Revising Sentences I

Today’s topic is revising sentences…or perhaps I should say that this week’s topic is revising sentences. There will be two more posts with this theme.

I started thinking about revisions when I came across a short story that I thought I would enjoy – but I stopped reading after a few paragraphs.

The writing was grammatical, and the story was interesting. So what was wrong? The story lacked powerful sentences to drive the action along.

I’ve selected four sentences (and disguised them in case the author happens to visit my blog!). Today I’ll talk about the first sentence.

An inmate is describing an incident in his corridor: Two other inmates – Tony and Cal – have been carrying on a loud conversation that annoys Bert, another inmate who’s trying to sleep.

Here’s today’s sentence, adapted from the original story:

I was standing next to the door of my cell, watching what was going on in the corridor, when Bert, one of the inmates, rose from his bed and calmly approached Tony.

Here’s my feedback. (I’m sure that many of you can come up with better revisions than I did! I’d love to hear from you.)

1.  Although the story is about an inmate, there’s no prison feeling here. I worked in a prison for three years: it was crowded, and there was a lot of tension.

2.  The inmate narrator doesn’t have a personality and a voice. He’s not reacting to where he is or what’s going on. He could be standing in the front yard of a suburban house, looking at his neighborhood.

3. There’s too much information crammed into the sentence. The story would be more interesting if we could watch the action unfold, a step at a time.

My suggested revision:

When you’re in prison, peace and quiet are hard to come by. It was “free time” (hah!) when cell doors were open and we could roam the corridor, but I was trying to avoid the hubbub outside.

I was working on a poem for Kathy when I heard a commotion in the corridor. It was Tony and Cal again, talking much too loudly about something that had gone wrong in the prison kitchen that morning. I didn’t mind them talking. Hell, you need friends in a place like this. But did we have to hear every word of it?

I went back to my poem. I was just finishing the last line when I heard a clang from the iron door in the cell next to mine. Bert was on the move.

Bert did shift work in the prison, and sleep was hard for him to come by. I’d seen him flip out when the sleep deprivation was too much to bear. He once told me he welcomed the occasional trips to the detention block where inmates were sent for breaking the rules. “You get to sleep for eight hours,” he said.

Hands gripping bars of a prison cell

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Keywords

If you’re a writer, you know that a writing project often has a mind of its own. There are lots of battles, and the project usually wins.

The book I’m writing about Shaw is taking the usual course of fighting me every step of the way. I have a graveyard of chapters that hit a brick wall after three or four pages.

This week has been typical. The writing seemed to get off to a roaring start. Monday morning, on a legal pad, I scratched out an outline for the first half of a chapter and then dictated a rough draft into my phone.  (Evernote automatically converted it into text – I love you, Evernote!)

But the next morning I read what I had dictated and was horrified. Not a single keyword had made it into the draft. @#$%&!

Flashback: when I was starting my doctoral dissertation, my wonderful advisor – Dick Dietrich – gave me some supremely useful advice (which I didn’t always follow, alas): find a key idea and keep hammering away at it.

In order to do that, you need keywords that match your ideaThis book-in-progress has two big themes: language and metadrama. I am happy to tell you that I came up with a nice list of keywords: words, Derrida, Platomargin, definition, imagination, and erasure (for “language”) and role-playing, drama, acting, natural, artificial, and performance (for “metadrama”).

(If you’re savvy about language theory, you already know what I’m going to say next: there’s a lot of overlapping between the two lists. That overlap will help me write a unified book.)

Back to my writing struggles. Turns out there’s hope after all. This morning I woke up with a revised outline in my head, just waiting for me to put it on paper. I grabbed a legal pad and took it with me for a breakfast get-together with a close friend. I had just finished scribbling when she sat down at our table.

Yes, there are keywords galore in this latest version. Thank you, thank you, O writing gods!

But my brain is fried right now, so I’m going to do just a quick once-over on two random language points that have been on my mind for this blog:

1. I refuse to use “that of.” Here’s a sentence I wrote on Quora this morning:

Her English was better than some college graduates I’ve met.

I’ll be damned if I’m going to write “Her English was better than that of some college graduates I’ve met.” My admittedly ungrammatical version sounds natural, and there’s no confusion over the meaning. If you don’t like it, that’s your problem.

2.  I just came across a question on Quora about how to respond to someone’s personal opinion about a controversial topic. Folks, all opinions are personal. Ditch personal.

