are called compound sentences. An example of compound sentence is: [I am a fanfic writer, and I write mostly drama.] The two main ideas are [I am a fanfic writer.] and [I write mostly drama.] Each of these could be sentences on their own, since they both form complete thoughts, but I chose to combine them together into one sentence. Notice that I did this by putting a comma and and between them. Words like and, or, and but are called conjunctions and are used to join simple sentences into compound sentences this way.
A run-on sentence is a sentence with multiple thoughts or ideas that are not joined together in the correct way, using commas and conjunctions or semi-colons (which I will get to in a bit). If I wrote, [I am a fanfic writer I write mostly drama], that would be a run-on sentence because there is no punctuation to separate the two thoughts.
As you can see, punctuation is important to writing sentences correctly, so I will cover that next.
Punctuation are marks such as periods (.), question marks (?), exclamation points (!), commas (,), apostrophes (‘), quotation marks (“”), semi-colons (;), and colons (:). When used correctly, they make writing look more organized and easier to read and understand. They tell you how to read a line and where to pause or breathe. Even if you’re not reading out loud, punctuation is important to the meaning of text, as you saw in the example at the beginning of this tutorial.
Most people understand how to use periods, question marks, and exclamation points, which are all used at the ends of sentences. Many people struggle with commas and quotations, though, so that’s what I’m going to focus mostly on here.
Commas are one of the most important punctuation marks, yet they are often ignored or misused. They have many different uses. Usually, they are used to separate words or phrases, such as clauses in a sentence, items in a list, transition words, names, parts of a date or address, and more.
In the sentence I just wrote, I used several commas. Usually is a transition word and should be followed by a comma. Such as clauses in a sentence is a clause, or phrase, itself and should be separated from the other phrases in the sentence for clarity. The ways in which commas can be used formed a list in this sentence, and so I separated those by commas as well.
If you are writing a compound sentence, as described above, you can use a comma and a conjunction to separate the two or more ideas in that sentence. Remember, though, to always use a conjunction along with your comma. Writing a sentence like [I am a fanfic writer, I write mostly drama.] is wrong. Technically, that is a run-on. To make it not a run-on, you would need the and in there after the comma.
You could also use a semi-colon. Instead of writing [I am a fanfic writer, and I write mostly drama.], you could shorten it up by writing, [I am a fanfic writer; I write mostly drama.] The semi-colon takes the place of the comma and conjunction and is correct. This may seem picky, but this is what the rules of English dictate.
In fiction, quotations are used mainly for writing dialogue, or your characters’ speech. A lot of people struggle with the correct way to write dialogue, especially at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s easy. Here are the basics:
First, every time one of your characters is saying something, all of their dialogue should be contained inside quotation marks. For example, if you had Brian saying, “I’m going to church,” you would write his line exactly as I wrote it – within quotation marks. [“I’m going to church.”]
If your line of dialogue stands by itself, like at the end of the above paragraph, you should end it with a period, question mark, or exclamation point. The punctuation always goes INSIDE the quotation marks, NOT outside. [“I’m going to church.” ]ß the right way [“I’m going to church”.] ß the wrong way
If your line of dialogue is followed by a clause like he said, you should use a comma instead of a period. For example: [“I’m going to church,” he said.]
However, if the dialogue would normally have a question mark or exclamation point instead of a period, you can keep the question mark or exclamation point. For example: [“Are you going to church?” he asked.] The punctuation still stays inside the quotation marks.
If you’re writing a characters thoughts, something they’re just thinking and not actually saying, you don’t need to use quotation marks. For example, if Brian’s just thinking, I need to go to church, you could write it like this: [I need to go to church, Brian thought.] Some authors choose to put thoughts in italics to differentiate them. I myself like doing this. I would write this sentence like this: [I need to go to church, Brian thought.] That is all a matter of the author’s preference though.
A paragraph is a group of sentences that all revolve around the same topic or idea. In fiction, paragraphs can be as short as one or two sentences or much longer, depending on how much you have to write about one certain thing and your own preference. In general, a good-sized paragraph is about 5-7 sentences. If your paragraphs are consistently longer than that, you might need to break up your story into more paragraphs.
Many beginning writers write all in one big paragraph; a whole chapter may be all in one or two paragraphs. Huge paragraphs are hard to follow. It is easier to read, both from a comprehension and a physical standpoint, when text is broken up into smaller paragraphs with empty spaces in between. Notice that throughout this tutorial, I’ve kept my paragraphs fairly short. This makes it easier for you to follow the text.
