Fix these 3 mistakes to instantly improve your writing

Have you ever really wanted to read a piece of writing, only to get so weary that you give up within the first few paragraphs? What causes that weariness in the reader? K.M. Weiland argues that “choppy prose” is to blame and we think she makes an excellent point in her article Most Common Writing Mistakes: Choppy Prose, which we have excerpted here:

A lean, lyrical style is an art form all its own. Just ask Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. But authors need to be aware of the difference between lean prose and choppy prose—and learn to avoid the latter.

Reading choppy prose is like driving on a washboard road. It might be ever so slightly exciting at first, but it quickly becomes irritating and exhausting. The constant jarring of incomplete thoughts and abrupt punctuation prevents readers from sinking into a story. You may be striving for simplicity, but sometimes that very lack of sophistication in sentence structure can end up confusing readers.

Three Causes of Choppy Prose

The root of choppy prose is almost always poor sentence construction. At the root of these bad constructions, we often find three culprits:

1. Run-ons

A run-on sentence is one in which two or more independent clauses are joined without proper conjunction (“and,” “but,” “or,” etc.) or punctuation (semi-colon). The result is a sentence that runs on and on. This might seem like it would produce an effect opposite to choppiness, but, in fact, its breathlessness hurries readers along and mutilates what might otherwise be an effective construction.

FOR EXAMPLE:

Ariel arrived at the train station only two minutes late, she ran down the platform, she screamed at the train to stop, she had to get on!

2. Fragments

A sentence fragment is the opposite of a run-on: an incomplete clause, lacking either subject (noun) or predicate (verb). The abruptness of the missing half creates a jerky style that can make the author look uneducated and create confusion for readers.

FOR EXAMPLE:

Ariel gave up and stopped short. Cried. So unfair. Now, what would happen to her? Doomed, of course. She sat down on her suitcase. Because she had no more strength left in her legs. Maybe the next train? Or when someone took pity on her.

3. Semi-colons

The semi-colon is one of the most elegant of all punctuation marks. But it’s also one of the easiest to misuse. Authors can unintentionally use semi-colons to chop their prose to bits. Most of the time, this happens when one of the clauses the semi-colon is dividing fails to be independent (in essence, becoming a fragment).

FOR EXAMPLE:

A kind man in a fedora stopped beside Ariel; to see if he could help. She sniffed; looked up. This was her lucky day after all; or maybe just miraculous.

How to Fix Your Choppy Prose

Once you’ve identified what’s hacking up your prose, the remedy is simple enough: ruthlessly excise the offenders! Separate your run-ons into correct clauses or sentences of their own, smooth out your fragments with proper punctuation, and either remove the semi-colons or build independent clauses on either side of them.

FOR EXAMPLE:

Ariel arrived at the train station only two minutes late. She ran down the platform and screamed at the train to stop. She had to get on! Finally, she gave up and stopped short. Tears welled. This was so unfair. Now, what would happen to her? She was doomed, of course. The strength melted out of her legs, and she sat down on her suitcase. Maybe the next train would leave soon? Or perhaps someone would take pity on her. A kind man in a fedora stopped beside her and asked if he could help. She sniffed and looked up. Maybe this was her lucky day after all—or maybe it was a miracle?

The prose here is still pretty lean, but now it also flows more intuitively and clarifies the scene for readers rather than confusing them with nebulous half sentences. Cleaning up your choppy prose is as easy as that!

If you find your manuscript rife with run-ons, fragments and semicolons, today would be a perfect time to implement these fixes in your own writing. However, if you find yourself in need of a professional editor, we invite you to contact Certa Publishing so that we can put our editing services to work for you.

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Be the Boss of Your Punctuation

be the boss of your punctuation

 

As you write, you likely hear your English teacher’s voice in your head, constantly fussing at you. However, there are advantages of being out of grade school, including the freedom to play with punctuation.

Recently the Creative Penn blog posted an article titled Punctuation Without Tears: 4 Tips For Professional Punctuation, which we hope will liberate you a bit and help to turn down the volume on the bossy grammar lady in your ear.

All writers feel anxious about punctuation.

Here are my top tips for getting to grips with punctuation once and for all.

1. Forget the Old Rules

First up, forget the old rules. This might sound a bit radical, but it’s not really. Most of the old rules relate to a rather stilted, formal English, which is now long gone. Today’s English is far freer, and so is its punctuation.

