Thursday, April 25, 2013

Sentence Structure: The Backbone of Good Writing

What's wrong with these sentences?

"His house had been battered by the winter storm. Now he was leaving, the snow curled around his ankles. He was thinking that he should have worn his scarf, nevertheless, he walked to his car. Hanging in the closet, he wondered if it would have kept him warm. Even though it was old and threadbare."



Let's look at the first line: His house had been battered by the winter storm. It's written in the passive voice, where the doer of the action -- the storm -- is not positioned as the subject of the sentence, and a past participle (a verb ending in "ed") follows some form of "to be" -- is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been. In this sentence, had been battered clues us in to the use of passive voice. 

Good writers avoid passive voice; instead, they form their sentences using the active voice. The winter storm battered his house. "Battered" is past tense, but active voice. "Storm" now stands where it should as the subject of the sentence, while "house" is positioned as the object.

Now he was leaving, the snow curled around his ankles. A run-on sentence consists of two independent clauses incorrectly joined together. Independent clauses must have both a subject and a verb. Now he was leaving is a clause because he constitutes the subject and was leaving constitutes the verb. The snow curled around his ankles is also a clause; snow is the subject and curled is the verb. Both clauses could stand alone as sentences. We call this kind of run-on sentence a "comma-splice". A comma connects the two clauses, but the comma is not followed by a conjunction (and, or, nor, but, so, yet, and sometimes for). We can fix this sentence by dividing it into two sentences. Now he was leaving. The snow curled around his ankles. We can also fix it by inserting a conjunction. Now he was leaving, and the snow curled around his ankles. Or we could substitute a semicolon for the comma. Now he was leaving; the snow curled around his ankles.

We could make the sentence even better by substituting a more active verb for was leaving. Snow curled around his ankles when he stepped outside. Or: He stepped outside and snow curled around his ankles.

He was thinking that he should have worn his scarf, nevertheless, he walked to his car. This is another example of a run-on sentence. We can fix it in two ways. He was thinking that he should have worn his scarf. Nevertheless, he walked to his car. Or we can substitute a semicolon for the first comma. We can also drop the word "that" without losing the meaning of the sentence or confusing the reader.

Hanging in the closet, he wondered if it would have kept him warm. Unlike a clause, a phrase contains no subject for its verb. Phrases merely modify, or clarify, the rest of the sentence. In this sentence, hanging in the closet is called a "misplaced modifier phrase" because it confuses rather than clarifies the sentence. "He" is not hanging in the closet. "It" -- his scarf -- is hanging in the closet. 

Even though it was old and threadbare. This is a sentence fragment, also called an afterthought fragment because it supplies information that reads as an afterthought regarding the scarf and includes the transitional words "even though". The correct way to write this is: He wondered if it would have kept him warm, even though it was old and threadbare. 

Most of us would be hard pressed to recall every rule of grammar taught to us in our youth. Nevertheless, without even consciously thinking about it, we can usually recognize good sentence structure when we read the work of accomplished authors. If we're smart, we'll pay attention to how those authors write, and we'll learn from them. 

So keep reading, my friends, because the truth is, I've never met a good writer who wasn't also an avid reader. 

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Monday, April 15, 2013

Self-Editing Tips and the Craft of Writing


Self-editing

What every writer needs to do before submitting a manuscript to an agent or editor.

Daunting. 

What every writer thinks when hearing the word "self-editing".

Is self-editing really so scary? Not if you look at the word as a simple memory jogging acronym.

S—Sentence Structure
E—Eliminating Errors: Spelling, Capitalization, Punctuation, POV
L—Language
F—Flow
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E—Emotion
D—Dialogue and Description
I—Internal and External Conflict
T—Typos, Tired Words, and Tense Changes
I—Inaccurate Facts and Inconsistencies
N—Narrative and Backstory
G—Grammar

Okay. I agree it's a longggg acronym, so you may have difficulty remembering the chore associated with each letter. But if you print this blog post and tack it up on your bulletin board, you'll have a handy reference of what to look for when you start editing and revising your work. 

In the weeks to come, I'll discuss the various points included in this acronym here at Cicero's Children. I hope you'll join in the conversation with your own observations, questions, and tips on self-editing. 

After all, there's nothing writers treasure more than talking with and learning from other writers. :)

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