6 Ways to Avoid Neutralizing Your Writing

It.

What a cute little, two-letter word. Small but mighty, it can mean everything yet nothing at all. A go-to word for authors of every classification, genre, style, size, platform, etc. of writing, it shows up everywhere like your shadow.

Using it in a sentence isn’t necessarily grammatically incorrect or unacceptable by any seemingly formidable literary entity (usually referred to as “they”) that makes rules that, for some strange reason, authors blindly follow.

However, it is a blah word. Using it in your prose often and frivolously creates vague, feeble writing that renders your compositions less enjoyable and/or effective.

 

#1. The Nebulous It

Dammit! The click of Carolyn Waterton’s Louboutin heels echoed down the hundred-year-old courthouse hallway. It was never a good sign when both the backwoods judge and hayseed prosecutor were late. It could shred what little confidence this fresh-out-of-Yale-Law attorney had. They’re probably swapping stories and smoking stogies on a dilapidated back porch somewhere in this Godforsaken town.

Here, each it refers to something different. The first one is vague, referring to nothing concrete, which is an acceptable form, i.e., “used to represent an inanimate thing understood, previously mentioned, about to be mentioned, or present in the immediate context).* (Sometimes called a dummy pronoun.) The second it relates to how the men’s lateness affects Carolyn.

Now, to be fair, the author used it correctly in both cases. However, forcing it to carry the burden of conveying sentence meaning rather than looking for a superior word or rewriting the passage to read accurately is settling for hamburger when you could have filet mignon.

Dammit! The click of Carolyn Waterton’s Louboutin heels echoed down the hundred-year-old courthouse hallway. Not good. Both the backwoods judge and hayseed prosecutor were late. Why not shred what little confidence this fresh-out-of-Yale-Law attorney has? They’re probably swapping stories and smoking stogies on a dilapidated back porch somewhere in this Godforsaken town.

See?

 

#2. The Because-It’s-There It

How does it wind up in writing over and over again? Because we like to use the ambiguous little pronoun in speech all the time. However, it doesn’t always translate well in written pose. (Tee-hee. See what I did there?)

 When Paula and Jade hid the wrecked car, it meant they hid evidence. 

vs.

 By hiding the wrecked car, Paula and Jade concealed evidence.

Much better.

 

#3. The Lazy It

Authors often forget readers are novel readers not mind readers. Writers assume their readers will know exactly who or what they’re referring to in the sentence (or the next one). “Yeah, I could rewrite it,” the I’d-Rather-Settle-For-Good-Instead-Of-Great Author said, shrugging her shoulders, “but why?”

The jury reached an agreement on the teacher’s penalty, but it took a long time.

Does it refer to the jury, agreement, or the decision-making process?

 The jury reached an agreement on the teacher’s penalty, but the process took a long time.

Much better.

 

#4. The Grammar No-No It

Connie was shy, but she kept it well-hidden.

The sentence doesn’t “sound” incorrect and isn’t confusing, right? However, if your work falls into the hands of a Grammar Nazi, you’re busted. It must refer to a noun, and shy is an adjective. Pronouns can only refer to nouns.

Connie kept her shyness well-hidden.

Take that, Grammar Nazis!

 

#5. The One-Is-Good, Many-Must-Be-Great It

A comprehensive, complicated benefit package encourages employees to ignore offerings no matter how rewarding as confusion breeds avoidance. However, it only takes a minute to ask your department head to clarify the company’s position on it before it is implemented into company policy and you enforce it (should you feel it your duty to do so).

Yes, this is an actual passage recently published in a non-fiction book on Human Resource policies. Wow! Five its in only one l-o-n-g sentence. Two serve as vague references (dummy pronouns), and three allude to the company’s benefit package (I think.). Yeah, it goes without saying: rewrite, Rewrite, REWRITE!

Confusing breeds avoidance. A comprehensive, complicated benefit package only encourages employees to ignore offerings, no matter how rewarding. Ask your department head to clarify the company’s position on the bundle before implementation and enforcement.

Honestly, I don’t know if we fixed any of the inherent perplexity, but we did get rid of the confusing its. Let’s call it a victory.

 

#6. The Dull It

It combined with is, was, or were at the beginning of a sentence is a pet peeve of mine.