Take the following example:

Vector loaded the Squid Launcher. He licked his lips with anticipation. He would show them. All of them. Tonight.

A school teacher thirty years ago would have had kittens, fulminating that the final two sentences are abominations. He or she would have scored them through with a red pencil, insisting that every sentence must have a subject and a verb.

But today — in all honesty — no one cares. There is no requirement to write in full sentences anymore, and it’s liberating. You can create great effects. Like this. Or this. Ha!

So, Tip #1 is to cleanse and declutter your mind of the old rules that once filled impenetrable grammar books. You need to know a few of the most basic principles, but the majority are now irrelevant and of historical interest only.

2. Be Creative with Your Punctuation

There are only three things you can put on a page: letters, punctuation, and spaces.

That’s not a lot, really, out of which to conjure up worlds of fiction and non-fiction.

In fact, this is such a limited group of tools that, as a writer, you need to give the same degree of creative thought to each of them. What do I mean? Well, read this:

All sorts of things get stuck in Wookie fur: duct tape, intergalactic dust, and small mammals.

And then this:

All

sorts

of things

get stuck

in Wookie fur —

duct tape

intergalactic dust

and small

mammals

The words are identical. The only difference is the punctuation and spacing, which have made the two texts radically different.

Tip #2 is to acknowledge the power of punctuation to impact the feel of your writing, and accordingly to welcome it into your creative toolkit.

Punctuation shouldn’t be an afterthought.

It’s not something to leave to a copyeditor. It’s a vital part of how you create the atmosphere in your piece.

Here’s a less extreme example. You might write ‘to be or not to be that is the question’ and leave it for an editor to sort out. He or she might then come back with:

To be or not to be: that is the question.

(Literary, but a bit cold)

To be or not to be? That is the question.

(A little more quizzical)

To be, or not to be — that is the question.

(More languid, and a touch reflective)

To be. Or not to be. That is the question.

(Modern, and mildly brutalist)

If you leave an editor to punctuate your text, you are handing over control of its mood. If, instead, you think of punctuation as a vital component of your vision, you’ll take a pride in it — in how you deploy it — and you’ll approach it with as much care as the words you choose.

3. Punctuation is your Rhythm Section

One of punctuation’s most important functions is to set the speed and feel of a piece of writing. If the text was a band, punctuation would be the rhythm section: it lays down the framework for everything, dictating the tempo and fluidity of the piece.

Look at these three sentences:

Santa Claus wanted just one thing for Christmas: revenge.

Santa Claus wanted just one thing for Christmas — revenge.

Santa Claus wanted just one thing for Christmas. Revenge.

They’re all fine. No one is going to snort or recoil at any of them. But they each feel different thanks to the punctuation mark before the final word.

So, before you start writing, think about your rhythm section.

What mood are you going for?

  • Light?
  • Airy?
  • Jazzy?
  • Solid?
  • Technical?
  • Four-to-the-floor?

You will use different punctuation for different types of writing. A book for toddlers about zombies versus Stormtroopers requires a different approach in punctuation than a step-by-step guide to DIY root canal surgery.

Each demands a distinct feel to fit convincingly into its genre.

For instance, in a simple story book you might decide to avoid brackets because they are annoying and break the flow of the tale. However, if you are writing a set of instructions for assembling furniture, they may be just the thing:

To assemble the guillotine, insert the upright case (Part A) into the long bench (Part B), then slot in the slanted blade (Part C). As always when working in your home workshop, watch your fingers. When completed, keep safely away from children and aristocrats.

Punctuation can give you all sorts of creative options for enhancing the feel of your writing. So, as well as getting stuck into the vocal and guitar melodies, think long and hard about the rhythm section. They work together, and ultimately it’s the interplay that creates the coherence of the whole.

4. Know the Horrors

So far I have recommended that you concentrate on the basics and forget a lot of the old rules, that you get creative, and that you embrace punctuation as the rhythmic foundation of your writing.

On one level I am saying you should relax and feel free to enjoy experimenting with how different punctuation can fundamentally affect and color your writing.

However, I am not suggesting you can do whatever you want. There are some fundamental principles that have to be observed.

  • Full stops (or periods) end sentences and indicate abbreviations.
  • Question marks are for direct questions.
  • Ellipses show that text is missing, a pause, or trailing off.

And so on. These are immutable functions, and you have to work with them.

