Monday, July 21, 2014

Putting Those Sentences Together

Most of you know that I belong to an online writers' group that requires both submissions and critiques to retain memberbship. Members are aksed to do two crits for each submission they make.

I love getting feedback on my submissions but I also enjoy doing the critiques and reading the critiques of others, as well. Reading and doing critiques on a regular basis has given me a good eye for sentence structure, phrasing and the kinds of words we use. Active verbs versus passive, dialogue, parts of speech and how they come across to a reader--all this and more.

Some of the problems I see are:

1.  too many passive verbs
2.  sentences that are overly long
3.  too many incomplete sentences
4.  awkward structure
5.  cliches
6.  Beginning multiple sentences with And or But
7.  Unnecessary words
8.  Overly formal language in dialogue

There are probably others but this is a long enough list for now. Becoming aware of these problems is step one in fixing them. If you're guilty of any of the items listed above, don't worry. You're in good company because every one of has done one or more of them when you write. Hopefully, we catch a good many in our editing.

Let's take a quick look at what we might do for each problem:

1.  passive verbs:  Go through your story or essay and mark all the passive verbs, then try to replace as many as you can with an active verb. It's a real boost to your writing and thus for your reader, as well. Active verbs provide more visuals for the reader.

2.  overly long sentences:  When you see a sentence that seems quite long, read it aloud. It might be difficult to get to the end without stopping to take a breath. If you must do so, your sentence is definitely too long. Have you put too many phrases into it? Can you easily make two sentences from the long one?

3.  incomplete sentences:  It's alright to have an incomplete sentence occasionally if it's meant to illustrate what was previsouly said. An addendum of sorts. Do it too often and it becomes a glitch. I couldn't think of examples to illustrate my point. Only two or three. The incomplete sentence in the example does relate to the previous one and the reader 'gets it.' But do that over and over and you're in trouble.

4.  awkward structure:  This often happens when you write one of those overly long sentences that has lots of clauses and phrases interjected. It can also happen when you place words in a place that makes the reader frown in wonder because the clarity of the sentence has suddenly dimmed. Clara threw her leg over the top rail of the fence and skinned it as she climbed across the fence made of rough wood so that it scraped her leg. Now, that's a bit contorted, isn't it? It might read better as Clara skinned her leg as she climbed across the rough, wooden fence.

5.  cliches:  Many of us use them because it's often the way we talk to family and friends. It's also a lazy writer's gimmick. It's much easier to pluck a cliche from the air than to think up something original. I know, because I'm very guilty of doing this myself.

6.  And or But:  It's alright to do this once in awhile but if you do it regularly, it begins to appear with a red flag waving. There is one school of thought that you should never, ever begin a sentence with these words. I say, do it but strictly limit the amount you use it.

7.  unnecessary words:  This is another very common error. When I started writing, I was chastised by the group regularly for committing this sin. Having this error pointed out on a regular basis upped my awareness level and I began to watch more carefully when I wrote and edited my work. Words like just, very, really are not needed. Ha! I almost wrote not really needed. See how easy it is to use a word that doesn't add to or make the sentence a better one?

8.  formal dialogue:  I wrote a post last week on this topic. Remember to have your characters use contractions as they would in the real world. Make the speech too formal and it doesn't feel real to the reader.

As important as plot is to your story, remember that the way you write your sentences and paragraphs is of importance in getting that story to your reader in the clearest, most interesting way.

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