Organizing Information Appropriately

Organization is critical. Sentences may be crafted perfectly on an individual level, but if they are ordered in a way that is confusing or inconsistent, the will not convey their messages clearly.

The following example presents a passage that is muddled and out of sequence. The fact that it isn’t impossible to follow is due mostly to the fact that it’s short. On a larger scale, poor organization can cause a piece of writing to be unintelligible.

EXAMPLE

    When you prepare a research article for publication, set it aside and read it again after a day or two. Does it say what you intended? Try to get a peer review. A fresher or sharper eye may spot areas of weakness, omissions and other problems in the manuscript that were hidden to you. Does the title accurately describe what the article is about? The discussion should stick to the topic and not ramble. Ensure that you have followed the authors’ guidelines provided by the journal. Finally, be sure to run spell-check before you print out the copy that will go to the publisher.

This information comes through as somewhat scattered, for several reasons.First, the opening two sentences tell the writer what he or she should do personally (look over the article and see if it’s saying what it should); the next two deal with getting someone else to give some feedback; then the passage goes back to things that the writer should do. The first category should be complete before the second is begun.

Second, sentence 4 is closely related to sentence 3, in that it expounds on why it is important to get a peer review. This relationship will be made more obvious if the two sentences are run together.

Third, two of the aspects that the writer is advised to check for are presented as questions, and two are presented as statements. Apart from the faulty parallelism (information on equivalent matters should be presented in an equivalent way, to make the relationship more obvious), this structure almost makes it look as though the text following each question is providing an answer to that question.

Better

    When you prepare a research article for publication, set it aside and read it again after a day or two. Does it say what you intended? Does its title accurately describe what it is about? Does the discussion stick to the topic and not ramble? Have you followed the authors’ guidelines provided by the journal? Try to get a peer review–a fresher eye may spot areas of weakness, omissions and other problems in the manuscript that were hidden to you. Finally, be sure to run a spell-check before you print out the copy that will go to the publisher.

Note that the final sentence has been left where it was, even though it’s in the category of things to do oneself. This is because it is sated to be the last step in the process.

Paraphrased from Grammatically Correct by Anne Stilman ISBN 0-89879-776-4

Capturing Accents and Speech Patterns Appropriately

In fiction writing, capturing colloquial accents can add color–although note that overdoing it might make things a bit challenging for the reader, if the dialect is a strong one.

I departed to renew my search its result was disappointment, and Joseph’s quest ended in the same.

“Yon lon gets was un’ war! observed he on re-entering. “He’s left th’ yate at t’ full swing, and miss’s pony has trodden dahn two rigs o’ corn, and plottered through, raight o’er into t’ meadow! Hahnsome-diver, t’ maister ‘ull play t’ devil to-morn, ad he’ll do weel. He’s patience itsseln wi’ sich careless, off craters–patience itsseln he is! Bud he’ll not be soa allus–yah’s see, all on ye! Yah mun’n’t drive him out of his heead for nowt!” –Emily Bront’, Wuthering Heights

However, if you are creating characters whose first language is not English, don’t go overboard in spelling their words as you thing they would sound. The effect may come through as ridiculing of the group the character represents, as well as making the dialogue difficult to read. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t convey foreign accents at all; just use moderation. A dropped letter here and a misused word there will usually be effective enough.

If you are quoting a real-life individual who happens to have an accent, either foreign or colloquial, it is better not to try to reproduce the accent phonetically at all, unless it has some direct relevance to the story. Direct quotes must include the exact words used, but you do not have to carry this to the extent of reproducing intonations.

With regard to style of speech, it is important to make your fiction characters talk realistically. You should have a firm handle on the rules of grammar, but you obviously don’t want to put perfect diction into the mouths of characters who are meant to be uneducated or rustic.

Every night now I used to slip ashore toward ten o’ clock at some little village, and buy ten or fifteen cents’ worth of meal or bacon or other stuff to eat; and sometimes I lifted a chicken that warn’t roosting comfortable, and took him along. Pap always said, take a chicken when you get a chance, because if you don’t want him yourself you can easy find somebody that does, and a good deed ain’t ever forgot. I never see pap when he didn’t want the chicken himself, but that is what he use to say, anyway. –Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Do not, however, carry rustic dialect to the point of parody.