Although being creative with punctuation is great, and being freed from old rules is refreshing, there are a couple of horrors that will kill a piece of writing stone dead. I’ll mention just two.

The greengrocer’s apostrophe is when someone tries to use an apostrophe to make a plural:

  • slimy cocktail’s
  • impenetrable FAQ’s

This is always, ALWAYS wrong. It looks horrific. Don’t ever do it. Language evolves and one day it might be okay. For now, however, it is absolutely not okay.

The other horror I’ll mention is the comma splice:

  • Goldilocks swung the nunchuk, she liked its weight.
  • The woodsman hated bunnies, he hated them with a Luciferian mania.

Both these examples are made of two complete sentences. Depending how adventurous you are feeling, you can separate them with a full stop (or period), a semicolon, a colon, or a dash.

But the one thing you absolutely cannot use is a comma. It’s wrong, looks wrong, and can quickly result in a manuscript going into the bin.

So, Tip #3 is to learn to spot the handful of truly painful howlers, and avoid them like the plague. We all know they can creep into writing as you are copying, pasting, deleting, and fiddling, but read over your work like a hawk. These errors make you vulnerable, and undermine the endless hours of sweat you have put into your work.

Conclusion

Now that you are firmly in the group that wants to follow modern principles and to use punctuation creatively, the final step in the programme is to learn to love punctuation as a personal and intimate part of your writing style.

Embrace it. Use it to let your personality come through, I don’t mean you should garnish every sentence with exclamation marks. You really shouldn’t. I mean you should feel free to get excited about how you use punctuation.

Try replacing commas with dashes. Try swapping out full stops (or periods) for semicolons. Get a feel for what works with each piece of your writing.

Find punctuation that reinforces the mood of what you (or one of your characters) is saying. Keep doing it. Watch how other people do it. Be inspired.

Before long, punctuation will be a source of pleasure rather than anxiety … and my work will be done.

Happy punctuating!?

Did you know that Certa offers a full editing service? If you need another set of eyes on your semicolons and em dashes, we would love to lend you our expertise. Contact us today.

Beyond spell check: The readability tools you didn’t know you need

You can write it, but can they read it_

You wouldn’t think of writing your manuscript without spell check, right? Well, we suggest that there is another tool that is equally essential to your work.

See, we have some bad news for you. Your manuscript can be the most meticulously edited, grammatically-glorious work ever written and it can still have “low readability,” meaning that your content is difficult to understand. Yikes. No one wants that.

There’s an app for that

But don’t panic! Like most things in life, there’s an app for that.

First, it’s important to realize that the average reading level is probably lower than you imagine. In fact, in the U.S., the average person reads on a 7th to 8th-grade level. While that might be discouraging, it is still a reality. And this reality means that readability matters if you want your audience to truly grasp your content.

Don’t make your audience feel stupid.

– Drew Westen, psychology professor, Emory University

How to find your readability score

We can hear you asking, but isn’t readability subjective? Thankfully, no. There are digital tools that will evaluate your writing and tell you what grade level you are writing on. The most commonly-used tool is the Flesch-Kincaid method, which focuses on the length of words, sentences, and paragraphs to determine the grade level of a piece of writing. You simply need to run your writing through one of the following tools to find out your readability “score.”

Microsoft Word users:  

  • Follow these steps to use Word’s embedded feature and obtain your score.
  • Use an editing tool like Grammarly that checks your readability as you go.

Google Docs or other wordprocessing software:

Now that you have your score, you can decide if changes need to be made.

In her book Everybody Writes, Ann Handley summarizes the results this way:

“A score of 90-100 means that your writing is easily understood by an average 11-year old.

A score of 60-70 means that your writing is easily understood by teens ages 13-15.

A score of 0-30 means that you writing is best understood by college graduates.

[Dr. Rudolph] Flesch recommended that the score of an average, nontechnical piece aimed at consumers be a minimum of 80 (or approximately 15 words per sentence and between 1 and 1.5 syllables per word).

