Showing posts with label grammar. Show all posts
Showing posts with label grammar. Show all posts

Monday, March 20

How to Whip Your Prose into Shape

How to Whip Your Prose into Shape

Whenever anyone writes a post about how to improve one’s prose it’s inevitable that one’s own prose comes under scrutiny! So, let me say that I’m sure you’ll be able to find many errors in my writing. Believe me, if I didn’t use the tips I’m about to give you, my writing would be much worse. In the final analysis all we can strive to do is improve. Perfection is not only unattainable, it’s not productive.

Here are my tips:

1. Hunt for and exterminate unnecessary 'this's and 'that's.

The second sentence of my first paragraph used to be:

“So, let me say that I’m sure you’ll be able to find MANY errors in my writing.”

Compare that with:

“I’m sure you’ll be able to find MANY errors in my writing.”

The two sentences say the same thing but the second sentence says it more forcefully because it’s not as cluttered. Granted I removed more than just “that” but even just taking “that” out would have been an improvement.

2. Look for unnecessary modifiers.

There’s nothing wrong with the word “just.” Like any word, it has its place, there are circumstances in which it is needed. The same is true for “partially,” “almost,” “practically,” and so on. Saying, “Joe boarded the plane in time” expresses a different thought than, “Joe boarded the plane just in time.”

Believe me, I know how tempting it is to use modifiers. My rough drafts (and even my published posts!) are riddled with them. But do try to be merciless and take out extraneous modifiers, anything not needed to express a particular thought.

Rule of thumb: If you can remove a word and the sentence expresses the same thought, then you don’t need the word.

For instance, take the sentence:

“But do try to be merciless and strike out those modifiers which a sentence doesn’t need to express a particular thought.”

This says exactly the same thing as:

“Be merciless and strike out modifiers that don't help express a particular thought.”

The latter sentence is clearer, cleaner and much easier to read.

3. Avoid stock phrases and cliches.

For instance, above I wrote:

“Like any word, it has its place, there are circumstances in which it is needed.”

I ran a rough draft of this post through Pro Writing Aid and that program pointed out that “sometimes” communicates the same thing as “There are circumstances,” and does it more simply and cleanly. (Yes, I’m an affiliate for Pro Writing Aid, but only because I use and like the program.) So I could have rewritten it as:

“Like any word, sometimes it is needed.”

I'm not in love with that construction, it feels stilted, but it's shorter and clearer.

Another example:

“Today, I’d like to talk about what I’m going to call the ‘conflict character.’”

This sentence would be clearer as:

“Today, I’d like to talk about what I will call the ‘conflict character.’”

It’s a small change, but I like the shorter, clearer, sentence.

Pro Writing Aid helped me spot the above, but I feel it's only fair to note that sometimes the program gets it wrong. It suggested that this sentence:

“I’m going to use “antagonist” and “murderer” interchangeably except where I think it might cause confusion.”

be replaced with this sentence:

“I will use “antagonist” and “murderer” except where I think it might cause confusion.”

As you can see the latter sentence does not express the same thought as the former!

4. Compare your writing to the writing of authors you admire.

The writers whose prose I most admire are: Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King.

Pro Writing Aid is great but, like all programs of its type, the statistics it displays are meaningless without context. So I let my favorite authors provide context!

Let me give you an example. I just ran my last post, Writing a Murder Mystery: The Conflict Character, through ProWritingAid. Then I ran a portion of Stephen King’s book, On Writing, through the program (I made sure the excerpts contained about the same number of words).

  • The program suggests that I make 27 readability enhancements and that Stephen King needs to make 37 readability enhancements! lol
  • The program let me know that I have 10 passive verbs but Stephen King had 16 passive verbs.
  • The program let me know that I have 4 hidden verbs while Stephen King had ... none!

(BTW, ProWritingAid made many more than these three observations, I’m just giving you the gist of it.)

The final observation was the one that yielded paydirt. I’ve compared my work against Stephen King’s a number of times and the above pattern holds. Stephen King does not hide verbs while I salt them away like a squirrel hides nuts.

So, what is a hidden verb? A hidden verb is a verb that is turned into a noun. For instance, my article had the following hidden verbs: “a portion of,” (used twice) and “a collection of” (used twice).

Here’s one of my sentences in which I salted away a hidden verb:

“The second kind of conflict is conflict that only lasts for A PORTION OF the story.”

Here’s my revision:

“The second kind of conflict only lasts for part of the story.”

Much better!

How can you tell whether hidden verbs have wormed their way into your prose? I run my writing through Pro Writing Aid and it highlights these phrases! But another way of spotting them is to look for the following word endings: -mend, -tion, -sion, and -ance. Also, scrutinize words that link with words such as: “achieve, effect, give, have, make, reach, and take.”