It was dark as Victor stepped into the street and waited.

By placing the important information toward the end of the sentence, an author strips his/her prose of energy.

Victor stepped into the dark street and waited.

 

What its are acceptable?

The First-Draft It… Use the word whenever you want to ensure you keep your mind burning and churning to throw down your creative thoughts. You can go back later and fix the its up.

The Dialogue It… Use the word in there because that’s how we speak. One caveat: If your character is well-educated and/or a snotty person, he or she would probably not use it in their speech.

The Don’t-Bother It… Use the word when rewriting the sentence to eliminate it creates confusing instead of clarification.

Got it? (Sorry, I couldn’t control myself.)

Write on!

*Www.Dictionary.com

How To Write For 20 Miles

Motivation is an ongoing struggle for authors. Fiction and nonfiction… traditional and indie… Bestsellers and busters… all authors—at one time or another—have trouble kindling the creativity fire, including me.

“If I waited to be inspired, I would be screwed.”— Srinivas Rao

Host and founder of the popular podcast the Unmistakable Creative, Srini Rao, shared how he took his writing to the next level by focusing on a daily creative habit.

There was only one way I was going to be able to pull this off: write 1,000 a day. It had to go from being a task on my to-do list to a habit. What I didn’t realize is just how much that would change my life.

It wasn’t long before I figured out the necessary elements to easily write 1,000 words a day. I would wake up every morning, and I would just put my fingers on the keyboard. Sometimes I wrote garbage. Sometimes I didn’t.

But when I powered through the garbage (sometimes the first 200 words), I ended up with gold. I figured if I was willing to produce enough garbage, I would come with just enough gold to meet all my deadlines and expectations. In his book Unthink, Erik Wahl calls this creating for the trash can: “If you create for the trash can, some of what you create will probably be worthy of being in a museum.”

Interesting, huh? Thought-provoking, but not enough to set my butt ablaze.

A few months later, during a l-o-n-g, l-o-n-g period of extinguished creativity, I stumbled across another inspirational article. Rao’s plain-Jane honesty sparked my curiosity, so I researched the benefits of daily, consistent, measured goals. An article about an expedition race to the South Pole in 1911 not only ignited my creative fire but transformed it into a wildfire.

“Victory awaits him who has everything in order—luck some people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”—Roald Amundsen, South Pole.

Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott led separate teams to cover a journey of 1,400 miles. Both teams would march the same distance, but their leaders had different approaches to the task.

Scott planned to push hard on good-weather days and rest up on bad days. Amundsen’s strategy was to march 20 miles every day, no matter the weather. Amundsen beat Scott to the Pole by several days, and he and his men returned to Norway safe and sound. Unfortunately, Scott and four of his men perished on the way back to Great Britain.

Talk about an Aha moment…

Usually, I take the Scott approach to life. Get excited about something new, throw myself at it like a maniac, and burn out quickly, get sidetracked, or give up. On the few occasions I channeled Amundsen, like running daily to prepare for a marathon, packing five boxes a day to prepare for a move, finishing my first book after struggling for 10 years, I succeeded.

So, with blogs and books to write, websites to launch, writing and editing classes to prepare, and weekend editing seminars to develop, I needed an infallible method to get my writing done. I analyzed Rao’s and Amundsen’s efforts and came up with guidelines for an experiment I named Project Write My Ass Off:

• Commit to a minimum daily effort that’s hard enough to achieve when your day is going great but still doable when it’s not.

I commit to writing 1,000 words a day.

• Determine self-imposed constraints to ensure you don’t push too hard and lose sight of the purpose of long-term steady progress. Even on good days filled with energy, stick with your daily commitment to avoid burn out.

I commit to writing 1,000 words a day. No more. No less.

• Tailor your plan to your personality and situation. Be brutally honest with yourself about how you will achieve your goal. What works for someone else may not work for you.

I commit to writing 1,000 words a day. No more. No less.
I will put off all other work and personal tasks until the 1,000-world daily threshold has been met.

• Buy-in to your commitment is key. Don’t attempt the effort for your spouse, your significant other, your critique partner, your friend, etc.