Here are some examples of average scores for various types of content using the Flesh-Kincaid scale:

  • Comics: 92
  • Consumer ads: 82
  • Reader’s Digest: 65
  • Time magazine: 52
  • Harvard Business Review: 43
  • Standard insurance policy: 10

What to do next

What if your writing scores as unreadable? Do you have to start over? Scrap it all together? Absolutely not. Handley suggests these simple steps to improve your score:

  • Break up long sentences.
  • Cut out complex words.
  • Simplify
  • Consider how your more sophisticated concepts can be broken down into everyday language. Reading other authors on your topic can be very helpful here.
  • Avoid using passive voice. For example, say: The wedding guests felt joy spread through the small chapel Don’t say: Joy was felt by the wedding guests in the small chapel.

Bad vs. Good

The following two paragraphs say the same thing. However, their readability scores are quite different. See if you can spot how the unreadable copy was improved.

Example 1:

Becoming proficient as a choreographer requires a diligent study of technique, musicality, and the history of choreography. Simply being the prima ballerina of your local company does not endow you with an innate affinity for composing movement, and those that make this assumption are doomed to present a production unworthy of the art itself.

This copy generated a Flesch-Kincaid score of 25.18, which is equivalent to the reading level of a postgraduate. Not good.

Example 2:

Great choreographers do much more than put moves to music. First, they become expert dancers themselves. Next, they study music. Then they learn about the great choreographers of the past. You are likely an expert dancer. But more is needed to be an expert choreographer. Don’t skip past the learning phase. Take time to study the craft so that you can produce the best piece possible.

In contrast, this copy generated a score of 70.28, meaning it is readable to most American readers. They both say the same thing, but the second example means that the reader understands the content. And isn’t that the point after all?

At Certa Publishing, we always try to provide our writers with the tools they need to create outstanding content. Whether you need help with readability, marketing or the entire publishing process, we would love to hear from you today.

 

 

 

 

 

3 Steps to Better Sentences

You know your writing needs to improve, but you’re not sure where to start. Enroll in a pricey writing course? Check out every writing book in the library? Consume all the writing blogs you can find? It may not be as complicated as you think.

Stefanie Flaxman, writer for Copyblogger, suggests a simple editing technique in her post 3 Advanced Ways to Craft Better Sentences, which we have excerpted here:

While the goal of “improving your content writing” may seem complex, it’s not necessarily more complicated than improving each sentence you write.

Better sentences add up to better content.

So, let’s break down content writing into sentence writing.

I’m not about to show you how to write a “perfect” sentence. Instead, these three tips will help you remember that every sentence you write is an opportunity to practice.

And during your writing practice, you can implement smart changes that keep your reader focused on your message.

1. No sentence is an island

Even if you’re examining just one individual sentence, it’s helpful to review the sentences that surround it.

There are two main reasons why:

  1. You may have overused a word. Sometimes you’ll intentionally repeat a word for emphasis or because it fits the rhythm of your writing. But we often overuse words without meaning to. When you review your writing, vary your word choice to create a more stimulating reading experience.
  2. You may have belabored a point. Give each sentence you write a specific purpose. If you communicate the exact same idea in two different sentences, it’s probably wise to delete one.

When you look at the broader context of your writing while aiming to improve one sentence, you kick off a sort of domino effect. Noticing one weakness helps you correct other weaker sections.

2. Writing skin needs exfoliation

The most “advanced” skill you can learn is to examine your own writing with a critical eye.

A critical eye doesn’t mean you’re so hard on yourself that you get discouraged. It just lets you swiftly identify areas of your sentences that either hinder comprehension or lack the details that magnetically hold attention.

I like the comparison to skin exfoliation because rough drafts, like dry skin, are … rough.

For example, you’re probably already familiar with the benefits of using active verbs instead of passive verbs.

Changing a sentence from “Joplin was devastated by the twister” to “The twister devastated Joplin” exfoliates the sentence to make it smoother.

Removing extra words is another form of exfoliation.

Here’s an example from my recent article on finding more loyal readers. I’ve bolded the extra words in the draft of this paragraph.

Edith likes Frank’s article idea, but she needs to consult with him andeducate him on the type of content that is the right fit for Cosmopolitan. She’ll give him their writer guidelines so he can use them to match the tone and style of his article to the publication’s specifications.

Here’s the published version of that paragraph.

Edith likes Frank’s article idea, but she needs to educate him on the type of content that is the right fit for Cosmopolitan. She’ll give him their writer guidelines so he can match the tone and style of his article to the publication’s specifications.

To give you one more example, in the draft of this article I wrote, “Here’s the final version of the paragraph that we published.” As you can see above, that sentence turned into, “Here’s the published version of that paragraph.”

