Writers: Beware of sound-alike words

Do you know the difference between the words stationary and stationery?

When I edited articles for a parenting magazine, we got a charming piece about thank-you notes and how kids can create their own stationery. Charming. Except the writer kept using the word stationary, meaning not moving. Apparently, she didn’t catch the difference between stationary and stationery—and neither did her spell-check.

Homophones, words that sound alike but are spelled differently, can be a pain (as opposed to a pane). Examples:


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principle – principal

capitol – capital

cite – site

discreet – discrete

enumerate – innumerate

lightening – lightning

canvas – canvass

elicit – illicit

fare – fair

flair – flare

foreword – forward

peek – peak – pique


  1. Did she arrive in the nick of time or the knick of time?
  2. He got his just deserts or his just desserts?
  3. I waited with bated breath or baited breath?
  4. The tortoise had free rein of the house or free reign of the house?
  5. Did he wreak havoc or reek havoc?


  1. nick
  2. deserts (Surprise!)
  3. bated
  4. rein (I’m not lying.)
  5. wreak


So, let’s be careful out there. Give your words a double take.

The misuse and abuse of ’s

I interrupt your regularly scheduled program to bring you this editing reminder: Stop writing it’s when you should be writing its.

It’s is a contraction for it is or it has. Forever and ever. Amen.

So, you would write: The scruffy dog scratched at its fur. No apostrophe. An s would mean: The scruffy dog scratched at it is fur. Makes no sense.


When to blow off the ’s

Plurals seem to cause the greatest misuse of ’s. According to The Chicago Manual of Style, these plurals should be written with no apostrophe:

  • the three Rs
  • the 1990s
  • IRAs
  • URLs
  • BSs, MAs, PhDs
  • The McAdams (or any family name on your holiday cards or invitation list)
  • As for her grades, she got three As, two Bs, and one C. (Grades are not italicized.)
  • ifs and buts
  • dos and don’ts
  • threes and fours
  • thank-yous
  • maybes
  • yeses and nos


  • x’s and y’s and all other lowercase letters (Note: Single letters that represent themselves are usually italicized. The ’s is not. However, italics is not used in these two common expressions: Mind your p’s and q’s. Make sure you dot the i’s and cross the t’s.)

Get it? Good. Write on.

Visit I Spy Edits for copy editing services.

Tips to keep you writing

Many have the notion that writing is this airy fairy, artsy fartsy pursuit. Creativity can only come if you’re feeling inspired. You need that spark that unleashes your imagination. You need that idea to pop up and grab you. You need your muse to lift you to that lofty realm of creative consciousness. You need your coffee.


Baloney. Well, maybe you need your coffee. But you can’t wait for that warm, fuzzy writing feeling to overwhelm you. Sometimes it doesn’t happen—for a long time.

Just write. Write now.

Set goals

  • Decide who and what

Maybe you don’t know what to write about it, but you can decide now who you want to write for: children’s magazines, a hobby magazine, a contest, or a traditional book publisher.

From there, whittle it down: an article on how to pick a family pet, a children’s nonfiction picture book on worm farming, a murder mystery, a memoir  …

Take a gander at the library and bookstore shelves. Jot down ideas.

Go to book or magazine publishers’ websites. Find their writers guidelines and see what they want.

  • Schedule time

It’s up to you to decide how much time you can or need to devote to your writing. But devote, you must—even if it is one evening a week, or two hours on Sunday, or 20 minutes a day. Schedule the time in your calendar.

  • Set deadlines

Fill your calendar with deadlines: The third week of next month, I will have my children’s story finished and ready to submit. Three months from today, I will have the first three chapters of my novel written.

Make a chore chart, if you need to: start outline on YA novel, edit nature article, rewrite ending of short fiction story. Check off each goal and add to the chart.

Also, make a chart to keep track of submissions to magazines, publishers, and agents. Include date of submission, response (if ever) date, published or no, payment info.

Go out to write


  • Treat writing like a job

Get up, get dressed, and drive or walk yourself to your writing job—at a coffee shop, the library, at a picnic table in the park.

