Define "It" to Strengthen Your Writing

Have you ever been engrossed in a great story and suddenly stopped short to ask yourself what the writer is referring to when “it” appears? Here’s an example:

“Sue and Mary found six dresses to try. It fit and was in her price range.”

strengthen-your-writing
Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What is “it,” exactly? In the context of the sentence above, “it” is used as a pronoun, and illustrates a common (and avoidable) writer mistake:

Undefined pronouns

A quick grammar review: Pronouns are a useful part of speech that give writers greater flexibility in naming schemes. Instead of using and reusing a noun, the substitution of a pronoun allows for a type of shorthand. For example, instead of writing, “The moment John walk into the store, John realized John had forgotten John’s wallet at home” (pretty clunky, huh?), this sentence becomes, “The moment John walked into the store, he realized he had forgotten his wallet at home.”

Personal pronouns are fairly straightforward. Most of us use I, he, she, they, him, her, them, his, hers, and theirs properly . . . but “it” often present unique problems for writers.

The Problem with “It”

When I edit manuscripts, I usually see two different but related problems with the use of “it”: Continue reading “Define "It" to Strengthen Your Writing”

Sentence clauses and where to put the comma. With gratuitous nudity.

“Should I or shouldn’t I?” That’s the question most writers ask themselves about commas, and Eric Baker wrote one of the best explanations I’ve read to help you decide. Wish I’d written one that was half this much fun!

Sentence clauses and where to put the comma. With gratuitous nudity.


Sentence clauses and where to put the comma. With gratuitous nudity. #writetip #punctuation… Click To Tweet

Do you have any idea how hard it is to think up an enticing blog post title when your topic is sentence clauses? That’s about as unsexy a thing as can be discussed. My other options were Full Frontal Commas and When Punctuation Marks Hook Up, but I ultimately decided “sentences clauses” and “comma” both belonged because the union of those two language elements is what we’re talking about today.

I’m willing to bet that when writers express worry about their punctuation skills, their chief grief is commas. Like, when to use one and where to put it (by the way, if you block out the rest of this post, you have to admit what I just wrote could be sexy). Today I shall discuss one aspect of comma use: when they are required to separate sentence clauses and when they are not.

The guidelines are pretty simple. If you have a dependent clause, you don’t need a comma, and if you have an independent clause, you do need a comma. Important note: Dependent and independent clauses are typically separated by “and” or “but.”

But sometimes, to even the most experienced writer, grammar talk sounds like bleeeeeaaaaaaahhhhhhh grldlugnk fzzznuh. Therefore, I shall provide examples.

Continue reading…

Hiring an English Major to Edit Your Book Is Cheating Yourself

I belong to a listserve of freelance editors, and I find the topics of conversation interesting and often thought-provoking. One recent  hiring an english major to edit your booktopic that elicited many comments was about pricing the work we do.

The initial post was by an established and well-respected editor who wrote, “I recently was asked about my rates by someone at a local company who was looking for writing and editing help. She balked at my quote . . . Her response: < … we can find English majors for $10 to $15 [per hour] and many of them are quite good. >”

I get it; no one wants to spend more than necessary for anything—goods or services. I mean, if I can buy a knock-off designer widget that looks just like the brand-name widget, isn’t that a better value than buying the real thing just for the brand name? If I can get my next-door neighbor’s artistic son to design my book cover, isn’t that a better value than hiring an expensive professional cover artist?

And if I can get an English major to edit my book for a few hundred dollars, isn’t that a better value than hiring a professional editor? Continue reading “Hiring an English Major to Edit Your Book Is Cheating Yourself”

Happy One Year Blogging Anniversary to Me!

I received official notification from WordPress that my blog is now a year old:

Wordpress

Thank you to friends, followers, and everyone in this wonderful writing community for your friendship and support. I love working with writers, and my goal for my blog posts is to provide useful content that will help you whether you write for publication or “just because.” In honor of this auspicious occasion, I’m listing links to some of my most popular articles and guest posts from the last 12 months, and I hope I’ve grouped these in a way that makes searching topics a bit easier for you. Feel free to add a comment on any of them—your comments are always welcome.