This really only scratches the surface of ways to improve one's prose. If you'd like me to write more about this subject, let me know in the comments! :-)

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Elements of Style Kindle Edition, by William Strunk Jr.

This is a classic! From the blurb: “The Elements of Style ... is the best-known, most influential prescriptive treatment of English grammar and usage...” I have Elements on my writing shelf snuggled up to Stephen King’s On Writing.

That’s it! I’ll talk to you again on Wednesday. Till then, good writing!


1. I'm an affiliate for Pro Writing Aid, but only because the program has helped me become a better writer. I would not endorse a product I didn't use.

Friday, September 20

Kick Your Writing Up A Notch: Beware Sense Verbs

Kick Your Writing Up A Notch: Beware Sense Verbs

Here's the rule:
"Eliminate “protagonist + sense verb” phrases that make us watch your protagonist have an internal experience, and instead simply dramatize the internal experience."
That doesn't come from me, that's from the (terrific!) article A Straightforward Technique to Make Your Writing More Immediate and Effective by Cheryl B. Klein over at Brooklyn Arden. (Thanks to +Elizabeth S. Craig for sharing the link.)

What I love even more than the advice is that the author gives examples that do a fine job of illustrating her point. For example:
A) Katherine heard a man shout, "LORD GIVE ME PATIENCE!" and spun to see what was happening. She saw that a clown was dancing merrily across the parking lot, a small dog in a red ruff nipping at its heels.

B) "LORD GIVE ME PATIENCE!" a man shouted behind Katherine. She spun to see what was happening. A clown was dancing merrily across the parking lot, a small dog in a red ruff nipping at its heels.
There's two things here: a person (the protagonist) and a camera. Even if one is writing from the point of view of the protagonist (using either the first or limited third person) one should be the camera. The camera doesn't think or feel or believe or hope, all it does is record what's out there, what's happening. At least, that's how I think of it.

For instance, using Cheryl Klein's examples:

In (A) the reader is placed in Katherine's mind and filters everything through what Katherine hears, thinks, smells, etc.

In (B) the reader takes up the perspective of the camera. Yes, it's positioned inside Katherine's head, but it sees the world rather than Katherine's sensory impressions.

These words can be a tip off that you're talking about what a character senses rather than about the the thing(s) the character is sensing:


That list, from Cheryl's article, can be extended by adding any sense term: taste, believe, etc.

As Cheryl points out, sometimes we do want to observe our characters, we want to talk about what they see and feel and believe rather than the world in which they see and feel and believe it.

Cheryl B. Klein has written a great article on how to make one's writing clearer, I encourage you all to read it for yourself; it's short, clear and has good examples.

I'll leave you with something I picked up from reading Stephen King's On Writing, though perhaps he never says it quite like this: clarity is king. We need to make adjustments if we want to talk about the world but instead talk about how our characters see the world.

(Being hung up on one's character's inner states is very different from showing who your character is by the unique way they see the world; what they notice. For instance, a firebug might notice fire the way a designer would notice the line of a coat. But this kind of subtle characterization can be done without calling attention to a character's thoughts.)

Good writing!

Photo credit: "Grace and... Disgrace" by Zach Dischner under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, March 8

Handy Guides To Avoiding Mistakes In Grammar

Handy Guides To Avoiding Mistakes In Grammar

I don't usually blog about grammar--I'll leave that to the professionals--but today I came across these guides that I thought were well written and easy to understand.

Avoiding Common Mistakes

The first guide to grammar is called Avoiding Common Grammar Mistakes and was written for students at George Mason University. Here is a sample:
Comma splices
A comma splice is where a comma is used to join two independent clauses which should be separated by a period. An independent clause can stand on its own as a sentence. Do not simply use a comma everywhere a reader would pause.

Subject/pronoun disagreement
There are two types of subject/pronoun disagreement, shifts in number and shifts in person.
Shifts in number
This phrase means the shifting between singular and plural in the same sentence. Be consistent.

Shifts in person
This error occurs when the person shifts within the sentence from first to second person, from second to third person, etc.
"Its" is the possessive form of "it." "It's" is the contraction of "it is." They are not interchangeable.
.  .  .  .
Dropped commas around clauses
Place commas around words, phrases, or clauses that interrupt a sentence. Do not use commas around restrictive clauses, which provide essential information about the subject of the sentence.
Interrupting clause
This clause or phrase interrupts a sentence, such as "however." Place a comma on either side of the interrupting clause.

Restrictive clause
This clause or phrase provides essential information about the subject of the sentence. Without this clause or phrase, the meaning of the sentence changes.