The general rule is, you should start a new paragraph every time you start talking about something new. Going along with our last examples, if you started a paragraph with Brian saying, “I’m going to church,” you might continue that paragraph with a few sentences about Brian leaving. You could describe him putting on his shoes, getting his keys, going out to his car, etc. Once he gets to the church, or maybe even once he starts driving away, you should start a new paragraph because you’re now describing something new.
When writing dialogue, you should also start a new paragraph every time there is a new speaker. This is a big one!! If Brian says “I’m going to church,” and then Kevin replies, “Okay, see ya later,” these two lines of dialogue should be in different paragraphs. I’ll show you below:
[“I’m going to church,” said Brian, grabbing his keys.
Kevin looked up. “Okay, see ya later,” he replied.]
Even though my paragraph about Brian was only one sentence, I had to start a new paragraph when I got to Kevin because I knew he was going to start talking, too. Whenever the speaker changes, change paragraphs. This makes it less confusing and prevents you from having to say [Brian said…] or [Kevin said…] before or after each line of dialogue. If you change paragraphs each time, the readers can usually figure out who’s talking.
While I’m at it, just a couple notes about grammar-related topics.
Tense describes when an event happens. There are three main tenses: past, present, and future. Most fictional stories are written in past tense. This allows the writer to tell the story as if it’s already happened. The examples I’ve given so far are written in past tense, as seen below:
[“I’m going to church,” said Brian, grabbing his keys.
Kevin looked up. “Okay, see ya later,” he replied.]
If I wanted to make this chunk of text seem like it was happening right now, I could write it in present tense. Then it would read like this:
[“I’m going to church,” says Brian, grabbing his keys.
Kevin looks up. “Okay, see ya later,” he replies.]
Most stories aren’t written this way; if you are an experienced reader, reading in this tense probably seems strange to you. However, there is not really anything wrong with writing in present tense; again, it’s all about the writer’s preference.
Future tense isn’t something you see in the narrative (non-dialogue) part of writing, so I won’t even talk about that here.
The most important thing to remember about tense is to choose one tense and stick to it. This is another problem some beginning writers have. Many kids, when learning to write in school, switch tenses like crazy. As you gain more experience in both reading and writing, you should be able to stay in one tense, and if you start switching tenses, your writing should sound weird when you go back to read it.
Here is our example with mixed tenses. Read it to yourself. Does it sound weird?
[“I’m going to church,” said Brian, grabbing his keys.
Kevin looks up. “Okay, see ya later,” he replied.]
Proofreading is an important part of writing, and it helps to go back and read what you’ve written, word for word. It helps a lot if you read it out loud or whisper it under your breath or at least mouth it. This way, you can make sure you’re really reading each word and also get a feel for how the text actually sounds. Does it flow together nicely? Does it make sense? Does it sound the way language should, or is there something “off” about it? Changing tenses all the time makes it sound “off.”
In the English language, which is, admittedly, one of the more confusing languages out there, there are different forms of every verb that go with different subjects. One of the ones some people struggle with is the verb [to be]. Here is the correct subject-verb agreement for [to be]:
Even if you do not use proper subject-verb agreement when speaking because of your dialect, you should use them when writing, unless you are writing dialogue in a dialect that uses unconventional subject-verb agreement, like “They was” or “We is.”
Homonyms are words which sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings. They’re just another lovely feature of the confusing English language. There are many, many homonyms, but a few of them are used – and used incorrectly – very often. Seeing these common homonyms misused are big pet peeves for some people, so if you don’t want to annoy some of your readers, learn how to use them correctly.
[Your] is a possessive pronoun. It always shows possession, referring to something that “YOU” own. Examples: Your dog, your house, your arm
[You’re] is a contraction. It is a way of shortening “you are.” Examples: You’re going away; You’re shorter than me
If you’re not sure which to use, ask yourself what the word you want means. Is it referring to [Your] something, or is it that [You’re] doing something? When in doubt, try substituting “You are” in place of [You’re/Your]. If “you are” makes sense, you should use [you’re]. If “you are” does not make sense, use [your].
[There] usually refers to a direction or place, such as in “over there” or “here and there.” It can also be used as a subject that is linked to an object in a sentence. Examples: Put your coat over there; There is my house.
[Their] is a possessive pronoun, like [your]. It shows possession, referring to something that “THEY” own. Examples: Their dog, their house, their arms
[They’re] is a contraction, short for “they are.” Examples: They’re going away; They’re both shorter than me
Again, if you’re not sure which to use, ask yourself what the word you want means. Try substituting “they are.” If “they are” doesn’t fit, ask yourself if you are referring to something owned by two or more people (in which case you would use [their]) or to a place ([there]).