Self-Editing

Struggling with Revisions? Try Playing with Paper Dolls

Self-Editing Checklist for Fiction Writers Part I: Macro Issues Continue reading “Happy One Year Blogging Anniversary to Me!”

Keep Your Readers Reading: 4 Easy Ways to Improve Sentence Structure

improve sentence structureConstructing a variety of sentences to keep your reader interested is a challenge every writer faces. If you are like most writers, your “personal style” includes some overused sentence structure.

In Self Editing: Put Your Book on a Diet, I discussed the importance of deleting unnecessary words; another important part of the revision/self-editing process is making sure your sentence structures are varied . . . but sometimes writers create new problems for themselves in the quest to vary sentences.

Let me explain.

As a freelance editor, I work with writers who have varying levels of experience. In the course of a month, I usually do some coaching, evaluate manuscripts, proofread a novel, and copyedit a proposal. In almost every case, I find that the writers have specific tendencies to overuse words and phrases or to construct most (or at least too many) sentences in a similar fashion.

Now, look at those last three sentences. Can you identify the common sentence structure I used? (Cue “Final Jeopardy” theme.)

Time’s up!

If you identified “overuse of introductory dependent clauses,” you win! (Sorry, no valuable prize, but you DO have the satisfaction of knowing grammar geeks will welcome you into the club.) I know that particular sentence structure is one I tend to overuse, so when I revise my writing, I’m always on the lookout for ways to restructure those sentences. A few sprinkled in every so often are great, but when the majority of my sentences have the same format: Zzzzzzzzzzzz . . .

(By the way, one of the best ways to learn to spot your own writing gaffes is by editing other writers’ writing. I wrote about that here. Try it—you’ll be amazed how much your own writing improves!)

Sentence construction should almost never be the same throughout a paragraph. That’s boring for the reader, and it’s a sure sign that you need to do some revising.

Here are some other common writing faux pas:

  • Overused words: All writers have their favorite words, even if they aren’t aware of them. I recently edited a manuscript with a great deal of clever dialogue, but more than half of them begin with “Well . . .” Every main character and most of the minor characters begin at least half their sentences that way: Zzzzzzzzz.

Lynn Serafin at Spirit Authors wrote about this in her excellent series on self-publishing:

This part of the process can be a real emotional journey for an author, especially if they have never worked with a good editor before. You might wonder why the editor didn’t do this herself. I’m glad she asked me to do it because a) it gave me the chance to decide which instances of these words should stay or go and b) it helped me improve as a writer. I notice that I am much more mindful of my ‘filler’ words since being challenged by my editor to address this issue.”

  • Dangling Modifiers: These are especially fun to include if you want to give your editor a good laugh. What is a dangling modifier? It’s a descriptive word or phrase (a modifier) that is separated from the noun or noun phrase it is supposed to be modifying. This often happens when the modifier is tacked onto the beginning or end of a sentence.

    Dangling Modifiers Lead To Slippery Pedestrians
    Dangling Modifiers Can Lead To Slippery Pedestrians (Photo credit: jaydoubleyougee)

Here are some examples:

  • Almost two feet tall, he hurled himself over the coffee table. (He’s awfully short, isn’t he?)
  • Returning home, the fire was still burning out of control. (Did the fire run out for a quart of milk?)
  • Knocking on the door, the package sat where the delivery man dropped it. (What a clever package—it can announce its own arrival.)

 

  • Comma Splices: Our dear friend the comma is often asked to do more work that it was designed to do. Connecting two independent clauses with a comma but no coordinating conjunction or punctuation is one form of a comma splice. Here’s an example:
  • I can’t believe you brought me here, I have postponed it for so long, this is an awe-inspiring place, my sister would have loved it here.

There are a number of ways to fix this type of sentence. You can add coordinating or subordinating conjunctions, make dependent clauses out of one or more of the independent clauses, use different punctuation, or revise the sentences to add some variety to the structure. And, of course, you could use almost any combination of the above.

  • I can’t believe you brought me here. I have postponed it for so long, but this is an awe-inspiring place; my sister would have loved it here.

