Effective Writing Isn’t Affected, Part II

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Welcome back to this series that highlights some of the common errors I encounter when I edit and proofread. This week I’ll tackle another affected writing style: those dreaded awkward sentences.

There are countless ways to construct awkward sentences, but let’s begin by focusing on three. A sentence can slip into awkward territory when:

  • It is wordy.
  • It is repetitive.
  • It contains a dangling modifier.

It is wordy: Too many unnecessary words and phrases do not add to the content or the meaning of the sentence, and phrases like in order to, due to the fact that, have the ability to, until such time as merely add to the problem. Try this one:

  • In my opinion, due of the fact that a situation of discrimination continues in the field of medicine, women have not at the present time achieved       equality with men, and in order to do so, they need to be increased in number.

How many other snoozers can this writer squeeze into one sentence?

Too many unnecessary phrases slow down your reader’s understanding (to say nothing of trying his or her patience). The solution? Try rewriting the sentence concisely:

  • Because of continuing discrimination in medicine, women have not yet achieved equality with men.

I challenge you to take your latest blog post, novel chapter, or magazine article and see if you can identify just one sentence that will improve if you delete a few of those unnecessary words.

It is repetitive: Saying the same thing two or three ways usually bores your reader. In The Bedford Handbook, Diana Hacker writes, “Writers often repeat themselves unnecessarily. Afraid, perhaps, that they won’t be heard the first time, they insist that a teacup is small in size or yellow in color; that married people should cooperate together; that a fact is not just a fact but a true fact. Such redundancies may seem at first to add emphasis. In reality they do just the opposite, for they divide the reader’s attention.

Here’s my example:

  • In this day and age, modern scientists are developing a new type of super-computer that will benefit mankind in innovative and important ways, both now and in the future.

Sadly, that sentence reads like something from a high-school science paper. You’re a professional writer! You can do better!

  • Modern scientists are developing a new super-computer that will benefit mankind in the future.

It Contains a Dangling Modifier: These are among my favorites when I’m editing because I usually get a good laugh as I imagine the scene. Join me in imagining this one:

  • Having arrived late for practice, a written excuse was needed.

Can’t you just envision that poor little written excuse running ran late for practice?

Neither can your reader. As Big Dog writes, “Sentences like these are funny—but that’s just the problem. Any time you draw attention to how you’ve said something instead of what you’ve said, your communication suffers. If you’re writing something important, and I stop to chuckle over a faulty construction, the overall effect is lost.”

A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence. A modifier describes, clarifies, or gives more detail about a concept.

When you begin a sentence with a clause, be sure it actually modifies the subject:

  • Having arrived late for practice, the team captain needed a written excuse,

or even better:

  •  The team captain, who arrived late for practice, needed a written excuse.

Another common problem with dangling modifiers is the supposition that the reader understands who is performing the action. For example:

  •  Without knowing his name, it was difficult to introduce him.

Who didn’t know his name? This sentence says that “it” didn’t know his name. To revise, decide who was trying to introduce him. The revision might look something like this:

  • Because Maria did not know his name, it was difficult to introduce him.

The phrase is now a complete introductory clause; it does not modify any other part of the sentence, so is not considered “dangling.”

Readers: do you have any awkward writing pet peeves? I welcome your comments and examples—I’d love to use some in my next blog, so don’t be shy, please comment away! Or you can e-mail me privately at cyjohnson5580@gmail.com, and I promise to respect your privacy.

Happy Writing!

Candace

Next week: Part III: Nominalizations

10 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer

I saw this poster today and thought it was some of the BEST advice I’ve read–let me know if you agree!

10 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer

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How a Professional Editor Can Help You Get Published: Proofreading

proofreading
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This is the third installment of an occasional series about freelance editing services. I wrote previously about developmental editing and copyediting; this time I’ll share some thoughts on proofreading, the last of three vital steps in your editing process.

You’ve written your manuscript, you’ve self-edited, you’ve even hired a professional freelance editor to be sure everything is perfect. So if it’s perfect, why do you need to hire a proofreader?

As the author, you’ll receive a copy of the final page proofs (also called a galley) and are expected to review it for final corrections. If you are under contract with a traditional publisher, a professional proofreader is usually hired to check for errors in layout, grammar, syntax, punctuation, spelling, inconsistencies in style, cross-referencing of page numbers and other details in the manuscript, and to note any glaring errors. If you are self-publishing, you want to hire your own proofreader. Trust me, even if you were an A student in your college composition class, you want to hire a professional proofreader. Why?

None of us can be experts at everything, and no matter how well written a manuscript is, we all make mistakes—even professional editors and proofreaders do! Heck, I’ll admit that I’ve sent out e-mails I’ve checked and rechecked, and when the reply came back, sure enough, I noticed I’d typed “your” instead of “you.” It happens. Consequently, I have every blog proofread before I post it, because I’m just like you—I want my work to be as professional as possible.

As The Proofreading Girl puts it, “Arguably, the best reason to hire a professional proofreader is that typos, grammar gaffes and spelling errors, once printed or published, are immortal. Would you want a proofreading fiasco like one of these real-world examples to be your legacy?” Her examples include: “McDonald’s Drive Thru” and “Boy’s Department,” obvious mistakes that a professional proofreader would have caught.

