Protect Your Reader’s Trust with Good Mechanics

line drawing of people boarding a sailing ship

Illustration by Henri Meyer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Everyone is always telling you that you need good mechanics, so why am I wasting your time talking about it too? Well, if you already study regularly and frequently in your never-ending and joyful quest to master grammar, punctuation, and word usage, then please skip this article. But if your motivation or practice falls below that level, I hope to inspire and encourage you by letting you experience from the inside one of the reasons you need to continually, on-purpose, improve your skills. And then I’ll give you a few ways that you can improve them without having to take a class.

Be Worthy of Your Reader’s Trust

Mechanics are a big part of your relationship with your reader. Every mechanical error you make reduces your reader’s trust in you. Every error takes the reader out of the flow of your writing and into a state of doubt.

This Is What It Feels Like

Let’s say you’ve sent me a text.

I follow the convention (very common) that “captain” is capitalized when it stands in for a name, but otherwise not. The following text follows this convention:

The captain stood on the deck. “Hello, Captain!” said Joe.
“Are we about to set sail, Captain Smith?” said Laura.
“Yes,” said the captain. Everyone started to get ready. The captain was proud of the crew’s efficiency.

If you were to write this text with “captain” capitalized all the time, it would FEEL like this when I read it:

The Captain stood on the deck. “Hello, Captain!” said Joe.
“Are we about to set sail, Captain Smith?” said Laura.
“Yes,” said the Captain. Everyone started to get ready. The Captain was proud of the crew’s efficiency.

See how distracting that is? See how it reduces trust (“Why is this person hitting me over the head with these crazy huge C’s?”)?

My point is not to teach you this particular convention, but to get you to consider: What if this type of experience is happening to people when they read your work?

So, What Can I Do?

Using good mechanics is a skill, and you can’t become a master in one day. That’s the trouble with most articles that tell you to “watch your mechanics. It bugs editors when you make mistakes.” You can watch your mechanics all you want, but if you’re not regularly and frequently improving them on purpose, then someday your work will do this to someone. It probably will anyway, so don’t worry about that! But you want to have a good enough foundation in place that your reader will trust you enough to keep reading.

I have very good mechanics skills. But there is a ton of stuff I don’t know. Just recently I was proofreading a manuscript, and I spent over half my time looking things up.

What to do, then? Here are some actions you can take and habits you can cultivate that will help you improve your skills, without investing a big chunk of time:

  1. Pick a style guide. If you don’t have one in mind already, take no more than 15 minutes, right now, to look around online and find a style guide seems to be pretty common for the type of writing you most often do. Get a copy of it (or an online subscription).
  2. While editing, rewriting, and proofreading, look things up! (I recommend using your own physical (paper) copy of reference books. It may feel slower, but I’ll bet what you learn in passing will save you time in the end.)
    • If you have any doubt at all about the precise use of a word, use your dictionary.
    • If you have any doubt at all about the precise rule/convention that applies to a sentence, use your chosen style guide.
    • Never, ever grab a synonym off a list without looking it up in a dictionary to make sure that’s what you actually mean. (Avoid the salad bandage!)
  3. Do real work. This will help you more than any “study” ever will. For example:
    • Beta read, and look things up.
    • Proofread the same document as a friend. (It’s best if you do this for the manuscript of another friend. That way everyone gets to learn, and you help someone’s manuscript as a bonus.) Talk about why each of you marked the things you marked. Find outside documentation to support each choice. (What if you thought “captain” was always capitalized, and you marked it, but your friend didn’t? You’d look it up in The Chicago Manual of Style or The Associated Press Stylebook, and you’d learn that a rule you thought you were applying correctly was not real, and you’d get to improve.)

P.S. I’m sure there’s at least one mechanical error in this article. If you saw any and want to point them out to me, I will fix them and be glad for the opportunity to improve my skills. Thanks!