OR

  • I postponed coming here for so long. This is an awe-inspiring place, and my sister would have loved it. I can’t believe you brought me here.

OR

  • I have postponed coming here for so long that I can’t believe you brought me. This is an awe-inspiring place, and my sister would have loved it here.

You’ll keep your readers reading if you use a variety of the four basic sentence constructions:

  • Simple sentences
  • Compound sentences
  • Complex sentences
  • Compound/complex sentences

Mixing up the order of the clauses, adding coordinating or subordinating clauses, removing dangling modifiers, and eliminating extraneous words are important parts of the revision process. When you utilize different approaches to address the subject of each sentence, your writing will guide your reader to share your vision through your mastery of sentence construction.

What is YOUR biggest challenge when revising on a sentence level? I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments!

Happy Writing,

—Candace

Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be.

If you enjoyed reading this, please subscribe to my blog and never miss a post! It’s easy: Just enter your email address on the right side of this page. And please know that I’ll never sell, share, or rent your contact information—that’s a promise!

And if you want more great writing and publishing information, check out my Facebook page at Change It Up Editing and Writing Services, where I share all kinds of interesting articles and links.

How a Professional Editor Can Help You Get Published: Copyediting

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This is the second installment of an occasional series about freelance editing services. I wrote previously about developmental editing; this time I’ll share some thoughts on copyediting (sometimes spelled copy editing), the second of three vital steps in the editing process.

So what is a copyeditor, and why do you need one? An article on About.com puts it succinctly: “Copy editors are the grammatical gatekeepers, so to speak, of the media world. They read over stories—or, as the content is called in industry terms, ‘copy’—and check for everything from typos to errant commas.”

Copyediting is more than just checking to be sure a writer follows grammar rules. The copyeditor’s task is to finesse a writer’s prose so that it observes all the conventions of good writing, and also verifies proper syntax, word choice, spelling, punctuation, adherence to the publisher’s style guide or outside guides such as The Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook. In addition, the copyeditor checks to be sure the text flows and is accurate and clear, checks basic facts, flags potential legal issues, and as another blogger writes, “copyediting is like pulling out your magnifying glass to look at the small details of the writing. Copyeditors look at each paragraph, each sentence in that paragraph and further still, each word in the sentence.”

(For those of you paying attention, the quote above has an error that should have been caught by the copyeditor—if you see it, please leave the answer in “Comments”—and no peeking at other people’s answers! I’ll post the correct answer in my next blog.)

As the book packaging professionals at The Book Couple (http://www.thebookcouple.com) put it, “A good copyeditor brings a renewed sense of objectivity to the project, which is important for pinpointing any remaining issues that the author and [project] editor are too close to see.” In the first step of the editing process, the developmental editor looked at “big picture” issues, but the copyeditor is more concerned with line-by-line details. Here are a few examples of issues a copyeditor will flag:

“His belligerence would express itself if the child hesitated or resisted in any way.”

(The problem: belligerence doesn’t express itself, belligerence is something that is expressed by someone. This is an example of passive writing, and is a common error a copyeditor will note and correct.)

“I had a lady who was a teacher and she was profoundly ill.”

(First problem: “I had a lady” is nonsensical. This should be rephrased as “I had a female patient.” Second problem: there are two independent clauses in this sentence that should be separated by a comma: “I had a lady who was a teacher” comma “and she was profoundly ill.” Or better yet, “I had a female patient who was profoundly ill,” which is a more sophisticated way of stating these facts and more in line with the overall professional tone of this manuscript.)

Please subscribe to this blog for weekly examples of common errors and how to correct them. You’ll learn a lot, I promise!

There are numerous ways a writer can and should self-edit; when an article, manuscript, or web content is submitted for publication, the writer should always try to have it as free from error as possible. But none of us can be experts are everything, and no matter how well written a manuscript is, it often needs more help 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, or you have a web post due and you’re a little rusty about all those grammar rules, 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.

And the best advice of all: find an editor who will work as your partner to help you say it the way you mean it.

—Candace

 

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.”

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