Taken from Grammatically Correct by Anne Stilman ISBN 0-89879-776-4

http://www.amazon.com/Grammatically-Correct-Anne-Stilman/dp/0898797764/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1346249413&sr=1-2&keywords=gramatically+correct

Writing Tip: Use Active Voice…Most Of The Time

Thank you to everyone who read, liked and/or are following my blog since the first posting I did entitled, Writing Tip: When To Use Passive Voice. Due to the popularity of that post, I can only assume that I am not the only one who finds that the PV slips into our writing Ninja like, far more often than most of us would like and, also, that most of you have read Stephen King’s On Writing, where he states emphatically, “I hate the passive voice.”

So, to help us both with this issue, back by popular demand, here’s Active Voice Vs. Passive Voice II. Or, another source with a slightly different way of explaining it, if you’d rather.

Use Active Voice…Most Of The Time

When the verb is in the AV (Active Voice), the subject of the sentence is also the doer of the action.

The sentence “John picked up the bag” is in the active voice because the subject, John, is also the thing or person doing the action of “picking up.”

The sentence “The bag was picked up by John” is in the passive voice because the subject of the sentence, bag, is the passive receiver of the action.

Generally the AV makes for more interesting reading, and it is the AV that you should cultivate as your normal writing habit. The AV strikes more directly at the thought you want to express, it is generally shorter, and it holds the reader closer to what you write because it creates a stronger sense that “something is happening.”

Listen to how the following PV (Passive Voice) sentences are improved when they are turned into the AV.

Passive: Dutch drawings and prints are what this book is about.

Active: This book is about Dutch drawings and prints.

Passive: The light bulb was crewed in crookedly by the electrical engineer.

Active: The electrical engineer screwed in the light bulb crookedly.

Try to use the AV. But realize that there are times when you will need to use the passive. If the object of the action is the important thing, then you will want to emphasize it by mentioning it first. When that’s the case, you will use the PV.

Let’s say, for example, that you want to tell the reader about some strange things that happened to your car. In the AV it would look like this:

Three strong women turned my car upside down on Tuesday. Vandals painted my car yellow and turquoise on Wednesday. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched my car into orbit around the moon on Thursday.

The example shown above is not wrong, but is sounds choppy. To give the story a flow, you would want to use the PV, keeping the emphasis on your car.

On Tuesday my car was turned upside down by three strong women. On Wednesday my car was painted yellow and turquoise by vandals. On Thursday my car was launched into orbit around the moon by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

In the PV, the car is given the emphasis, and the story about what happened to it has a flow and rhythm lacking in the first example.

Taken from “100 Ways To Improve Your Writing” by Gary Provost ISBN 978-0-451-62721-6

Writing Tip: Use Dense Words

A dense word is a word that crowds a lot of meaning into a small space. The fewer words you use to express an idea, the more impact that idea will have. When you revise, look for opportunities to cross out several words and insert one. Once a month is monthly; something new is novel; people they didn’t know are strangers; and something impossible to imagine is inconceivable.

Taken from “100 Ways To Improve Your Writing” by Gary Provost ISBN 978-0-451-62721-6

Criticism And The Human Condition

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Why does the slightest criticism when it comes to writing make us cringe. Not so much with an essay, letter to an editor, or a check at the grocery story. But, for some reason, criticism for a work of fiction cuts us at a core level. Why? I believe it is because if we are writing honestly, we are releasing little bits about ourselves; who we are, a little at a time to see how the world responds to it. It’s kind of like an ashamed patient saying, “I have this friends who says it hurts when he/she…” Then, gauging by how the doctor responds, perhaps a bit more truth gets leaked.

It’s not that criticism regarding style, sentence construction, description or narrative is so difficult to listen to. After all, most writers I know are their own biggest critics and already believe their writing sucks on a mechanical level. It is that each character in a work of fiction is a representation of ourselves that we are gauging the world’s reaction to. Are they accepting or did they gasp in horror?

So, if you are a fiction writer who fears criticism then be encouraged. You are in the company of the greatest writers of all time, who, in spite of their fears wrote honestly and created the works of literary genius by which all other writing is judged. If the criticism cuts deeply, you are probably on the right track. Keep up the good work.

Tread boldly and make no apologies for it!

Writing Tip: How To Detect And Correct Nominalizations

A nominalization is a noun you’ve created from a verb or adjective.

Nominalization: The screeching unnerved the rookie.

Screeching is a noun form of the verb to screech. This sentence is weak because readers don’t know who is screeching. When you use the verb to screech you giver yourself room to identify the noisemaker.

Better: The uncooperative suspect screeched, unnerving the rookie.

Nominalizations contain up to three elements. Sometimes you see only one or two of them; other times, all three appear.

  1. A word such as a, an, the, his, her, these, or several.
  2. A noun such as utilization, sadness or taking. This is the only element that always appears in nominalizations.
  3. The word of.