I unequivocally commit to writing 1,000 words a day. No more. No less. I will put off all other work and personal tasks until the 1,000-world daily threshold has been met.

• Adapt a concrete timeframe that’s not too short (that the tangible deadline snaps at your heels) but not too long (to deal with unforeseen setbacks) but just right.

I unequivocally commit to writing 1,000 words a day for 30 days. No more. No less. I will put off all other work and personal tasks until the 1,000-world daily threshold has been met.

• Ensure your outcome is within your control. If achieving your goal depends on the behavior and/or decision of others, failure is a possibility.

I unequivocally commit to writing 1,000 words a day for 30 days. No more. No less. I will put off all other work and personal tasks until the 1,000-world daily threshold has been met. I will not do any guest blogs or send work to my critique partners until this effort is done.

• Dedicate yourself to consistency. Good intentions do not get the job done.

I unequivocally commit to writing 1,000 words a day for 30 days whether I feel like it or not. No more. No less. I will put off all other work and personal tasks until the 1,000-world daily threshold has been met. I will not do any guest blogs or send work to my critique partners until this effort is done.

 

The experiment kicked off on February 1, 2018. In the first week, I nailed my 1,000 words a day every day.

In the second week, laptop issues frustrated me for a couple days. Alphasmart Neo to the rescue! The routine change threw me a bit, but writing prompts helped get the creativity flowing, and I hit my daily total every day.

Third week? The flu. Yeah, bucket by the bed and MacBook Pro on my lap. (You’re welcome for the visual.) Calling off the experiment would have been easy and justifiable. However, that’s what I always do when the going got tough. Not this time.

 

I had to prove to myself that I had what it takes to reach to the South Pole.

For four days each, those thousand words took me all day to write. They weren’t pretty or great, but they were written. Whoo-hoo!

In the final stretch (on Day 25), I had to pick someone up from the airport during my usual writing time. Out of my newfound routine, I felt withdrawal. Weird, huh? Not to worry. I had tossed my iPad and Bluetooth keyboard in my purse. Weather delays handed me two hours in baggage claim, and I got my 1,000 words in! Yes!

At midnight on March 2, Project Write My Ass Off ended. Calling the experiment a success is an understatement. Just as Rao discussed in his article, momentum kicked in around the second week and never waned. Ideas flowed… creativity gushed… writing surged. In those 30 days, I:

• Wrote 15 blog articles.
• Wrote four chapters for my WIP.
• Wrote two conference workshops.
• Write three online writing lessons.
• Wrote copy for two websites.
• Started writing a giveaway for one of my websites.
• Learned that a distraction-free desk and Scrivener desktop made writing easier.
• Realized that without days between writing, ideas and content direction remained fresh.
• Discovered that sometimes the work was crap and sometimes it wasn’t.
• Proved that I can reach the South Pole.

Project Write My Ass Off… Take Two is in progress with the same guidelines as before except two: (1) The new timeframe is 60 days. (2) A burning desire to help others discover how to reach their South Poles is now a mission.

Please join me in April for the 1,000-Word Marcher Challenge. For more information, sign up here and then go join the 1KWMC Facebook page.

Give it a try! You’ve nothing to lose except your creative fire.

Keep Your Train of Thought On Track

Keeping your readers moving seamlessly through your book is a challenge every author faces. One element that helps ensure Joe and Jane Public stay with your story and logically connect to your ideas is transitions.

 

Transitions are the connectors, the bridges, the stepping stones that tell your readers what to do with the information you’re presenting.

They must be planned and relevant, or they stick out like files on a birthday cake.

Within a paragraph, transitions provide coherence: the sense that a paragraph has only one main idea.

Gene ordered his favorite meal at the taco stand. He grabbed the bag of food and took it home. He ate the tacos.

Although Jane Public could understand what is going on in Gene’s world, painting an engaging mental picture is difficult with the choppy, vague prose. This kind of writing encourages a reader to put the book down and never return. Not good. Not good at all.

With a few transitions and some beefed-up writing, Jane Public reads on.

Once the street vendor passed him the sack of tacos, Gene headed for his car. The first thing he did at home was plop the sack down on the coffee table and turn on the football game. His stomach growled. Unwrapping his favorite beef-and-bean fare, he then ate all five before the kickoff.