Non-restrictive clause
This clause or phrase modifies the subject of the sentence but does not change the meaning of the sentence if left out.
Here are a few examples of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses.

Grammatical, Mechanical & Stylistic Problems And How To Fix Them

This handy-dandy guide to English grammar was compiled by Professor David Beach:
Use "who" when it can be replaced by a subject proper noun, and "whom" when it can be replaced by an object proper noun.
John kissed Mary. John = subject, Mary = object Whom did John kiss? Who kissed Mary?

Dmitri gave the book to Phyllis. To whom did Dmitri give the book? Who gave the book to Phyllis?

I've been testing out Grammarly and I'm curious whether any of you have used the program. If so, did you find it useful?

What was the most useful grammar tip you've ever received?

Other articles you might like:

- Beware Alibi Publishing, John Scalzi Warns: "This is the worst book contract I have ever encountered"
- Amanda Palmer's TED Talk: The Art Of Asking
- Stephen King Board On Jeopardy Tonight (March 5, 2013)

Photo credit: "jack johnson:while we wait (sleep through the static)" by visualpanic under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, February 10

The Trouble With Adverbs

The Trouble With Adverbs
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs ....
- Stephen King, On Writing
Why do many writers hate adverbs?

When I first read Stephen King's On Writing I confess I thought his stance toward adverbs a tad harsh. How could a part of speech be categorically condemned? As Jeff Chapman writes:
Adverbs shade the meaning of the words they modify. They are grammatical and an accepted part of speech. I've seen them used by well-respected writers. So, what's behind the injunctions against adverbs? (Why No Adverbs?)
As I investigated the roots of the prejudice against the adverb (I was tempted to write "the lowly adverb" but restrained myself) I came to agree with the admonition to eschew the use of adverbs, or at least to try. This blog post is my attempt at a partial explanation of why we should treat the adverb with caution.

Much of what follows has been drawn from Charlie Jane Anders' article, Seriously, What's So Bad About Adverbs?

1. Adverbs Often Express A Redundant Meaning

Jeff Chapman writes:
Adverbs are redundant when paired with strong verbs. For example: "clenched his teeth tightly"; "moped sadly"; "screamed loudly"; "whispered quietly." In each case, the adverb adds no additional meaning to the verb. There is no other way to mope than with sadness and when someone whispers, they are being quiet.
But what about something like, "He yelled angrily"? It doesn't feel right, but the notion of being angry isn't directly implied by yelling.

For instance, you might yell to tell someone they're in trouble ("Look out! A bus!") or because you're in a nightclub ("I said, 'What would you like to drink?'"). In these cases, though, one shouldn't have to use an adverb because the context should make it clear whether the person yelling was angry.

2. Adverbs Are Sometimes Used To Bolster Weak Verbs

The idea being that the weak verb should be replaced by a strong verb rather than propped up by an adverb.

Before I get into this I feel I should say a few words about what is a strong, as opposed to a weak, verb. I looked this up and, apparently, strong verbs are irregular verbs and weak verbs are ... well, here's a quote:
A weak verb (or regular verb) is one that forms its past participle and past form by adding "-ed" or "-t". (Weak Verbs)
For instance:
Look at the most famous adverb in science-fiction history: Captain Kirk's "To boldly go where no man has gone before." What do you notice? Okay, yes, it's a split infinitive. But look past that. The verb is "go," which doesn't really tell us much in itself.

What would happen if you took the adverb out of that sentence? You get: "To go where no man has gone before." Which sounds bland, and a little apologetic. ("Hey, we're, uh, going, ummm, somewhere that we haven't gone before." "Oh. Are we there yet?" "No.")

From that, you might conclude that the adverb is necessary. But actually, it's more that the verb is weak. "Go" just doesn't give us much, and it definitely doesn't have the swashbuckling feeling Captain Kirk's ringing voiceover demands. So the best bet is to replace it with a stronger verb, like "venture," or "explore." Or how about: "To walk where no man has walked before"? It's evocative and calls to mind men walking on the Moon. (Seriously, What's So Bad About Adverbs?)
I love Star Trek so just let me say that I think, here, the flexibility of the verb was a good thing. After all, we don't want to say, "To fly where no man has flown before," "To dive where no man has dived before," "To walk where no one has walked before," "To run where no one has run before," "To crawl ..." well, you get the idea.

But, point taken. Most of the time weak verbs are insideous. They creep into one's prose and weaken it with clutter. Jeff Champman writes:
Adverbs are used to prop up weak verbs. A better solution is to replace those weak verb/adverb pairings with a stronger verb. For example: replace "frowning angrily" with scowling; "running quickly" with sprinting; "petting softly" with caressing; "moving slowly" with creeping. (Why No Adverbs?)