Don’t let mistakes like these be your calling card! #writetip #proofreading #amediting Click To Tweet

Don’t let mistakes like these be your calling card! Even if you’re on a tight budget, hire a professional editor and a professional proofreader if you are serious about your writing. If there’s a will, there’s a way—don’t just depend on your software’s spell and grammar checkers and think “that’s good enough,” because it isn’t. Again, from The Proofreading Girl: “Realistically, it’s common for even good writers to struggle with pesky pronouns (who or whom?), apostrophes (its or it’s?), homophones (principle or principal?), and hyphens (well deserved or well-deserved?). It doesn’t help that programs like Microsoft Word’s Spelling and Grammar Check can actually make things worse rather than better. While these features are helpful in certain capacities, they are not nearly as accurate or as skillful as a good proofreader. So, if the document is important, chances are that you should hire one.”

A professional proofreader is your last line of defense before your book, blog, magazine article, or proposal greets the world, so invest in yourself and your professional reputation by hiring one before you say “Print!”

–Candace

Pass the Passive Writing, Please!

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I thought I was a pretty good writer when I was in college. I probably was, at least as far as making my argument was concerned. But unfortunately, I didn’t learn until after I graduated that I was guilty of a common writing error: I overused passive writing because I thought it sounded “literary.”

Boy, was I wrong! Yet I had plenty of company, and I can even point to a couple of good reasons why it happened and why writers continue to overwrite using the passive voice.

Are you making the mistake of using passive voice? Here are examples of the difference between active and passive voice. #editing #writing #writingtip #passivevoice Click To Tweet

Let me explain. In the active voice, the subject performs the action; in passive writing, the subject receives the action. It’s that simple. For example:

Active voice: Candace wrote a new blog about passive writing.

Passive voice: A new blog about passive writing was written by Candace.

In passive writing, the subject might even disappear from the sentence, like this:

A new blog about passive writing was written and posted.

In most cases, you want to emphasize the subject that does the action (active voice); in the passive voice, the subject receives the action. And because passive writing is often wordier than active writing, writers should always be looking for ways to craft a cleaner, more concise sentence.

While it is preferable to use an active voice most of the time, there is a time and place for passive writing. Daily Writing Tips puts it this way: “Passive writing is common in scientific papers because it lets the writers avoid using the words I or we, to avoid saying where their ideas came from That’s why some teachers think that passive voice sounds more educated. Usually, though, it’s simply less definite . . . but in the real world, when they have something to say, even scientists don’t have the luxury of not being definite.” And in A Writer’s Reference, author Diane Hacker writes,

“The passive voice is appropriate if you wish to emphasize the receiver of the action or to minimize the importance of the actor.”

Passive writing is tricky, though, and something you should work to avoid in most cases. Absolutewrite.com offers:

“It takes time and practice to eliminate such problems as expository dialogue and passive writing from your work. But the payoff for your hard work      and diligence will be a smoother style and a heightened ability to create remarkable stories.”

That sounds like a goal worth pursuing! So don’t try to sound “literary” or “educated” by overusing the passive voice when you write. If your grammar checker flags a passive sentence, take a careful look to be sure you’ve written it that way for a good reason. If not, it’s time for a revision.

A final word: in the classic Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, author Patricia T. O’Connor writes, “If you have something to say, be direct about it. As in geometry, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” That’s good advice for all of us, so the next time you self-edit, say it the way you mean it and work to construct your sentences so they are direct and active.

—Candace

Next week: Avoiding Awkward Sentences

Effective Writing Isn’t Affected, Part I

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Last week’s blog, “Being a Being Who Has a Pet Grammar Peeve,” was the first of a series highlighting some of the common errors I encounter when I edit and proofread. As promised, this week I’ll begin to tackle affected writing styles.

There are many different types of mistakes writers make when they attempt to sound “learned” or “literary,” but as any good writing coach will tell you, simpler is almost always better. Many beginning writers (and sadly, many established ones as well) think using “big” words is better, but I agree with Writing Rule #3 from Lifeloom.com: Eschew ostentatious erudition.

Description is important. So is clarity. As Dean Reick wrote on Copyblogger, “To sound smart, you must stop trying to sound smart. Brilliant writing is simple writing, a relevant idea delivered clearly and directly.”

There are many different types of mistakes writers make when they attempt to sound “learned” or “literary,” but as any good writing coach will tell you, simpler is almost always better. #amediting #writingtips #words #writetip Click To Tweet

I recently edited a manuscript with the sentence, “To facilitate this change, I suggested that [Mary] commence the exercises I had recommended.” While there is nothing technically wrong with that sentence, why fill your work with words plucked from a thesaurus if you don’t need to? Consider this alternative, which is much simpler: “I suggested that Mary begin the exercises I’d recommended to help her with the change.”

The Writing Center at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a great online style handout that includes a list of common stock phrases and their one-word replacements. For example: is able to, is in a position to, has the opportunity to, has the capacity for, has the ability to . . . are all ways to say “can.”