While writing in your jammies is a definite perk, sometimes it’s easy to get distracted at home. When you’re grappling with the first seeds of a story, it’s too tempting to find other ways to be “more productive.” There’s always something to do around the house, after all

This was my problem. I had only the vaguest idea for a story, and I couldn’t move forward. So, I found a local coffee shop filled with people tapping away on their laptops. It worked. I couldn’t just sit there and stare into space—I had to do something. I started writing on the topic and didn’t stop until I had a story.

  • Write with writers

Plan to meet often and promise to keep chatting to a minimum. Set the timer on your phone to sit and write and nothing else.

  • Invest in writing

Classes, workshops, seminars, retreats—they all have something in common: They force you to write.

When I needed to exercise, but wasn’t making time to do it, I signed up for a class. Paying for the time motivated me to attend. Who wants to waste money?

Be accountable

  • Critique group

Once or twice a month, pages are due—online or in person. My writers group gives me plenty to write about each month—or should I say rewrite?

  • Writing partners

Besides the critique group, I meet with a writing partner once a month. We share what we’ve written, what we’ve submitted, talk about writing goals, and give a few words of encouragement.

  • Don’t be perfect

Sometimes writing seems easy—the idea’s there, the words are flowing, the page on the screen is filling up. But sometimes, it’s not. Write anyway. Write anything.

Pick someone at that coffee shop. Write a description. Imagine a personality, a life. Write. It doesn’t matter if it’s good. It doesn’t matter if you’ll ever use it. It will get you writing. And maybe that’s the simple goal you need right now.

Writers: What’s your favorite word?

I bet I could guess your favorite word. I’m not psychic, but if you’re like many writers, I could figure it out.

When I combed through my first manuscript looking for my most-used word, it became clear after just a few pages. And there it is. Did you see that cute hunky nugget? Just.

Oh just, how do I love thee? Let me count the times I write thy name.


If just were a man, I’d cook him dinner, text him 20 times a day, stalk him, stand outside his apartment, and beg him to let me have his baby. That’s how many times I write just in my stories.

I read a novel—the first in a series—by a writer who had her work turned into a cable movie series.

The story was intriguing, but this word kept popping up: sardonically. After one, two, three times, I didn’t pay much attention. But then it kept jumping up and poking me in the eye. Halfway through the book, I yelled “For the love of God, get a thesaurus!” Or delete a few. Or rewrite to show, not tell.

But I kept reading. It was an interesting story … and the author is a bajillionaire, after all. And I am, well, not.

Maybe you don’t care if you use the same word over and over. Maybe you have such a compelling story, you think it doesn’t matter. But I implore you, if you have any compassion at all, or feel any kinship with readers, for the love of all things biblio- and bookish, please get a thesaurus.

Or take your favorite word and get a room.


For a closer look at your manuscript, visit I Spy Edits

Ease up on -ly adverbs. Seriously.

When I first sought out tips as a newbie writer, number six on someone’s Ten Rules of Writing list hit me: Never use the word suddenly. Never.

That rule hung there like one of those do-not-remove tags on mattresses. I’ve broken the speed limits, told little white lies, and committed any number of venial sins without pause. But I have never removed the tag from the mattress, and I never use the word suddenly in my writing. Never.


Before you break into a panic remembering all the times you wrote the word suddenly, you should know that frequent use of the word suddenly has not been proven to cause cancer. Side effects such as headaches, nausea, frequent bowel movements and the inability to control them have also not been proven. However, there might be some editors who disagree.

Removing the word could result in better writing. Try it.

So, what about other -ly words? Do you often use an -ly adverb to modify said?

“Stop,” Sam said angrily.

How angry was he?

“Stop.” Sam shook his head at her and then walked away.

Or angrier?

“Stop.” Sam raised his fist, ready to strike.

Show, don’t tell. Those -ly adverbs don’t show, and they don’t tell me much either.

Take a highlighter and mark all the -ly adverbs in your manuscript. Then go back and ask yourself, can I write it a better way?

I think you can, and I know you’ll see a more active story.

For a closer look at your manuscript, visit I Spy Edits.