3. Using Adverbs In Dialogue Attribution

For instance,

"Get out of my house!" she said angrily.

From the dialogue itself it's probably clear the speaker was angry. Yes, it could be that there was a fire spreading through her house and she wanted everyone to evacuate but the context should make the meaning clear.

4. The Adverb And Purple Prose

Charlie Jane Anders gives "He smiled thinly" and "He grinned wolfishly" as examples of adverbs aiding and abetting purple prose.

Of course she's right. Adverbs are likely present in a lot of prose that could be described as purple (that is, excessively ornate prose that does not further the story).

That said, it's interesting only one -ly adverb occurs in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's famous first sentence:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. (Purple prose, Wikipedia)

Are Adverbs Irredeemable?

Charlie Jane Anders concludes:
But adverbs aren't necessarily all bad, and they can spruce up your writing if you use them judiciously. Here's a test you should apply before using an adverb.

1) Does it change the word it modifies? Does it make the verb or adjective mean something drastically different?

2) Does it convey some vital piece of information in a way that's better or more evocative than real description or a stronger verb by itself?

If the answer to either or both of these things is "Yes," then go ahead and use an adverb. There's nothing wrong with an adverb, if it conveys new information or provides a distinct slant on something.
I couldn't agree more!

Professor Quest has written a wonderful article The Betrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Adverbs in which he talks about Fitzgerald's use of adverbs to, "create internal tensions or to emphasize points-of-view". He writes:
[In The Great Gatsby] People intrude deferentially; their eyes roam speculatively across empty ballrooms. At one point, Gatsby's house is lit like Coney Island at night, every door and window wide open. As Nick turns away, he speaks of the house "blazing gaudily on."
Charlie Jane Anders writes:
For example, "horribly fatal" doesn't tell us anything new. "Hilariously fatal" does. So does "moderately fatal." So does "arguably fatal." I will never quibble with anyone who wants to use phrases like "statistically significant number of maimings." An adverb can signal a certain tongue-in-cheekness by undermining or tweaking the adjective it goes with, like: "the savagely handsome first officer." Or "the obnoxiously sexy co-pilot."
I'll give Jeff Chapman the last word:
So, should you ever use an adverb? They are permissible in a few cases. It's reasonable to employ them in dialogue. People use them when they talk. In other cases, an adverb is adequate to create a mental image and rewriting makes the prose wordy. Consider this example: "The man stood silently at the window" versus "The man stood at the window making no noise." The instance with the adverb is more concise. The rewrite is longer and draws unnecessary attention to the phrase "making no noise".

It is very easy to fall into the adverb traps. The good news is that they are easy to find. Search your manuscript for "ly" and consider each instance. You will be surprised how much richer your writing will be when you eradicate those adverbial weeds from your prose. Happy weeding.

A Disclaimer

None of this adverb hate applies to your first draft. When you write, ignore everyone except your own muse. On your first draft you're birthing a story so it's going to be messy. Use all the adverbs you want. You'll start cleaning things up on your second draft.

Other articles you might like:

- 8 Tips For Finding The Motivation To Write
- Describing Character Reactions And Emotions: She Smiled, He Frowned
- Tags, Traits And Tells (Podcast)

Photo credit: "?" by Bruna Schenkel under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, September 25

Speaking of Grammar: "Affect" Versus "Effect"

Speaking of Grammar: "Affect" Versus "Effect"

I must be thinking of grammar more lately, either that or there are just more great grammar related articles floating about the internet. Ever wondered whether you should use "effect" or "affect"? Wonder no more! Rachel Berens-VanHeest has written a (terrific!) post about just this.
Let’s start with at “affect” vs. “effect.” Many people use these worlds interchangeably, rather than correctly.

So what do they mean? By definition, you “affect,” or act on something, and something that you do causes an “effect.” In other words, “affect” is a verb, and “effect” is a noun. Or think of it this way: “affect” is something you DO, while “effect” is something that IS.

EXAMPLE: Susan wondered if David’s compliments were starting to affect her self-confidence. (The compliments are doing something, acting on, Susan’s self-confidence.)

EXAMPLE: Bob waited to see if his joke would have the same effect that it did the last time he told it. (The verb is “has,” while “effect” is a noun.)
That's just the beginning. There are many more gloriously simple and easy to understand examples in Rachel's article: Short and Sweet: Grammar Cake Pops – Affect vs. Effect.

Other articles you might like:
- Writing Resources
- 19 Ways To Grow Your Twitter Following
- 8 Tips For Blogging Success

Photo credit: Giuseppe Arcimboldo