Transitions ensure Joe Public clearly understand your information and instruction.

Now what? Getting ahead and staying ahead of the game. Planning a strategy for managing your critical people is imperative. That includes both the project cheerleader and the project adversary. The project manager needs to plan for communication breakdowns, a significant activity. General guidelines suggest most of your time is spent in some form of communication.
vs.
Now what? First, getting ahead, and then staying ahead of the game. After all, planning a strategy for managing your critical people is imperative. Frequently, that includes both the project cheerleader and the project adversary. And finally, the project manager needs to plan for communication breakdowns, a singularly significant activity since general guidelines suggest most of your time is spent in some form of communication.

Between paragraphs, transitions let an author allude to the idea in the previous paragraph and then change or further enhance the idea in the next one. Again, with no paragraphs, the change appears abrupt or unrelated.

Many times, she’d thought about the legend of the ghost in the old inn. Charlotte didn’t believe in ghosts.
She jumped at the unexpected cold touch on her shoulder.

Not bad, but a minor rework—including a couple transitions—adds major oomph to the passage.

Although the legend of the ghost that lived in the old inn was creepy, Charlotte shrugged it off. She didn’t believe in ghosts.
Until she turned down the dusty hall and felt a cold touch on her shoulder.

Wow!

 

Does the same hold true for non-fiction paragraphs? You betcha!

Your business plan is the blueprint for how you plan to build a successful enterprise. Consider which people will have the greatest impact on your success.
If you need capital investment, investors will be your primary audience.
vs.
Your business plan is the blueprint for how you plan to build a successful enterprise. Consider which people will have the greatest impact on your success.
For example, if you need capital investment, investors will be your primary audience.

One more for kicks and giggles? Okay, if you insist…

Grady was sure he’d seen the suspect duck behind a BMW double-parked next to a UPS truck. No way was the jerk getting away.
Grady dodged several street barriers and delivery trucks to come up behind the man. The guy was gone. A bullet whizzed into the metal garbage can next to him. Grady ran for the safety of a doorway, searching the rooftops for the shooter. He stumbled into a pothole, twisting his ankle.
Great. Some detective I am. Glad his partner wasn’t here to see Grady trip over his two left feet.

Again, not bad but kind of snoozy. Enter transitions!

At first, Grady was sure he’d seen the suspect duck behind a BMW double-parked next to a UPS truck. No way was the jerk getting away.
But by the time Grady dodged several street barriers and delivery trucks to come up behind the man, the guy was gone. A bullet whizzed into the metal garbage can next to him. Grady ran for the safety of a doorway, searching the rooftops for the shooter. That’s when he stumbled into a pothole, twisting his ankle.
Great. Some detective I am. Certainly glad his partner wasn’t here to see Grady trip over his two left feet.

Click here for a printable list of transitions you can use to ensure readers follow your train of thought.

Write on!?

Energize Your Writing With Active Sentences

An editing pet peeve of mine is reading a sentence that could have been great, but the author settled for good enough. For example:

It was very dark as Victor stepped into the street and waited.
There are four types of alcoholics.
It was there that I stayed stretched out and longing for some time.
There were dangerous people milling around Red Square.
It is possible that Hope’s capture at the undercover exchange was inevitable.
This was obviously the tastefully decorated living room of a wealthy lawyer, banker, or CEO.
There will be millions of victims if the premier refuses to take a stand.
There could have been doubt before, but that was gone now.
It was worth the wait to see Slayer’s final show.
There wasn’t enough to prove Gabriel was in imminent danger.
There will be more suffering and death unless someone steps in to fund the program.

Nothing is grammatically wrong, but can you feel the weakness of each sentence? No? Compare it to an improved version.

Victor stepped into the dark street and waited.
I remained stretched out and longing for some time.
Four types of alcoholics exist.
Dangerous people milled about Red Square.
Hope’s capture at the undercover exchange was inevitable.
Obviously, a wealthy lawyer, banker, or CEO lived in the tastefully decorated living room.
If the premier refuses to take a stand, millions of victims may pay the ultimate price.
Any doubt had disappeared.
Slayer’s final show was well-worth the wait.
Gabriel was never in imminent danger.
Suffering and death will continue until someone steps in to fund the program.