Nominalization: The last step was the collection of the victim’s dust bunnies.

Here the verb to collect has become the noun collection. This sentence is vague because it doesn’t specify who is collecting the evidence. All becomes clear when you use the verb to collect as well as a specific subject.

Better: The forensics team collected the victim’s dust bunnies just before leaving the scene.

Now let’s do an examination of–oops, I mean let’s examine–a nominalization with two elements.

Nominalization: The senior citizen responded to the would-be robber with an exclamation: “Get your hands off my dentures!”

Here the verb to exclaim has become the noun exclamation. Let’s improve the sentence.

Better: The senior citizen exclaimed to the would-be robber, “Get your hands off my dentures!”

Finally, here’s a nominalization with just one element.

Nominalization: Happiness was evident after the clown was arrested.

The sentence is poor because it fails to mention who is happy.

Better: The detective was happy after she arrested the clown.

Nouns that end in -tion and -ing are often nominalizations. Even the word nominalization is a nominalization (it comes from the verb to nominalize).

WHY SHOULD YOU AVOID NOMINALIZATIONS

  1. Nominalizations allow you to omit the subject. When you don’t say who is doing the action, your sentences become vague.
  2. Nominalizations often force you to use weak verbs. Vague subjects go hand in hand with weak verbs such as to be and to do. Although these verbs are integral parts of English, your writing can get rather monotonous if every sentence contains a was or were.
  3. Nominalizations are often wordy. When you reword nominalizations, your sentences usually become more concise.

WHEN IT’S OKAY TO USE NOMINALIZATIONS

You should use a specific subject in most cases. However, a nominalization is acceptable if you don’t know who is doing the action, or if the subject is unimportant.

The disappearance of every rat in town puzzled the police.

Paraphrased from The Curious Case Of The Misplaced Modifier by Bonnie Trenga ISBN: 978-1-58297-561-2

Writing Tip: Write Short Paragraphs

Your writing will be faster, livelier, and clearer if you write short paragraphs. The reader will welcome the break and the white space. You will be less likely to get tied up in verbal knots. Your thoughts will be better organized and more succinctly expressed. You and the reader will find it easier to locate specific statements.

Taken from “100 Ways To Improve Your Writing” by Gary Provost ISBN 978-0-451-62721-6

Writing Tip: When To Use Passive Voice

There is plenty to draw from when it comes to using Active Voice (i.e. AV). It’s use is preferred over its evil step brother, Passive Voice, and therefore affords plenty of instruction on when and how to use it. Whether we like it or not, once in a while the Passive Voice (i.e. PV) enters our writing in such a way that it seems appropriate. Almost as if it belongs there. Sometimes it does! Now, before the rule writers roll over in their graves and begin clawing at coffin lids to escape and haunt me, let me explain:

In most cases, it would be better to write in the AV. Why? Because with AV, the subject rather than the object is the focus of the sentence. In fact, in many cases, PV allows you to omit the subject all together. And because AV is almost always more concise, vigorous, and authoritative which is generally the aim of all good writing: To say the most with the fewest number of words in the clearest possible way. There ARE times, however, when PV is not only acceptable, but preferred over AV–the Golden Child of the English language. Here are a few examples:

  • When the focus is being done to something rather than by something.
    The wedding cake had to be carried by by eight strong waiters rather than Eight strong waiters had to carry the wedding cake. In this example the wedding cake, not the waiters, is the focus of this sentence.
  • When the doer can be inferred or is not of interest. 
    It would be better to say The cake wasn’t served until two in the morning rather than The waiters didn’t serve the cake until two in the morning.
  • To avoid using first-person singular pronouns.
    For example, instead of I randomly assigned the subjects to each group, saying Subjects were randomly assigned to each group. Here again, the focus of the writing is on what is being done, not on who is doing it.
  • To avoid all-male pronouns.
    Instead of saying The average driver trades in HIS car every four years, you could say The average car is traded in every four years.
  • To deliberately deflect responsibility or conceal information.
    Saying It has been alleged that Mr. Brandon knew about the takeover for months in advance is not the same as saying Mrs. Reisman has alleged that Mr. Brandon knew about the takeover for months in advance. That is, ambiguity in writing is not always the result of carelessness or inattention; sometimes it is quite deliberate.
  • To vary sentence structure.
    Use it simply to avoid monotony. Wording every sentence the same way makes for tedious reading.

Paraphrased from Grammatically Correct by Anne Stilman ISBN 0-89879-776-4

Writing Tip: Omit Needless Words

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

–William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style