Same principle as the last two.
[Its] is a possessive pronoun. It refers to something that “It” owns. Examples: Its hair, its smell, its arm
[It’s] is a contraction, short for “it is.” Examples: It’s going away; It’s shorter than me
Not sure? Try substituting “it is.” If that doesn’t sound right, use [its]. [Its’] is not a word.
[To] is a preposition, used to link a verb to an object, such as a person or place. Examples: The Backstreet Boys are flying to New York; Nick tossed his sweaty towel to a fan in the audience.
[Too] can be used as a synonym (word that means the same) for “also” or “as well,” or as an adjective that means “in excess.” Examples: I want to go to the concert, too. Unfortunately, the tickets cost too much money.
[Two] is simply the written form of the number 2. Examples: Two of the Backstreet Boys are cousins. The Boys made two videos for “I’ll Never Break Your Heart.”
[Then] is a transition word, used to describe when something happens. Examples: Howie put on his shoes, and then he walked out the door; He liked to go for a jog now and then.
[Than] is a preposition, used to compare two objects. Examples: Kevin is taller than Brian; Nick is younger than AJ.
[Lose] is a verb, the present tense form of the past tense “lost.” It is related to the word “loss.” Examples: I don’t wanna lose you now; If I lose it all, there’d be nothing left to lose.
[Loose] is an adjective and a synonym of words such as “baggy” and “roomy.” It is also a slang term that refers to promiscuity, which is why Nelly Furtado’s song “Promiscuous Girl” was a fitting first single from her album Loose. Examples: The t-shirt I bought at the Backstreet Boys concert was very loose on me. Brian held my hand loosely when he reached down from the stage.
*** This can be a confusing pair because the spelling of [lose] does not fit the rules of phonics based on how it is pronounced. It makes sense that it should be spelled with a double O, which is why some people spell it like [loose.] However, there is NO EXCUSE for a Backstreet Boys fan to misuse this pair. The Boys have TWO SONGS with the word “Lose” in the TITLE (“Don’t Wanna LOSE You Now” and “LOSE It All”), so you SHOULD NOT be spelling [lose] L-O-O-S-E. ONE ‘O,’ people, just one! If you’re not sure, just pull out Millennium or Never Gone and look at the tracklisting on the back.
These are just a few of the most commonly misused homonyms I see in fanfiction. For a complete list of homonyms and their meanings, click here.
Proofreading is an important part of being a writer. Even the best writers should proofread their own work before publishing it (even if it’s just on a fanfics website online) because everyone makes mistakes, whether simply an accidental typo or a brain fart that leads to a grammar error. Reading over what you’ve written with a critical eye, judging on not just content, but mechanical correctness as well, is crucial. It helps you catch and correct your mistakes before readers see them, which is important because readers can be turned off by too many obvious mechanical errors in a piece of writing. If you want your readers to get into the content of your story, you have to proofread and edit and make sure the story is mechanically well-written first.
This last section is a way for you to practice your proofreading skills. Read the following paragraphs, and identify as many mechanical errors as you can (including sentence structure, punctuation, paragraphing, grammar, and spelling). It might help if you keep track of these mistakes on a separate sheet of paper so you can later tally up how many you found.
Kevin Howie Brian AJ and Nick piled onto the bus, they had just finished there concert that night in Chicago and was on they’re way to grab a bite to eat than they would be driving on to the next city Milwaukee. “Wear should we eat”? asks Howie his body jerking backward as the bus lurched away from the venue. “How about McDonald’s”? AJ suggested smiling. “You always want two go too Mickey D’s AJ” complained Kevin “can’t we eat healthy four once?” Howie agrees with Kevin but the to were quickly overruled by the other three who insisted on fast food, before they knew it the bus was pulling up in front of the familiar golden arches.
Oh my God its’ the backstreet boys screamed the gurl at the counter when they walked in to order. I love U guys so much your my favorite band, will U sign a song 4 me? “Sure” Nick agreed and breaks into don’t wanna loose you now, the other guys came in on they’re parts but the girl was squealing louder then they could sing.
Done reading? Now scroll down and check your answers.
This is the mechanically correct version of the selection above:
Kevin, Howie, Brian, AJ, and Nick piled onto the bus. They had just finished their concert that night in Chicago and were on their way to grab a bite to eat. Then they would be driving on to the next city, Milwaukee. “Where should we eat?” asked Howie, his body jerking backward as the bus lurched away from the venue.
“How about McDonald’s?” AJ suggested, smiling.