See what I mean?

By placing the important information toward the end of the sentence, the author robbed the prose of energy.

Also, these beginnings are so vague and nebulous that you risk leaving your readers scratching their heads, doing the mental “huh?”

Expletive construction is fine during your first-draft effort.* Whatever it takes to get ideas out of your head and into the world. But once you type “The End,” engage your search function and look for these bad boys:

[table id=3 /]

When you find one, experiment with the sentence it contains to make a strong string of prose. Sometimes the fix is as easy as deleting the expletive and the relative pronoun that.

It was Jacob’s last statement that finally piqued Ann’s interest.
Jacob’s last statement that finally piqued Ann’s interest.

Other times, eliminate the expletive and that before beginning the sentence with the subject.

There are thousands of people across the globe that could launch nuclear war.
Thousands of people across the globe could launch nuclear war.

Often, after performing either fix, you can add intensity to the sentence by pumping up the verb and tightening the prose.

There were more than ten dozen roses in Alexandra’s office.
Over ten dozen roses blanketed Alexandra’s office.

“But, Annie, I just read a NYT bestseller author’s latest novel, and he starts a lot of his sentences like that. Why can’t I?”

He’s earned his writing chops. When you hit the bestseller lists with your books, you can start a lot of your sentences like that, too. Until then, let’s write energetically, shall we?

Write on!

 

*Expletive construction is acceptable in dialogue because most people speak that way.

Into? In To? Onto? On To? Argh!

Prepositions like into, in to, onto, and on to can drive writers crazy. Don’t worry. Correct usage is easy if you remember a few simple things.

Into, in to, onto, and on to are prepositions of direction, answering the question “where.” But not always.

 

Into starts a prepositional phrase that shows direction, movement, position, or transformation from one thing into another.

Cinderella stepped into her carriage.

Movement is to the interior of the carriage.

Cinderella’s carriage turned into a pumpkin after midnight.

The carriage transformed.

The remodeling project turned into a big mess.
Glynnis threw diced tomatoes into the salad.
Snow lingers well into June in the mountains.

Snow lingers how long? Well into June.

She went into business with her friend.

A phrasal verb… the meaning is not literal.

Jerry ran into an old friend at the auction.

A phrasal verb… the meaning is not literal.)

Often, into is interchangeable with in.

Put the old magazines in/intothe recycle bin.
The dog jumped in/into the pool.

Sometimes, into and in are not interchangeable. While in shows direction, it does not always mean movement from one thing to another as into does.

Is the dog still swimming in the pool?
Why was there more champagne in Lynette’s glass?

 

In + To act as a phrase. In is an adverb and to is a preposition. In is part of a phrasal verb, i.e., you need an adverb to complete the verb’s meaning.

Rachel dived in to rescue the struggling child.

Context suggests Rachel dived into water.

Rachel dived into the water to rescue the struggling child.
He walked in to the sound of applause.

Context suggests that he walked into a location.

He walked into the sound of applause.

 

Everyone at work chipped in to the fund for Donna’s baby shower.

But not

Everyone at work chipped into the fund for Donna’s baby shower.

 

Unsure whether to use in to or into? Say the sentence aloud. Hear which spelling/usage you need.

 

As a preposition, onto shows moving or placing “on top of.” Use it if you can add the word up before onto.

Dad climbed (up) onto the roof to retrieve the kitten.
Rodney shoved blame (up) his brother for not fixing the lawnmower.

 

Onto and the preposition on are often interchangeable.

Harry stepped on/onto the grass.
Crumbs fell on/onto the new carpet.

 

Sometimes, onto and on are not interchangeable because on means more than “on top of.”

She wrote on the book.

Meaning “in contact with,” but not

She wrote onto the book.

Meaning “wait”.

 

Hold on!

Meaning “wait”.

 

Onto and on to are not interchangeable.

She tossed the book onto (on) the desk.

But not

She tossed the book on to the desk.

 

The rain fell onto (on) the parched earth.

But not

The rain fell on to the parched earth.

 

The restaurant adds the tip onto the bill.

But not

The restaurant adds the tip on to the bill.

 

On + to act as a phrase. On is an adverb and to is a preposition. On is part of a phrasal verb. On to is casual in usage.