I hope your day started out as well as mine did!hammer and nai

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Capital Letters

Here’s a surefire way to stump your friends: Ask them whether it’s correct to capitalize Mother.

Or is it mother?

The answer, of course, is that sometimes Mother is correct; at other times it should be mother.

How, pray, can you tell when to use the capital letter? The conventional answer is to use the capital letter when it’s her name, like this:

I called Mother for her birthday. CORRECT

When it’s a role in life, use lower case:

Any mother appreciates a phone call on her birthday. CORRECT

A useful trick here is to remember that you always capitalize names: Joe, Clare, Fido, Cinderella.

But if you still find yourself getting stumped once in a while, try asking yourself who you’re talking to. I know – you’re wondering how that will help. But if you try it, surprisingly often the confusion will clear right up.

Here’s why: when you’re talking to a family member, “Dad” is clearly his name: “I talked to Dad this morning.” When you’re talking to someone else, “dad” is clearly a role: “I’m taking my dad to a baseball game this weekend.”

Let’s try these sentences:

I’m helping dad clean out the garage this weekend.

You’re welcome to bring your dad to the awards dinner.

In the first sentence, you’re clearly talking to a family member. In your little circle, “Dad” is his name. Use a capital letter.

In the second sentence, you’re talking to someone outside your family. If that dad indeed came to the dinner, you’d probably call him “Mr. Whatever.” He’s not your dad. Use lower case.

Here are the corrected sentences:

I’m helping Dad clean out the garage this weekend. CORRECT

You’re welcome to bring your dad to the awards dinner. CORRECT

And here’s one more clue: If you use “my” or “your,” the person usually isn’t a family member. You’ll probably use lower case.

father playing with his son

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The Rest Room

If you decide to skip today’s post, I won’t blame you. It’s about…toilets.

I just read an extraordinary article (Prescriptive and Descriptive Labels, by Jorge Arango) about – yes – toilets. Arango doesn’t mention Derrida or postmodern language theory. But if you’re interested in language (his real topic), the article is worth reading.

Most of us naively think that naming is all about slapping labels onto things. Not true. Naming almost always involves something else as well: classifying things. It’s a subtle process, easily overlooked, that has colossal implications for how we think, how we relate to others, and how we live our lives.

Jorge Arango’s article is about choices for a public restroom door. Suppose you were opening a new business, and you were getting ready to put a sign on the restrooms. Instead of the traditional picture of a woman on one door, and a man on the other, you could do something different. One restroom door could have this picture:

toilet sign

And the other restroom door could have this picture:

toilet and urinal

Suddenly everything changes. Customers of both sexes have a choice – handy if it’s a busy time (the ladies’ room often has a line, while the men’s room often doesn’t).

This set-up (actually used in the coffeeshop of the building where Arango works) has some unexpected advantages. It eliminates arguments about which bathrooms transvestites and transgender persons should use. And it makes life easier for parents with young children of the opposite sex. Mom doesn’t feel quite right taking little Junior into the ladies’ room with her – but he’s not yet ready to cope with the men’s room by himself. And what father really wants to take a little girl into the men’s room with him?

It would also challenge us to re-examine some of our assumptions about everyday life. In the US, it’s almost unthinkable that a man would enter a woman’s rest room, and vice versa. But when I traveled in Mexico, I often visited restrooms with male attendants, and I quickly got used to it.

Of course there’s a reason this restroom arrangement doesn’t cause problems in the coffeeshop in Arango’s building: the restrooms are single-use only. But it is really inconceivable that a bigger public restroom couldn’t be designed with the urinals placed at – say – an angle so that women don’t have to look at them?

If you’ve hung in this far, I hope you’re starting to realize that my point isn’t about public restrooms at all. I’m trying to show that what you name something makes a difference. Replacing traditional Men/Women restroom signs with Toilet and Toilet + Urinal would generate some rethinking and might even lead to some changes in behavior.

That is what great writers do with words. The book I’m working on right now is going to have some examples of how Shaw played with words to shake up our thinking. Here’s one example, from Shaw’s play Major Barbara: How do you classify poverty? There are four possibilities:

  • a virtue (religious men and women take a vow of poverty)
  • an immutable fact of life (the Bible says “the poor we will always have with us”)
  • a product of laziness and other character defects
  • a crime against society

After you’ve read Shaw’s Preface to Major Barbara, you’ll never be able to say “the deserving poor” or “poor but honest” again. Those phrases – which fall trippingly from the tongues of so many people – will no longer make sense to you.