“You always want to go to Mickey D’s, J,” complained Kevin. “Can’t we eat healthy for once?” Howie agreed with Kevin, but the two were quickly overruled by the other three, who insisted on fast food. Before they knew it, the bus was pulling up in front of the familiar golden arches.
“Oh my God, it’s the Backstreet Boys!” screamed the girl at the counter when they walked in to order. “I love you guys so much; you’re my favorite band! Will you sign a song for me?”
“Sure,” Nick agreed and broke into “Don’t Wanna Lose You Now.” The other guys came in on their parts, but the girl was squealing louder than they could sing.
Here is a list of the errors found in the first version:
1. Kevin Howie Brian AJ and Nick
There should be commas between the guys’ names when you list them like that.
2. piled onto the bus, they had just finished
This is a run-on sentence and needs to be split up with a period or semi-colon, rather than a comma.
3. there concert
It should be “THEIR concert” because “their” shows possession.
4. they had just finished there concert that night in Chicago and was on
The verb “was” does not agree with the subject “they.” It should be “were” instead.
5. on they’re way
It should be “on THEIR way” because, again, “their” shows possession, and “they’re” means “they are.”
6. to grab a bite to eat than they
This is a run-on sentence and needs to be split up with a period, semi-colon, or conjunction and comma.
7. than they would be
It should be “THEN,” not “than.”
8. the next city Milwaukee
There should be a comma separating “city” and “Milwaukee.”
9. “Wear should we eat”
It should be “Where,” not “Wear.”
10. “Wear should we eat”?
The question mark should come inside the quotation marks, not outside.
11. asks Howie
In sticking with the past tense of the paragraph, it should be “asked,” not “asks.”
12. asks Howie his body jerking
There should be comma between “Howie” and “his” to separate the clauses.
13. “How about McDonald’s”? AJ suggested
Because the speaker has changed from Howie to AJ, this should be the start of a new paragraph.
14. “How about McDonald’s”?
Again, the end punctuation should be placed inside the quotation marks, not outside.
15. AJ suggested smiling
There should be a comma between “suggested” and “smiling” to separate the clauses.
16. “You always want two go
It should be “to,” not “two.”
17. go too Mickey D’s
It should be “to,” not “too.”
18. Mickey D’s AJ
There should be a comma between “D’s” and “J” to show that Kevin is speaking to AJ.
19. AJ” complained Kevin
There should be a comma between “AJ” and the quotation mark.
20. complained Kevin “can’t
This is a run-on sentence. There should be a period or semi-colon after “Kevin,” and if a period is used, “can’t” should be capitalized.
21. healthy four once
It should be “for,” not “four.” “Four” is the number 4.
22. Howie agrees with Kevin
In sticking with the past tense, the verb should be “agreed,” not “agrees.”
23. Howie agrees with Kevin but the
This is part of a compound sentence, and to break it up properly, there should be a comma between “Kevin” and the conjunction “but.”
24. the to were quickly overruled
It should be “two,” not “to.”
25. the other three who insisted on fast food
There should be a comma between “three” and “who” to separate the clauses.
26. insisted on fast food, before they knew it the bus was pulling up
This is a run-on sentence and should be separated with a period or semi-colon, not a comma, or should at least contain a conjunction, such as “and,” after the comma.
27. before they knew it the bus
There should be a comma between “it” and “the” to separate the clauses.
28. Oh my God its’ the backstreet boys screamed the gurl
Because this is a quote, “Oh my God its’ the backstreet boys” should be contained within quotations.
29. its’ the backstreet boys screamed the gurl
There should be a comma after “boys” and before the quotation mark that should be there.
30. Oh my God its’
There should be a comma after “Oh my God.”
31. its’ the backstreet boys
It should be “it’s,” not “its’.” “It’s” means “it is,” and “its’” is not a word.
32. backstreet boys
As a proper noun, the name of a group, Backstreet Boys should always be capitalized. (This is a bonus, since I didn’t really talk about the rules of capitalization in this tutorial.)
“Gurl” is not a word; it is the teenybopper way of spelling “girl.” “Girl” should never be spelled this way in formal writing, which includes a story that you want to be taken seriously. (Another bonus point.)
34. I love U guys so much your my favorite band, will U sign a song 4 me?
This is a quote and, thus, should be put inside quotation marks.
35. U guys
“U” should never be used in place of the word “you” in formal writing. If you don’t have time to spell out the full three-letter word, you shouldn’t be writing fanfiction.
36. so much your
This is a run-on sentence; there should be a period (or exclamation point) or semi-colon between “much” and “your.”