Now please don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that you forgo every use of phrases that add some variety or nuance; that is a style choice.

What I am suggesting is that you take a moment to consider how you could rephrase a sentence to be grammatically correct while expressing your point as clearly and succinctly as possible. Strive to express your ideas in the most direct, elegant, and persuasive way possible. I love my thesaurus, too, but I make sure I understand the nuance of the word I’ve plucked from it before I choose it over the word I want to replace.

Here’s another example from the UNC handout:

For example, if your paper discusses the significance of memory represented by the scent of wisteria in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, you are going to write the words “memory” and “wisteria” a lot. Don’t start saying “recollection,” “reminiscence,” “summoning up of past events,” and “climbing woody vine” just to get a little variation in there. A thesaurus might even lead you to say that the significance of nostalgia is represented by the odiferous output of parasitic flowering vegetation. . . . Remember that your goal in . . . writing is not to sound intelligent, but to get your intelligent point across.

I’d love your comments about this or other grammar goofs. I hope you’ll share them here or write to me at cyjohnson5580@gmail.com. Thanks for stopping by.

—Candace

 

Next week: Passive Writing

How a Professional Editor Can Help You Get Published: Developmental and Substantive Editing

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Writers are often too close to their own writing to be objective. After spending hours trying to get a concept or dialogue “just right,” it is difficult to know what should stay and what should be cut. Even after you’ve self-edited, had your friends critique your work, and perhaps even asked a friend who is an English teacher to take a look, an objective and professional opinion from a professional freelance editor is the best way to identify what is and isn’t working.

No matter how well written a manuscript is, it needs more than what another writer or a friend can offer. Writers are often amazed at the amount of help a good editor offers; published authors who have already been through the process understand how valuable an editor is to the success of their work.

If you have a great idea but don’t know how to organize it into a book or article, or if you’ve written a draft and want to be sure it is well-ordered and doesn’t drift off somewhere it shouldn’t, consider hiring a professional freelance editor. A professional editor has an objective viewpoint and will be honest with you about the many ways you can improve your manuscript—yes, even when you think it’s perfect, you’ll be surprised at the things an editor will suggest that never occurred to you.

Scott Norton, an editor at the University of California Press and author of the first full-length handbook ever published on the subject of developmental editing, writes: “For our purposes, developmental editing denotes significant structuring or restructuring of a manuscript’s discourse. The DE’s role can manifest in a number of ways. Some “big picture” editors provide broad direction by helping the author to form a vision for the book, then coaching the author chapter by chapter to ensure that the vision is successfully executed. Others get their hands dirty with the prose itself, suggesting rewrites at the chapter, section, paragraph, and sentence levels. This hands-on approach is sometimes called substantive editing or line editing.

This important function is not meant to replace self editing; whether you engage an editor before or after you begin writing, developmental editing is synonymous with The Big Picture. Norton goes on to say:

“From this perspective, stylistic intervention alone is not ‘developmental.’ To be sure, there are cases in which a manuscript’s organization is sound but the tone so pervasively wrong that virtually every sentence must be recast. Severe as these problems of tone may be, they can usually be handled by a high-powered copyeditor—and those that can’t are beyond the reach of editing, requiring instead the hand of a ghostwriter or coauthor. Nevertheless, most manuscripts with structural problems have stylistic lapses as well, and DEs are often asked to fix both kinds of problems. . . .”

What is developmental/substantive editing and do you need it? #writers #authors #editing #writetip Click To Tweet

Developmental editing (also called substantive editing, heavy line editing, structural editing, or book doctoring) is the first step for many authors on their way to having their work published. If you are a first-time author, don’t make the expensive mistakes by hoping an agent or publisher will share your vision, even if your manuscript isn’t in top shape. Do your research and find an editor who will work as your partner to help you say it the way you mean it.

—Candace

Students Can’t Write, Lack Effective Communication Skills

This is a Computer Fundamentals class taking a...
This is a Computer Fundamentals class taking an exam. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress: 2011 Writing exam show that few students can write successfully in both academic and workplace settings, educators said.

If you struggle to use just the right words to get your point across, you may appreciate the article that appeared in the Orange County Register (CA). Even in this day of technologically savvy students, “Nearly three quarters of American students who took the first-ever computer-based national writing exam did not communicate effectively, even when allowed to use spell check, a thesaurus and other word-processing tools, according to a federal report released Friday.” The test, which measured students’ ability to “persuade or change the reader’s point of view; explain or expand the reader’s understanding; and convey experience or communicate individual experiences to others,” was given to a sampling of students that officials felt were representative of the overall population.

These results are so disappointing. Basic writing and communications skills are still that—basic skills—and even with all the money spent on technology in the classroom, students continue to struggle with something that will define them and their futures. Read the full article at http://www.ocregister.com/news/students-371409-writing-graders.html.

Basic writing and communications skills are still that—basic skills—and even with all the money spent on technology in the classroom, students continue to struggle with something that will define them and their futures. #writing… Click To Tweet

I’ll bet at least one of those students has an idea for a terrific book; I just hope he or she realizes there are professional editors who can help when the time comes.

—Candace