Great writers often make commonplace words and ideas suddenly seem shockingly different. Can you do that? You might have the makings of another Bernard Shaw in your soul.

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A Cup of Coffee and a Dream

If you are serious about becoming a writer, something you absolutely have to do is cultivate a relationship with a coffee shop.

Here’s advice from Natalie Goldberg, author of the classic book Writing Down the Bones:

Go hungry so you will want to eat….Also if you are taking up a table for a few hours, leave more than the ordinary tip. The waitress makes money on table turnover, and you are staying longer than your turn. Do not show up at lunch or dinner when they are the most crowded. Go at the end of rush hour when the waitress will be glad to see you, because she is very tired and knows you won’t order a lot and don’t expect fast service.

(How times change! Back in 1986, when Goldberg published Writing Down the Bones, it was still ok to say “waitress” instead of “server.”)

What hasn’t changed is the soundness of Goldberg’s advice. Remember J.K. Rowling? She wrote much of the first Harry Potter book in the Elephant House coffee shop in Edinburgh. She had an advantage: Her brother-in-law was the owner. But she also was on to something.

I did much of the prewriting for both my doctoral dissertation and my book about George Bernard Shaw in a very crowded, very noisy coffee shop. It was not at all conducive to concentration, and I remember that I read the first chapter of Michael Ryan’s Marxism and Deconstruction – for example at least twenty times before I thoroughly understood it.

Twenty times? Any sensible person would say that was an inefficient way to go about it. Any sensible person who’s not a serious writer, that is. Here’s the point: I don’t think I would have read Marxism and Deconstruction over and over without that coffee shop. It’s a dense and difficult book, and even in the best of conditions I would have had to read it over and over before I could make sense of it.

Writing can be tedious and frustrating. It’s great to be talented, but talent alone won’t keep you going. What separates the amateurs from the pros is persistence. And that’s where a friendly server, frequent refills, and some lively background noise can be a lifesaver.

“Lively background noise” probably doesn’t sound like a prescription for sustained critical thinking. But look at it this way: You’ll learn how to concentrate. And relaxing in pleasant surroundings works much better for writing than lonely boredom.

Still another advantage is that it’s easy to get into a writing routine. I looked forward to lingering over my cup of coffee every evening (not to mention escaping from all the yucky tasks waiting to be done at home).

That evening ritual gave me an incentive to sort the notes I was working on, pack everything up, and head for the coffee shop to work.

One more advantage: It’s fun to tell curious onlookers that you’re that most exotic of creatures – a writer.

cup of coffee

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Parallel Construction

Here’s a skill for you to work on: parallel construction. This skill is useful, easy to learn, and rare. (That sentence is an example of parallelism.)

Even professional writers regularly go astray when they try to write sentences that feature parallelism. Or perhaps the problem is that they don’t try.

Here’s a sentence with parallelism:

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. CORRECT

(BTW: Did Abraham Lincoln really start a sentence with but? Yes, he did – as good writers often do.)

Here’s another parallel sentence:

Give me liberty, or give me death. CORRECT

Imagine Abraham Lincoln saying “we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, and the ground can’t be hallowed.” Painful to your ears, isn’t it? And imagine Patrick Henry saying “Give me liberty, or you can kill me.” Not quite the same effect.

So what do you need to know about parallelism?

1.  All the parts need to match.

2.  If you’re writing a sentence with three parts, the third one will be the problem. Guaranteed.

3.  A useful trick is to write the sentence in question like a little poem. Make sure all three parts match a word near the beginning.

4.  An easy solution to parallelism problems is to break the sentence into two shorter ones.

Sound complicated? It really isn’t. Let’s try one.

For his birthday we’re treating George to dinner, giving him a gift certificate, and he’s taking the day off from work.

Here’s the same sentence, written like a little poem:

For his birthday we’re

-treating George to dinner

-giving him a gift certificate, and

-he’s taking the day off from work.

“He’s taking the day off from work” doesn’t go with we’re. So the sentence needs to be fixed. Usually the easiest solution is to make two sentences, like this:

For his birthday we’re treating George to dinner and giving him a gift certificate. He’s taking the day off from work. CORRECT

Parallelism is pretty easy once you get the hang of it. Look for examples (they’re everywhere!) and practice fixing them. Soon you’ll be an expert.

