Friday, June 27, 2014

Toward Better Writing Series. Part One: Writing a Great Sentence

This is the dog that ran up the hill. :)
I find that one of the greatest joys in my professional life - other than the satisfaction one feels upon finishing a great piece of writing - is teaching beginning writers to write truly well. Many people of average training and talent can write a book - if they have the perseverance. But not many learn to write above the average - to make the prose sing, to move the reader, to use language in innovative and inspiring ways in order to create greatest impact to the reader's mind and heart. Because I believe that the joy of writing lies in learning to do that, I am committed to teaching the craft of writing to the best of my ability.

The work of editing allows me to do that task almost on a daily basis, and for that I feel very lucky. From the time I was a child, I found a thrill in the music of language - a well-turned phrase always gave me chills; when I was very young, the desire to be able to create such phrases myself was so overwhelming that it was nearly painful. A seventh-grade teacher saw my potential, and assured me that it was my calling. I still remember her with affection. I often think of her when I find a new writer with potential and I am moved to push them hard to turn out the best book that they are capable of writing.

The most popular of my blog posts seem to be the ones where I share writing tips - much to my surprise. I would think anything else would be more interesting to people, but apparently not! So . . . I thought it might be useful to present some very common situations I find as an editor when working with a beginning novelist or non-fiction writer. I hope that some of you find them useful, whether you are an experienced writer or just starting out. If you see yourself in some of these situations, and take some of these to heart in order to do better, you will be doing your readers, editors and publishers a big favor. Each situation requires some explanation, and so I am going to be presenting a series of blog posts. This first tackles sentence structure - one of the most important skills a writer can master!

I have a cardinal rule as an editor, as I edit as well as in advising the author:   Our goal is to enhance, enrich, and make enjoyable the reader's experience of your work. Any small error that hinders that is a problem that needs to be eliminated, in order that a smooth and enjoyable reading experience can be created and maintained. I often say to a writer:  "Hmmmm. I had a little reader hiccup there." I mean that something made me stop, hesitate, go back in order to re-read and better understand. In short, it interrupted the flow and thus my reading experience. These are the issues I target, and this why the little things are so very important in editing for a better book.

The following, then, are the most common things I run into again and again both with new writers, and writers experienced enough to know better but haven't properly self-edited before it got to me.

Run-on sentences.  This is terribly common as a problem in an unedited manuscript. Fortunately, it's an easy habit to break after only a little work with a writer. Cleaning this up can improve the quality of a manuscript tenfold!

In my mind, a run-on sentence is any sentence in which:

  • too much is going on - more than one or two actions at once, defined by more than one or two subjects. A big hint that this is happening is too many prepositions. 
  • there are so many personal pronouns (he, she, him, her) that the reader is confused as to whom is being discussed.
  • the sentence is so long that by the time the reader reaches the end, the point of the sentence is lost, causing the reader to go back and read it again to try to put some meaning together.

Some writers tend to write run-on after run-on, and I'm never sure why that happens. I assume that it is because either subconsciously the writer feels that a shorter sentence doesn't feel intelligent enough, or the writer doesn't understand the basic rhythm of good writing (we'll discuss that in the next section).  It's probably both.  Added to this, I think that part of gaining experience as a writer - and thus improving - is learning to "hear" your writing as the reader does. As the writer, you know what you mean, and put it down on paper. But will the reader know what you mean?  Learning to understand the enormous difference between the two, and learning to anticipate issues with reader comprehension of your prose, goes a long way toward making a better writer. Only experience (and maybe the aid of a good editor) can help you learn this.

I want to give some concrete examples of run-on sentences.

The spotted dog that was the same one from the village that the man who lives in the green house bought from the blacksmith the day before ran up the hill before he came back from the other village.

Because I hadn't read the book yet, I asked her when she wanted to have it back before I walked in the coffee shop where my brother worked and he was going to give me some coffee before I went home again.

Inside the castle where the guards were standing behind the door before they kept the people out was a wagon that had more guards but they were inside where they had tarps on top of it.  


Now, I know what you are thinking: she's exaggerating. But no, I read things like this pretty much daily! The thing is, these aren't written by incompetent people, not always by inexperienced writers. Rather, they are written by writers who are either writing so fast, caught up in the creative experience, that they just want to get it down on paper, or by people who just don't yet have the experience to know how to arrange a sentence to be clearer. In the first instance, the writer should have given the draft a read-through and correction before it ever gets to me.  (If I know they are experienced, I may tell them to take it back and clean up the draft and we will try it again!)

In both cases, the reader instinctively stops, goes back and reads it again, whispers "Huh?", and finally skips and and continues, annoyed.  Several of these experiences, and the reader simply puts the book down. You can imagine that paragraph after paragraph of this issue can give the editor a serious headache, and Heaven help the poor readers who purchase such an unedited version from Amazon!

I recommend to all writers - no matter how experienced - that for the final draft of the manuscript, they read aloud to themselves. One is much more likely to find these sentences in one's own work when reading aloud: as your tongue actually trips over the awkwardness of such sentences, you are more apt to be startled into recognizing that there is a problem. So what do you do about it, when your sentences look like this?