Developing an eye for excess will sharpen your writing.

3. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

When I edit, I always have a browser tab with a Google search bar open.

Why?

Because I’m constantly looking up the meanings of words or idioms that I don’t consider straightforward — anything that sticks out and makes me question whether or not it is correct.

Even if I’m 95 percent certain, it’s always beneficial to verify that it’s the most appropriate word or phrase.

My Google search browser tab is also helpful for double-checking the spellings of proper names, places, products, and companies.

The bottom line here is valuing professional editorial standards that help guarantee accuracy. Take the time to ensure your readers effortlessly understand your content and aren’t distracted by a misspelling, or the incorrect use of a word or idiom.

At Certa Publishing, we are passionate about the editing process. How can we help you?

The Potter’s Tools: The Divine Work of Writing

04.29.17 potter copy

Imagine a half-finished sculpture on the artist’s table. Strewn about are various chisels, brushes and tools. Chunks of clay lie discarded on the floor. The master leans intently over the object, pressing it here and there with his hands, refining… cutting… scraping. Yet look at the delight in his eyes. Look at how his fingers dance to an unheard song, molding and shaping, with a sense of what will be.

We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.  Isaiah 64:8

You see, the Lord did not lay down His creative skills on the sixth day. He is still at work, forming and fashioning us into new creations. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works (Ephesians 2:10).  You can be confident that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).

Have you considered that the Lord may be using your role as a writer as one of his potter’s “tools?” But this work is uncomfortable. If you’ve been writing long enough, you’ve surely experienced the sting of rejection. Perhaps an editor has returned your work with more red ink than you thought possible. Maybe your manuscript has not been received with the praise you expected, or has even been panned or criticized by your friends, family or the public.

Scrape. Push. Cut. Do you feel the potter’s tools?

As believers, we have a choice in our response to the pain of His reshaping. Resist or submit. And James reminds that He responds accordingly. God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble (James 4:6).

What if we viewed writing as a new opportunity to submit to the potter’s work? Could we receive the editor’s remarks as a chance to grow and stretch? Can we hold our words with an open hand, allowing the Lord to refine them and infuse them with His voice? When we feel ready to quit, can we ask Him to help us run with endurance the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1)? What if we approached our mentors with a humble heart, asking for their constructive criticism, and appreciating their input?

Jeff Goins, bestselling author and blogger, suggests,

A good writer is humble. Regardless of skill, she is committed to seeing the writing process through to completion. No matter how grueling or hard, she will write. And she will get better…

This all begins with humility. Which really means a willingness to listen and change. To do the work and become a professional.

If you do this, if you take the time to make your work great by never settling for good enough, it will make all the difference. So start persevering today.

Let’s view our writing as more than work, more than a pastime, but as a divine process, a tool in the hand of the Master. Is there really any better place to be than on the table of the Potter?

How to Ignore Your Inner Editor…for now

innereditor

It can happen at any time and while working on any piece. Your writing session is going smoothly when suddenly a thought hits you out of nowhere: “That’s the worst phrase/sentence/chapter ever!” This voice in your head leaves you feeling self-conscious and paralyzed…

Don’t be discouraged! This internal message doesn’t have to plunge you head first into writer’s block. Recognize the voice and its message for what it truly is—your inner editor repeating old insecurities and expectations that need to be drowned out.

All writers have heard this foreboding voice and cringed at its pointed words (or at least felt the effects of its criticism). You might stop mid-type and stare at a blank screen. Maybe you begin pacing aimlessly around the room. No matter how helpless you feel, though, only you can break through the block to quiet your inner editor.

But how?

Start by typing “fix” every time your inner editor starts to speak. Brush past your critical thoughts by vowing to revisit the passage at another time. Why is “fix” so helpful? It reminds you that this is only the first draft and no words are permanent. It is a marker of which sections to return to. It helps you acknowledge that you’re aware of the possible imperfection of your passage, giving yourself permission to move on without accepting it as a final draft.

Somehow, writing “fix” after whatever words are bothering your inner editor allows your words to flow again with renewed creativity. Once you’ve moved on to the next part of your writing, you’ll often discover new words and phrases popping into your head that are perfect for “fixing” your prior issue.

So next time you hear the condemnation in your inner editor’s voice, reply with a simple “fix” and move along. Trust yourself to move forward in your piece and return to the problem areas when it’s time!