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.

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.

From Bland to Breathtaking: How to spice up your writing

 

FROM BLAND

Are you ready to take your writing to the next level? Enjoy this excerpt of 9 Easy Tips that Will Improve Your Writing by Karen Hertzberg of the Grammarly blog:

Just like food, your writing needs spice. Keep these tips in your cupboard to take your writing from bland to scrumptious.

About a year ago, I got interested in cooking. For most of my adult life, I’d been making things like spaghetti with sauce from a jar, macaroni and cheese complete with powdered “cheese,” and the occasional boxed meal (just add ground beef!). Sometimes, I went a little wild and threw some canned tuna into the mac and cheese, or added real frozen broccoli to the boxed meal. My family ate it. They didn’t know any better.

But then, spurred on by a retired chef I befriended, I decided to give cooking a try. Real cooking. I bought fresh veggies and meats. I practiced until I had the knife skills to slice, dice, and julienne. I learned that stovetop burners aren’t meant to be set to high heat unless you’re trying to boil something. (Who knew?) I learned that basic salt and pepper make everything delicious. Throw in some well-chosen herbs and spices, and I can elevate the taste of my food to a whole new level. The kind that makes another friend kiss the backs of his fingertips like a French chef in an old movie and declare my meals delectable.

Writing is a lot like cooking. You can string together bland, canned phrases and hope that readers who don’t know any better won’t mind, or you can pull some spicy new tricks off the shelf and make your content truly delish.

The Basics

Before you can improve your cooking skills, you’ve got to learn a few basics. It’s the same with writing. Keep your text lean, use flavorful language, and express yourself confidently.

1. Begin with lean writing.

Flabby writing is unpalatable. Trim excess adverbs and use strong verbs or adjectives instead. (The comedian wasn’t very funny, she was hilarious.) Learn what a preposition is and how to streamline prepositional phrases. (The car didn’t come over the top of the hill, it crested the hill.) Slash extraneous words and phrases.

2. But don’t make it too lean.

Just as a cut of meat can be so lean that it’s dry and lacking flavor, writing that’s overly sanitized can sound sterile. Using an occasional adverb as a conscious style choice can make your writing sound more natural and conversational. Just don’t overdo it. Every adverb you use should have to justify its existence. If you can’t explain why you think it enhances your text, then out it goes.

3. Write with confidence.

Timid knife skills are dangerous when cooking. Timid language is a danger to writing.

Are you hedging your bets, using language that sounds unsure and wishy-washy? Eliminate phrases like you may want toit’s possible that, and they can try, and weasel words like probably and sometimes.

You don’t have to give your readers an out clause unless you’re truly sure that what you’re suggesting might not work. And, in that case, ask yourself why you’re suggesting it in the first place.

4. Use powerful words and imagery . . .

If you use a lot of “to be” verbs (be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being) or other linking verbs (appear, feel, look, seem, remain, sound), search for opportunities to spice up your writing with livelier verb choices.

Weak Verb

Alex felt anxious when it was time to give his speech.

Rather than telling the reader that Alex felt anxious, paint a word picture. Help the reader see Alex and recognize the feelings Alex is experiencing. The example below uses strong verbs and the time-honored advice given to writers: show, don’t tell.

Strong Verb

Alex’s hand trembled as he adjusted the microphone. His heart hammered in his chest.

5 . . . but keep your language simple.

Yes, use colorful, expressive language. But no, don’t hunt through your thesaurus in search of exotic words no one’s going to recognize. Don’t use fancy words just for the sake of it.

Keep your audience in mind. I had a colleague years back who regularly used SAT words that sent even those of us with stellar vocabularies scrambling for our dictionaries. We wrote for the video game industry. The average gamer is plenty intelligent, but most don’t flock to read articles full of words like cynosureexcogitate, and perspicacious. What a sesquipedalian that guy was!

Once you’ve mastered these basics, it’s time to find your writing style. Tune in next time as we share the remainder of Ms. Hertzberg’s article.

At Certa Publishing, we love partnering with authors who are passionately pursuing quality writing. How can we help you? Contact us today!