  • Break it up into more sentences.  Keep one - at most two - things going on at once.
  • If pronouns are confusing, use names instead of pronouns (don't be wary of overdoing this: if it helps clarity, always err on the side of using names in place of pronouns). 
  • Watch the prepositions that lead into prepositional phrases: words like "at", "for", "to", "with". If you have more than just a few prepositional phrases, you need to break it up. Every time you change prepositions, the reader's mind has to shift perception. If the reader is shifting several times in one sentence, he or she will become very confused. 
  • See if using a well-placed comma or two might clean up the confusion. However, if you use more than three commas to separate phrases (with the exception of a list of items where you need several commas), you probably need to break it all up. 
Let's tackle the above sentences. 

The spotted dog that was the same one from the village that the man who lives in the green house bought from the blacksmith the day before ran up the hill before he came back from the other village.

Lordy. Are you confused reading that? I am!  Most of the readers will be as well! (The ones who aren't need to cut back on the recreational imagination-enhancing drugs.) Let's look at the sentence's problems. 
  • Too many actions at the same time. Look at all the prepositions: "from the village", "in the green house", "from the blacksmith", "before" (twice!), "up the hill", "from the other village". By the end, the reader has no idea who is doing what!
  • Too many subjects. Again, related to too much going on. Too many subjects means too much action! The reader is getting dizzy!
  • Grammar problem. (Yep - a common one. Do you see it?)
I am going to suggest that we establish "spotted dog" as the real subject of the sentence. So . . .what is the dog actually doing?  He is running up the hill, and this he apparently does before he comes from another village. That much we can work into one sentence. Let's do this:

The spotted dog ran up the hill before he came back from the other village. (Period, end of sentence!) He was the same dog who came from the blacksmith, and whom the man who lives in the greenhouse bought.

This is the suggestion I am giving the writer, and at this point I'm feeling pretty confident about the way in which we are untangling the mess. But then the writer pipes up and exclaims, "But WAIT! The blacksmith is the one that came back from the other village, not the dog!" Okay. But from the original sentence, the reader has no way of knowing which is being referred to - the blacksmith or the dog! A problem with personal pronouns.  So let's rearrange, in order to get to the meaning that the writer intended:

The spotted dog, which the man who lives in the green house bought from the blacksmith, ran up the hill. (This addresses the original grammatical issue - which is that the writer used "that" where "which" was more proper. We will discuss these in detail in a later post in this series. Cleaning up that detail already adds clarity to the sentence.)  The dog did this before the blacksmith came back from the other village. 

Here, we have broken into two sentences.  I believe we have successfully covered all the information that the writer needed to convey, and solved both the grammar issue and the pronoun confusion (for added clarity, I chose to begin the second sentence with "The dog" rather than "He" - both are correct, but if I had used "He" the reader may have been confused, since the previous sentence contained three he's: the dog, the man in the green house, and the blacksmith).

I am going to clean up the second and third problem sentences in the following ways. See if you can see what I did, and reason out why.

Because I hadn't read the book yet, I asked her when she wanted to have it back before I walked in the coffee shop where my brother worked and he was going to give me some coffee before I went home again.


Inside the castle where the guards were standing behind the door before they kept the people out was a wagon that had more guards but they were inside where they had tarps on top of it. 


Because I hadn't read the book yet, I asked her when she wanted to have it back. Then, I walked into the coffee shop where my brother was working. He had promised to give me some coffee before I went home again.  (This isn't so difficult: there are really two completely different actions here. One involves the speaker asking about the book. The other involves the speaker, the brother and the coffee shop. Two story actions, broken up logically.)


This last sentence is a bad one. I would first ask the writer: "What 'door'? Do you mean the gate of the castle?" I would need some clarification on this to make sure I was recommending a change that would preserve the writer's intent. I would also ask: "At the end of the sentence, what does "they" and "it" refer back to? Guards? Tarps?" Problem with pronouns being confusing here! Some more information would help this situation and also add a little description, and perhaps interest. After getting some clarification from the writer, I might suggest something like this:


Inside the castle, the guards were standing behind the door of the gatehouse (doing what?), listening silently, their heads cocked. They had been charged to keep out any people who might approach unexpectedly. In the center of the inner courtyard a wagon sat, wherein more guards were hidden, a tarp pulled over their heads.   (Here, we have increased the tension for the reader, clarified what is going on by adding some description, and cleared up the pronoun confusion. Three sentences work, where there was only one long confusing one to begin with.)


In the next blog, I will be talking about creating rhythm and pace within sentences and paragraphs, and why it is important to creating great prose. 



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I have been approached by a few people about creating a sort of online university for writing instruction. I am flattered, and the idea does sound inviting. My vision is that I would help the "student" work on his or her own short piece of prose, improving skill. Several types of writing would be offered, as well as various skill levels. If you think you would be interested in such an offering, I would like to hear your comments. Write me at lichencraig at yahoo dot com, and put Writing School in the email header. Thanks!