Pass the information about tax law changes on to your clients.

Or

Pass the information about the tax law changes to your clients.

 

We moved on to other matters.

But not

We moved onto other matters.

 

We’re having cocktails in the garden and moving on to the house for dinner.

But not

We’re having cocktails in the garden and moving onto the house for dinner.

Better

We’re having cocktails in the garden, and then we’ll have dinner in the house.

 

Sometimes context determines whether you should use onto or on to.

We drove onto the highway in the old truck.

Context suggests they got on the highway.

We drove on to the highway in the old truck.

Context suggests they drove until arriving at the highway. Then they did a different thing, e.g., pulled over for a rest stop, ate a meal, or checked the map and discovered they lost.

Unsure whether to use onto or on to? Say the sentence aloud. Hear which spelling/usage you need.

Easy peasy… lemon squeezy…

Write on!

Diagramming Sentences: Grammar’s X-Ray Machine

Yeah… I hear the booing and hissing. I see the eyes rolling. Sentence diagramming? Are you kidding, Annie?

No. I’m. Not.

Diagramming is essential to writing better fiction.

Complain all you want, but diagramming can improve your writing immensely.

Just like the ER X-ray taken of my foot to see if I broke it tripping over a rattlesnake on a hiking trail (Okay, it turned out to be a stick, but it was a huge stick, and I saw it move… twice.), a sentence diagram helps you see the structure of what you wrote.

By placing the various parts in relation to the basic subject-verb relationship, you can see how the parts fit together and how the meaning of your sentence branches out. You get a clear understanding of how your sentence is working or why it’s not.

If you can’t see something is broken, you can’t fix it. If you can’t diagram a sentence to see if something is broken, you can’t fix it. Simple, huh?

You don’t have to diagram every sentence.

Sometimes you know something is wrong with a sentence, but you can’t quite figure it out. That’s when to have fun with diagramming.

Yes. Fun.

When you diagram a sentence, you know everything about each word in that sentence, how each word functions, and how each part interacts or doesn’t.Like my foot X-ray, a sentence diagram is an intimate look at your sentence. You see each word and how it functions within that sentence. You can do things like:

  • SPOT too many adjectives or adverbs.
  • CATCH passive voice.
  • DOUBLE-CHECK subject-verb agreement.
  • FIX incorrect pronoun reference.
  • DISCOVER you’re using too many words.

Often, if you can’t figure out how to diagram your sentence, you have a problem sentence.

The more you diagram, the better you get at seeing common writing problems.

Ergo, the more you diagram, the better your writing becomes. Become a better writer, and you could stop diagramming.

But you won’t stop. It’s addicting.

Contrary to popular belief, diagramming isn’t difficult. See for yourself. I have a handy, dandy booklet called “Diagramming Fiction Sentences for Fun… Yes, Fun!” I can send you. Email me at annie@annieedits.com to request yours.

Then, have fun. Yes, fun.

Write on!

5 Ways to Kill A Sentence

“Great story, but I had a hard time reading it.” “Incredible concept, but your writing didn’t jump off the page.” “A compelling plot, but the style throughout was flat.” But… but… but…

Tired of hearing this about your novel? Maybe you’re guilty of a sentence crime.

It happens every day in some part of the world, a poor, defenseless sentence becomes the unwilling victim of a homicide. Hit and run. Voluntary manslaughter. Murder.

The saddest thing? Often times the killer is unaware a crime has been committed and continues about his or her fiction writing, unable to stop committing the crime again, again, and again.

Here are the top five:

Write a Weak Sentence

A writer afraid to commit to the writing, unwilling to take a risk with his/her thoughts and prose, kills a sentence by decorating a wimpy verb. Instead of a stronger one to suit the character’s intended action, the killer simply places an intensifier like very, so, suddenly, or extremely in front of the wimpy verb. The result? A weaken sentence impact. Life is literally sucked from the prose.

Major Green opened the door very fast.
vs.
Major Green flung open the door.

 

Write a Boring Sentence

A writer who writes with only personal pleasure in mind kills the sentence by downplaying action. Instead of grabbing hold of the prose and committing to strong, aggressive writing, the killer’s passive approach bleeds onto the page as passive voice. The result? An awkward, wordy, and generally vague sentence.