Parallel railroad tracks

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Crime Does Not Pay!

This weekend a friend and I had fun talking about a fine crime novel we’d both read – Mariah Stewart’s Cold Truth. Well written, fun to read. Recommended.

Still, though, I noticed two problems with the novel. Or – more precisely – my Inner Editor noticed them.

Here’s one: A crime victim scratched the perpetrator’s face (page 183). I kept waiting for someone to run a DNA test of the material found under the victim’s fingernails. (My friend said she had the same reaction.) Nobody did.

Here’s another (my friend missed this one): On page 243 Stewart wrote, “Annie poured over the images of the old crime scenes.”

It should have been pored. (Every writer should be able to make the right choice when the “poring or pouring” problem pops up.)

In a 373-page book, it’s easy to miss a detail here and there. That’s why professional writers always ask someone they know to read a manuscript before they submit it.

At the college where I used to edit, we had a whole gang of people, including the president, do the final read-through before important publications got the final okay.

It was humbling to sit around the table and have colleagues without my background and experience find errors I’d overlooked. It was also a good reminder that – no matter how smart you think you are – you need another set of eyes to look over your writing!

Number-one rule for writers and would-be writers: Get at least one friend or family member to read over your stuff before you submit it.

A magnifying glass and the word murder

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So You Think You’re a Pro

I spend a lot of time (ok – I’ll admit it – too much time!) on Quora. I’m glad to share my knowledge with people who are working on their English skills. But there’s one thing I wish everybody would stop asking about: grammar.

Yech.

There are so many things that can go wrong with a sentence that have nothing to do with grammar: punctuation, word choice, and capital letters, for starters. (They fall into the usage category.)

And what about sounding natural? Writing powerfully? And – a big one – how about adopting some of the writing practices that professionals use?

So today I’m offering a few pointers about writing habits you need to break if you want to be a professional writer.

1.  Don’t use quotation marks to apologize for a word or expression. In his book The Sense of Style, Stephen Pinker says that “Classic style is confident about its own voice.” Amen.
If a word doesn’t sound right to you, take a moment to find the exact word you want. And if you’re using a word in an unusual way, just do it! No apologies.

Jenny had a tantrum this morning because she couldn’t find her “binky.”  AMATEURISH
Jenny had a tantrum this morning because she couldn’t find her binky.  BETTER

2.  Don’t underline unless you’re writing by hand or using a typewriter – or formatting a manuscript for a publisher who expressly asks for underlining.
If you want to emphasize a word, you can use color, a different typeface, a larger size, or a formatting option like bold or italics.

3. Never put a comma after but or and.

4. Never use the words importantly or firstly. Important and first are better choices.

5. Never write last but not least. Build to a climax: “Best of all….” “Most important….”

6. Never join sentences with a comma and however, therefore, nevertheless, moreover, or a similar word. Use a period or a semicolon.

Professional word cloud

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Jean Cleans Out a Folder

I have a folder where I jot down ideas for blog posts. It’s filling up, so here’s an assortment of writing tips and other odds-and-ends for you:

1.  Good writers are careful not to overuse personal and personally. Take a look at these two sentences:

Of all the cars I’ve personally owned, the Karmann-Ghia was my favorite.

Joe Maguire has been a close personal friend for many years.

Delete personally! All friends are personal (otherwise they would be acquaintances or colleagues). Everything you own is a personal possession.

2. Here’s a sentence I would never write, even though it’s correct: Either you or I am going to be the next president of the club. (The rule is that the or part of the sentence determines the verb: I am going.) I would deliberately write it incorrectly: 

Either you or I are going to be the next president of the club. (Go ahead – sue me!)

3. The words that exist and existing are often unnecessary. Take a look at this sentence from an AP News story:

Robin Bonifas, a social work professor at Arizona State University and author of the book “Bullying Among Older Adults: How to Recognize and Address an Unseen Epidemic,” said existing studies suggest about 1 in 5 seniors encounters bullying. 

If the studies didn’t exist, you wouldn’t be talking about them!

4.  Stephen Pinker’s book The Sense of Style includes samples of marvelous writing from other writers. Someone described Maurice Sendak’s books for children as “roundly praised, intermittently censored, and occasionally eaten.” An obituary of Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown noted that “she was 90, though parts of her were considerably younger.”

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