BOLO: Crime Watch for Writers

Just like cops, writers have to be on the lookout for crime. It’s lurking in nearly everything we read. You can’t arrest the scofflaws, but you can put a stop to the violations in your own writing.

by Hyphenman on May 15, 2013

BOLO is an acronym for “be on the lookout for,” an advisory to law enforcement officers to keep an eye out for a particular suspect. It’s a useful advisory to writers as well.

The criminals in the latter case are the rule-breakers who flout the standards of the English language. They do it by misspelling words, committing grammatical errors, using bad punctuation, choosing wrong or inappropriate words, engaging in leaps of faith, and a hundred other infractions that do a basic disservice to the art of communicating.

To detect such lapses requires the eagle eye of a Sherlock Holmes.

You can’t stop the mistakes, of course, but you’ve got to catch them. It’s crucial to your success as a writer.

I say this not only from the perspective of a longtime copyeditor who got paid to catch such errors but as an equally longtime reporter who had to guard against making the same errors myself.

And that’s the value of being ever on the alert in every single [CONTINUED] thing you read, be it blogs like this one, reviews on Amazon, magazines, books, newspapers, brochures, newsletters, or advertisements.

The goal is to develop a critical eye and to adopt a zero tolerance for errors. The more critical you are of others, the less likely you are to duplicate their mistakes. It’s a form of exercise to strengthen your writing muscles.

I would not normally name names and subject anyone to undue embarrassment, but I’ll make an exception in this case. Any embarrassment that might result from my criticism is most definitely due. Neither the author nor the staff of the publishing house should have been so sloppy.

I bought Start Your Own Blogging Business by Jason R. Rich as one of the texts to guide me in setting up this blog. While the information has proven useful, I have been appalled at the numerous errors.

At the outset, I noticed that the author consistently lowercased the word “Internet,” a not-uncommon mistake in casual writing. But it’s inexcusable and unforgivable in a published work.

The reasons for my sternness about it are worth sharing. “Internet” is a red-flag word – or at least should be – in any writer’s mind. That’s because all of us have seen it spelled as “internet” and as “Internet.” That alerts us to the fact that one way is correct and the other is wrong. The inconsistency demands that we look it up to see which is which.

Why, you might wonder, does it matter? The culprit in this case, Mr. Rich himself, provides the answer: “Having spelling mistakes or grammatical errors in your blog takes away from your credibility and makes your blog appear amateurish.” Substitute the word “writing” for “blog” and you have an answer as to why it matters in all cases.

Curiously, Mr. Rich does not heed his own advice. Two paragraphs later, he writes: “Throughout your blogging experience, keep the following strategies in mind in order to help keep you on-track, focused, and providing content that will be of interest to your readers and followers.”

That might seem fine, at least to an uncritical eye. But it is full of errors and bad writing, the kind of thing that deadens and distracts the brain, even if you’re not conscious of the reasons.

For starters, he provides an example of why I named my blog “hyphenman.” Incorrect hyphenation is a common error in his writing. In this case, there is no reason to hyphenate “on-track.” I can think of no instance, in fact, when it would ever be hyphenated. On the other hand, the unrelated term “off-track,” referring to bets placed away from a racetrack, is always hyphenated.

Every writer must constantly guard against wordiness, the natural habit of adding superfluous words that slow down the pace of a sentence. Using “in order to” instead of simply “to” is a prime example.

The next mistake is the lack of parallelism in the series he set up: “to help keep you on-track, focused, and providing content that will be of interest to your readers and followers.” The participial phrase “providing content” is jarring and doesn’t fit. Better to write: “to help keep you focused, on track and committed to content ….”

Lastly, use of the word “followers” is superfluous and redundant. “Followers,” after all, are “readers” as well.

His book is full of every conceivable error, including words that have been omitted, transposed letters that turn one word into another, and use of “perspective” when “prospective” is meant.

These are admittedly nit-picking quibbles, but that does not minimize their importance. Not only do such mistakes undermine credibility, they interrupt the flow of whatever case you are building and sidetrack your desired effect. Every time you commit such an error, you are testing a reader’s patience.

A good writer is a careful writer. And a careful reader.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Buddy Bolton May 19, 2013 at 11:30 am

This is another great post, hyphenman.

At first, I’d think it seems great just to be published, but if you are published with as many errors as that book, that is a permanent embarrassment.

Reply

2 Hyphenman May 19, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Thanks, Buddy.

You’re right: It is great to be published. Even with the errors, it would still be great because the mistakes can always be fixed in an update, particularly for a book that likely will reappear in a new edition.

In The Guerrilla Guide to Dynamite Fiction I demonstrate in detail just how bad some of the writing is in one of the biggest best-selling novels of recent times.

My point in doing that and in pointing out Mr. Rich’s mistakes is not to criticize either work, but to suggest that all of us should sharpen our sensitivity to such writing and then turn that criticism inward. We owe it to our readers and to ourselves not to duplicate others’ mistakes.

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