Tragically, hundreds of lives were lost when the mountain was hit by the plane.
vs.
Tragically, hundreds of people died when the plane slammed into the mountain.

 

Write a Formal Sentence

A writer who tries to impress everyone with intellect and/or who hopes to intrigue a reader so much it sweeps him/her into the story kills a sentence by being a classic-literature wannabe. Instead of trusting his/her personal writing style and voice, the killer tries channeling—and fails miserably—classic literature giants. The result? A sentence that’s comical (probably not the writer’s intention). (Thanks to our buddy at www.necronomi.com for this example.)

Her pansy cheeks blushed a deeper shade of rose as I spoke to her, and she cast down her violet eyes and covered her soft, petal-pink lips with a slender, lily-like hand—she was a natural wallflower, after all, and green at the art of flirtation.
vs.
Cheeks blushed, she lowered violet eyes and covered tender lips with her delicate hand. She was a beautiful wallflower, unskilled in flirtation.

 

Write an Overweight Sentence

A writer who rushes thoughts and/or beats around the bush because he/she is unsure where the story needs to go kills a sentence by creating a long, boring string of words. Instead of writing so readers can experience a scene emotionally, the killer uses long, flat descriptions. The result? A sentence that readers often skip because it looks too much like a grocery list.

Paul wore a green and red plaid threadbare shirt with a missing button at the cuff and a pair of frayed black jeans torn below the knee.
vs.
Paul wore Goodwill rejects.

(This could be the first time Paul shows up in the novel. That’s when most grocery-list descriptions occur.)
 

Write an Unclear Sentence

A writer indifferent to the reader and lack passion for his/her story and/or words kills a sentence by forgetting transitions. Instead of keeping the reader moving from one idea to the next, the killer drones on, assuming the reader will figure it out. The result? A sentence that leaves the reader clueless regarding time and plot flow. (This occurs often in a synopsis, back-cover copy, and/or book blurb.)

Gerald discovers Ramona is the power behind Mountain Watch, the environmental activist group protesting Emerald Point. He tries to get to know her. He devises a strategy to overcome her opposition. Gerald believes they’ve reached a compromise professionally and romantically. Ramona ups the ante. She publicly accuses him of killing his wife. To dispute the charges, he’s forced to dig into the death. He uncovers it wasn’t an accident. It was murder.
vs.
Gerald soon discovers Ramona is the power behind Mountain Watch, the environmental activist group protesting Emerald Point. He tries to get to know her in hopes of devising a strategy to overcome her opposition. Just when Gerald believes they’ve reached a compromise professionally as well as romantically, Ramona ups the ante and publicly accuses him of killing his wife. To dispute the charges, he’s forced to dig into the death and soon uncovers it wasn’t an accident. It was murder.

Stop the cycle of violence. Each and every sentence deserves to live to tell a tale. Only you can prevent this senseless crime. Won’t you… please?

Write on!

Grammar No-No’s That Aren’t (Necessarily…)

Attention Grammar Nazis, Ninjas, and Police. The following article may be too much for your purist hearts.
Show of hands… how many of you out there cringe when you see a sentence like this:

The gunman shoved a gun in Jenny’s face and ordered her to immediately open the safe.

Or one like this:

Dominick was certain this bimbo was not the one he’d left the bar with.

Or this:

However Pollyanna tried, she couldn’t get her mind off Darnell.

Or, finally, this:

Brady was tormented by memories of the accident.

Okay, my hands are up for all four.

So, what puts my grammar panties in a wad? Sentences that break grammar rules drilled into my head by my favorite English teacher, Mrs. Bruno. Here’s the crazy thing: Some of those rules were never rules in the first place, and others have changed over the years as the English language has changed.

No-No #1 That Isn’t… Split Infinitives

The gunman shoved a gun in Jenny’s face and ordered her to immediately open the safe.

For the record, no authoritative grammar and usage text exists that forbids split infinitives. However, most readers (especially those over 40 years old) stumble over split infinitives because they were taught such constructions are a grammar no-no. If your goal is to ensure your reader stays focuses on your story and not your writing, we suggest you fix the split.

