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.)

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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.)
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  • 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.

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Resumptives and Summatives and Appositives, oh my!

Resumptive and Summative and AppositivesAs many of you know, I was out of town for the past ten days. I visited my elderly father (an exercise in patience and resilience), my twenty-three-year-old daughter (more resilience), and dear friends. It was a fun but exhausting trip.

All this is a way to say I’m just now catching up on reading blogs from the past week. In the chaos of traveling, I missed National Grammar Day, but now I’m happy to share my favorite tribute blog with you, my loyal readers. Oliver Gray always has interesting things to say at Literature and Libation, and this post is one I read and thought, “I wish I’d written that!”

So without further ado, here is Oliver’s take on Resumptive and Summative and Appositives—enjoy!

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Continue reading “Resumptives and Summatives and Appositives, oh my!”

Effective Writing Isn’t Affected, Part II

Image courtesy of 89studio at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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

How a Professional Editor Can Help You Get Published: Copyediting

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