37. your my favorite band
It should be “you’re,” not “your.”
38. your my favorite band, will U sign
This is another run-on; there should be a period (or exclamation point) or semi-colon between “band” and “will.”
39. will U sign
Again with the “U.” The word is “YOU,” Y-O-U – spell it out!
40. sign a song
It should be “sing,” not “sign.” This is a typo that spell check will not catch, since “sign” is also a word. Only good proofreading will catch these kinds of mistakes.
41. song 4 me
Another example of Teenybopperese, “4” should never be used for the word “for” in formal writing.
42. 4 me? “Sure” Nick agreed
Since the speaker changes from the girl to Nick, a new paragraph should begin with “Sure.”
43. “Sure” Nick agreed
There should be a comma after “Sure,” but inside the quotation marks.
44. Nick agreed and breaks into
In sticking with past tense, “breaks” should be “broke.”
45. don’t wanna loose you now
As a song title, “Don’t Wanna Lose You Now” should be capitalized and put inside quotation marks. (Bonus)
46. loose you now
It should be “LOSE,” not “loose” – check the back of Millennium!!!
47. breaks into don’t wanna loose you now, the other guys came in
This is part of a run-on sentence; there should be a period or semi-solon in place of the comma after “now.”
48. they’re parts
It should be “their,” not “they’re.”
49. the other guys came in on they’re parts but the girl
This is part of a compound sentence and should be divided by a comma before the conjunction “but.”
50. louder then they could sing.
It should be “than,” not “then.”
There you have it, fifty mechanical errors in just that small excerpt!! For the record, I wrote that excerpt myself for this page and made up the errors on purpose, but all in all, it really isn’t much of an exaggeration of writing I’ve actually seen in real fanfics. Next time you’re writing, look closely at your own work. Does it look anything like this? Can you find any similar mistakes? If your writing does resemble the above example in some ways, you probably need some work. However, if you can spot the mistakes after reading this tutorial and correct them, you’re on the way to better writing and proofreading.
If you found and corrected 45-50 of the mistakes in the above example, you either didn’t need to read this tutorial or learned a lot from it. Good for you!
If you missed more than a few of the errors, you might just need some more practice in certain areas of mechanics, such as punctuation.
If you were able to spot errors, but didn’t know how to correct them, you’re on your way to becoming a good proofreader – you just need to learn more in order to be able to fix your mistakes, not just find them. When in doubt, just ask someone who can help you! The English language is tough, and some people just have an easier time with it than others.
Thanks for reading my tutorial on mechanics! I hope the information and examples on this page made sense, and I also hoped you learned something from it. It’s a lot to digest, especially you’re trying to learn or re-learn it all for the first time. If you feel overwhelmed, try to break it down and look at a section at time, working on improving one mechanical aspect of your writing before you move on to the next.
I have two other suggestions for anyone looking to improve their mechanics, and they’re easy ones. First, read as much as you can. Read works that you know are mechanically correct – not just fanfics (although there are some that serve as good models), but also published books and articles that you know have been professionally edited. Try to model the format of your own writing on what you see in professional writing.
This brings me to my second suggestion – practice! Keep writing, and you WILL get better at it, in all aspects. As you write, make an effort to proofread and fix your mistakes, or if you don’t yet feel comfortable with that, see if you can find someone who will proofread for you. Proofreading can be time-consuming, so not everyone wants to get stuck doing it, but if you can find a willing proofreader, make sure you look at the corrected versions of your story once he/she is done proofing. Find the changes he/she has made and identify WHY the changes were made. If you aren’t sure, just ask! Your proofreader should be able to tell you why what he/she changed is better or more correct than what you originally had. After more experience, you should get a feel for how to make these changes/corrections on your own.
Looking for more information about mechanics or tutorials on other aspects of writing? Try these links!
Fiction Writing Tutorials
Are you an avid reader who would be interested in proofreading and editing (beta reading) other writers’ stories? Email me if you’d like to volunteer yourself as a beta reader for writers who don’t feel comfortable doing it themselves. I will add your name and email address to a list that will be a resource for writers in need of proofreaders. The only qualifications are that you are good with English mechanics, grammar, etc. yourself and have time to dedicate.
Note: Please don’t ask me to proofread for you. I just don’t have the time, which is why I wrote up this tutorial – I’m hoping that more writers can learn how to proofread their own work and not just rely on other people to do it for them. I don’t mind proofreading in general, but it can get very time-consuming, tedious, and frustrating, which is why I tell people no. There’s just not room for it in my schedule right now. Thanks for understanding.
Any comments/questions? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org