The gunman shoved a gun in Jenny’s face and ordered her to open the safe immediately.

If you have to mangle a sentence to avoid a split infinitive, DON’T.

Awkward: To rescue the hostages, SWAT decided brazenly to raid the plane.
Better: To rescue the hostages, SWAT decided to brazenly raid the plain.

 

No-No #2 That Isn’t… Ending A Sentence With A Preposition

Dominick was certain this bimbo was not the one he’d left the bar with.

A Southerner stopped a stranger on the Harvard campus and asked, “Could you please tell me where the library is at?” The stranger responded, “Educated people never end their sentences with a preposition.” The overly polite Southerner then apologetically repeated himself: “Could you please tell me where the library is at, you big jerk?”

Blame crazy, annoying Romans for this one. High-school Latin taught us a preposition cannot come after its target word. Somehow, grammarians before us migrated the rule into the English language and gave us all something to fight about for centuries.

If your goal as a fiction writer is to write cleanly and seamlessly and avoid pulling your reader out of the story, consider rewriting the sentence.

Dominick was certain he’d not left the bar with this bimbo.

If you have to mangle a sentence to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, DON’T.

Awkward: Officials for the beauty pageant still must decide with whom the contestants will meet.
Better: Officials for the beauty pageant still must decide whom the contestants will be allowed to meet with.

 

No-No #3 That Isn’t… Starting A Sentence With However, Hopefully, or Because

However Pollyanna tried, she couldn’t get her mind off Darnell.

Where this rule came from no one seems to know, but most writers cite Struck and White’s The Elements of Style. However, Masters William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White only caution writers not to start a sentence with however when you mean nevertheless.

However is a conjunctive adverb. Without a comma, it means in whatever manner or to what extent. With a comma, it means nevertheless.

However Pollyanna tried, she couldn’t get her mind off Darnell.
Pollyanna couldn’t get her mind off Darnell. However, she wasn’t trying hard enough.

What about hopefully or because? Hopefully is an adverb meaning it is hoped (that). Without a comma, it means a moderate amount of hope. With a comma, it means an extreme amount of hope.

Hopefully CatyAnn’s husband would arrive soon.
Hopefully, CatyAnn’s husband was alive.

Because is a subordinating conjunction meaning for the reason that or since. It’s okay as a sentence starter as long as you include the main clause later in the sentence.

Because no one believed Steve was gone, no one reported him missing.

What about starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so? No problem here as long as you make sure to include the main clause the word refers to either in the preceding sentence or later in the same sentence.

Incorrect: And smart, too.
Correct: She was a nice girl. And smart, too.

Simply follow with a comma? No, unless there’s an aside that needs one.

Incorrect: And she loved her job.
Correct: And, despite the extra work, she loved her job.

 

Incorrect: Yet, Inez stripped down and dove in anyway.
Correct: Tuesday night was frigid, with the wind whipping off the surf. Yet, Inez stripped down and dove into the water anyway.

 

No-No #4 That Isn’t… Passive Voice

Brady was tormented by memories of the accident.

Passive voice is not grammatically wrong. I repeat: passive voice is not grammatically wrong. However, it is grammatically boring. Why? Because the subject of a passive sentence is stagnant, waiting for someone or something to act upon it. It’s not making things happen. It’s passive. Boring.

Commercial fiction editors tell us they view passive voice as passive writing bleeding onto the page. They see an author unwilling to grab hold of their prose and commit to producing strong, aggressive writing.

If you want your reader to stay interested in your story, stay involved in what your character is going through, rewrite the sentence.

Memories of the accident tormented Brady.

If you have to mangle a sentence to avoid passive voice, DON’T.

The body was riddled with bullet holes.

Passive voice, but much more interesting as emphasis is on the body receiving the action. The writer’s goal is to take away personhood in this grim, impersonal description. The reader gets a sense of isolation, sadness, and tragedy.

Somebody shot the body full of bullets.

Active voice, but a dead sentence (pun intended).

For an in-depth look at passive voice, click here.

 

But What About Dialog?

Misuse of grammar rules (or supposed grammar rules) is perfectly acceptable in dialog if it fits your character’s personality and background. If. It. Fits. Your. Character. Got it?

Write on!