Monday, November 25, 2013

Grammar Quiz

Here’s a grammar quiz for you to play with. It covers things that I’ve spoken about before: apostrophes, I/me, lay/lie, who/whom, your/you’re, hear/here, less/fewer, that/which, weather/whether and more.
Go and have fun.

Helen Woodall

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Why kids can’t read

Every few years educationalists start arguing about whether or not children should learn reading by rote, by being taught their letters, by phonics, by whole word, or any of a dozen other methods. Each method has wonderful success stories and appalling failures. It seems that reading is most definitely a situation with no “one size fits all” solution.

A new Australian study has shown that children who are lagging behind at reading don’t speak “school English”, or Standard Australian English, at home. They may speak a language other than English, or Aboriginal English, or a creole, or “bogan” English – the kind where words like “youse” feature. I expect this is the same in America, the United Kingdom and many other places as well.

But it’s not school English; it isn’t how the teacher speaks and it certainly isn’t what international tests or NAPLAN (National Assessment Program, Literacy and Numeracy tests) reward. So, it is the school’s job to teach school English to ensure everyone gets equal access to the learning that happens at school.

The number of non-Standard Australian English speakers in schools has grown over the years, and Australia’s education system doesn’t cope well with “non-standard”. I expect most overseas programs don’t either.

Teachers who grew up speaking and reading school English fluently are less effective with the students who write “I seen that at the movies”, or “My sister go to shopping on a car”. All teachers can correct those errors but far fewer can explain why they’re wrong to the students. Students who hear the language being spoken all around them exactly like that all the time.

What these learners need is good literature, and teachers who have a strong understanding of how the English language works which they can convert to meaningful teaching.

You can read about the study at:

Helen Woodall

Helen is available to line edit and/ or content edit fiction and non-fiction. Rates on application.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

What are some of the most common mistakes that fiction writers make in forensics?

I have always been intrigued by old movies where the bad guys are outside the house carefully trying to shoot through the windows at the good guys. In real life a couple of bullets through the wall of the house right beside the window and the program would be over and the good guys dead.

I read a fascinating, but very very long article on the 10 Most Common Mistakes in Fiction Regarding Forensics featuring D.P. Lyle & Jan Burke.

Here is my take on the most important ones.

Jurisdiction: Make sure you have who handles what correct. A sheriff, the police, the FBI. Also, in hundreds of places, the coroner is a political appointment, not a doctor, far less a pathologist.

Get the gun right: Does it have a safety? How many shots does it hold?

Dead bodies smell yucky and there can be insects and all kinds of gross stuff. Death is almost never instant or pretty. Also note that curtains are hung and people are hanged.

Be accurate about how long people stay unconscious after a fight or hit on the head. Generally it’s not very long at all.

Lab tests can take a long time. Only TV shows solve everything in an hour.

It all boils down to the need to do your research and get it right.

For those of you who write mysteries/thrillers, check out the full article at:

Helen Woodall

Helen is available to line edit and/ or content edit fiction and non-fiction. Rates on application.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Check your facts

When I was a kid the only way to find out something Mum or Dad didn’t know the answer to (or wouldn’t tell me!) was to go to the local library and look it up in the encyclopedia. My school didn’t have a library.

Things hadn’t changed a whole lot when my kids were very small, although by then I did have thousands of books of my own, and my smarter (lazier?) offspring usually chose to do assignments or “projects” on topics they knew I had books about. Although we still seemed to be down at the library most weekends looking up something or other until, in desperation, I bought a set of encyclopedias.

These everyone just Googles or looks up Wikipedia. Which is fine as a place to start, and usually gives a decent overview of a topic. However, the stuff in Wikipedia, and the things you Google, are not necessarily correct. Anyone wanting to know the whole truth (or just wanting the research for their book to be accurate) needs to check multiple references.

For example, Google Street View and Google Maps both show a bank within walking distance of where I live. That bank hasn’t been there since the middle of 2009. People, it’s almost the end of 2013 now and if you use that bank in your book you’ll get hundreds of complaining emails. Although your heroine might decide to buy some fresh vegetables from the Asian grocery store on that site these days.

Wikipedia is built and maintained primarily by volunteers. That’s good. Unfortunately there are also thousands of accounts of sockpuppets, paid by companies and PR firms to delete any information the company paying them doesn’t like or considers adverse to their interests. There are many stories about the sockpuppets (although possibly not on Wikipedia itself!) But the message is clear. Check your facts using several different sources and don’t believe everything you read on the internet.

For some sock puppet stories read this:

Helen Woodall

Helen is available to line edit and/ or content edit fiction and non-fiction. Rates on application.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


I subscribe to’s “Word of the Day” and one of its most recent offerings was “snollygoster”. Isn’t that a brilliant word? The meaning is even better: “a clever, unscrupulous person, especially a politician.” We definitely have some politicians here in Australia that fit that description, and judging by America’s latest shenanigans they have them there too.

So I followed up the history of the word, and found that it emerged in America at a similar time, and with a similar meaning to “carpetbagger”. Which had me remembering reading Harold Robbins’ book, “The Carpetbaggers” (which wasn’t banned in Australia).

Another really cool word is “lagniappe” meaning a small gift. It’s a friend’s favorite word, and it rolls off the tongue as evocatively as “snollygoster” but it has a far prettier meaning. It’s also derived from the Quechua language, and I have friends who worked with the Quechua people for many years, which makes it even more relevant to me.

So, what words inspire you, or make you think and remember?

Helen Woodall

Helen is available to line edit and/ or content edit fiction and non-fiction. Rates on application.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Ending Well

The final article in my three-part series about writing your book.

There are two main mistakes authors make with the ending of their book. And they’re complete opposites.

First we have the author who has been warned about leaving loose threads, so she goes through her book very carefully and in the final chapter she makes reference to every single character, however minor, and what happens to them, their house, their gun, their cat… The book is tied up so tightly with so many pretty pink bows that there is no possible way of ever writing a sequel, or even another book in that world.

Loose threads are bad. Leaving the reader wondering what happened to the main characters is bad. The reader left feeling saddened that there’ll never be another book in this world because there’s nothing left to say is also bad.

The second type of mistake is the author who introduced a ghost in chapter four and forgets to mention him again, has the hero’s three best friends standing on the edge of a crumbling cliff in chapter ten, and never mentions them again, and generally has so many unfinished story threads the reader is left wondering how the heroine could ever be happy in that world.

It is fine to leave an overarching plot thread hanging. It’s not fine to have a character the reader cares about in deadly peril unless book two is edited and scheduled for release a month after book one. Even then the author’s email account may well be filled with anguished emails from readers for the next few weeks.

Helen Woodall

Helen is available to line edit and/ or content edit fiction and non-fiction. Rates on application.