Sentences Without Torture

Have you ever tried to read a book that had long sentences throughout? I say “tried” because it takes effort. By the time we get to the end of the sentence, we may be struggling to remember the beginning. To me, a sentence like that is punishment. But authors should not be condemning readers to this kind of sentence.

I opened “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville and chose a page at random. The first sentence on that page had 88 words. As I scanned the pages I saw many more extremely long sentences. “Moby Dick” did not become a classic without merit, but in today’s fast-moving world, do we really want to work that hard to enjoy a novel? I used Melville’s novel only because it was handy. Many authors of his period wrote in that style.

Nowadays, through technology, we are bombarded by huge amounts of information passed on in short flashes—TV ads, newsbytes, texting, twitter. In this environment, how can writers find a middle ground, conveying our thoughts effectively as we hold the reader’s interest?

They say “Variety is the spice of life.” It is also the spice needed for good writing.

First, get rid of the extremely long sentences. Usually, those with 15 to 25 words are considered to be long. Once in a while, we may need more words, but be careful. Do you ramble on as you write? Try rewriting extra-long sentences to be more concise. Do you repeat yourself? Go back and axe unneeded words.

For example, the first sentence is wordy, while the second conveys the same information in fewer words.

  1. “I would like to know if your book will be written as a non-fiction version of the events, or will it be fictionalized?”
  2. “Will your book relate the events as non-fiction or fiction?”

Beware of the opposite problem, though. While too many long sentences make for tedious reading, too many short ones can give your work a choppy feeling. Remember to vary the length.

Vary the rhythm of the sentence structure as well. Throw in a question if appropriate. Why not? It may catch the reader’s attention and keep him interested.

If you want a sentence to stand out from the rest, you can set it off as a short paragraph by itself.

Another possibility is to use it to begin or end a paragraph. A general rule of thumb is to begin with your second-most-important sentence. Place the relevant explanation in the middle and save the best one for last.

Now that we have a good mix of sentences, what about the impact of the words in them? Most sentences have one keyword that is the most important component of the thought. We want to emphasize that word to give our writing the punch it needs. For the most part, readers remember the first and the last words best, but especially the last.

Consider these examples:

“Fifteen top music stars played in a concert at the new theater.” The new theater is what stands out most.

“The concert in the new theater hosted fifteen top music stars.” The fifteen top music stars are emphasized more. Choose your emphasis, depending on the idea you are trying to convey.

In a simplified formula, here are some basic guidelines for writing a good paragraph:

  • vary your sentence length and structure,
  • place your sentences in strategic positions in your paragraph (beginning, middle, or end), and
  • arrange the phrasing to place keywords near the end of your sentence.

New and improved paragraphs will be the result, if you follow some of these guidelines.

Or, changing the emphasis, “If you follow some of these guidelines, you will have new and improved paragraphs.”

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Troublesome Expressions

As a copy editor, I come across many expressions that writers use incorrectly. The list of troublesome words and expressions could fill many pages, so I have chosen a few that many writers struggle with. I have not dealt with lay and lie, which are particularly problematic. These verbs have been dealt with in an article all to themselves under the title Lie, Lady, Lie.

Advice/advise

Advice is the noun. I give advice. Advise is the verb. I advise you to take my advice.

Affect, effect

Affect is the verb. Effect is the noun, but it can be used as a verb as well.

How does this change affect you?

What effect does it have on you?

By working together we can effect (bring about) some changes.

Aggravate

This word means to make worse, not to annoy or to anger.

Alright

The proper term is all right. I see alright used frequently, especially by American writers, but that spelling is best avoided.

Amount, number

Amount is for a mass. Number is for countable items.

Anyways, anywheres, everywheres, nowheres, somewheres

These are non-standard forms. Drop the “s.”

Awhile, abit, alot

Two words — a while, a bit, and a lot.

Between, among

Between is used with two people (This is between John and me). Among is used for three or more (We’ll divide the food among the townspeople).

Breath, breathe

Breath is the noun and breathe is the verb.

Someday, I will breathe my last breath.

Continual, continuous

Continual means again and again, while continuous means ongoing.

I could care less.

Usually the writer means the opposite of what this sentence says. Most likely, what is meant is I couldn’t care less.

Envelop, envelope

Envelop means to wrap around. Envelope is the folder you put a letter in.

I will envelop you in my arms when you give me the envelope with the money in it.

Less, fewer

Just as with amount and number, less is used for a mass (an amount) and fewer is used for something countable.

Loath, loathe

Loath is the adjective. Loathe is the verb.

I was loath to do the dishes because I loathe that job.

Of

Not necessary after the prepositions inside, off, and outside.

Incorrect as a substitute for have, as in would have, could have, and should have.

Reason why

Usually there is no need for the why.

True facts

Facts are always true, so true facts has no real meaning. Just use the word facts by itself.

Very

In most cases, very is easily omitted and not missed.

With regards to

What the writer usually means is with regard to. This expression is often not necessary, only adding wordiness to the writing, but when written as with regards to, it sounds as if the writer is adding a greeting to someone.

*****

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The Dreaded Cliché

Useless words, tired and worn out, contributing little to the richness of the writing–that’s what clichés are all about. So why do we have them? I suppose there was a time when clichés were fresh and new and, sparingly used, they added a certain zip to the sauce of writing, but most of these prefabricated phrases are now considered redundant, overused, or, worse yet, misused.

When I first began writing seriously, my early efforts were sprinkled with many clichés.

My critiquers waggled their fingers at me. “No,no, no! You can’t do that! Clichés must not be used in good writing.”

“But why not? We talk that way,” I protested.

“That’s true,” they said, “and that’s almost the only time it’s okay to use a cliché–in dialogue.”

It took me a while to see what they were talking about and in time I, too, developed a horror of those overused and abused, pointlessly distracting and detracting phrases.

Just for fun, I thought I would write a short and silly story, using as many clichés as I could manage to squeeze in. I’ve marked them in red and green to make it easier for you to pick them out. If you’re brave enough to read to the end, I doubt you will ever want to use a cliché in your writing again.

Here we go:

The Doomed Woodcutter 

Like a bolt out of the blue, George appeared on the horizon and walked down the road. The man with a heart as big as all outdoors came down the road to take care of business as a matter of course.

As a matter of fact, he had crossed the field to the house as the crow flies. He’d hoped the homeowners would come out to see him, but as a last resort he knocked on the door. He wanted to be paid for his firewood today, but receiving no answer he beat a hasty retreat.

He’d been busy as a bee from dawn to dusk, cutting firewood. The stack had grown by leaps and bounds. Conspicuous by his absence, the son was of no help to him.

He had hoped his son would show up but he was doomed to disappointment. Not having been paid, he headed into town instead to get a loan from the powers that be in the corridors of power. Gaining access was easier said than done, since he was wearing his work clothes.

He had worked his fingers to the bone and was dog-tired. He had grown up gentle as a lamb and good as gold, but if and when it would all pay off and the chickens came home to roost, in a manner of speaking he knew that his wife still would not appreciate it. Any news of a promotion or pay raise would go in one ear and out the other.

In the long run, his wife got tired of him and one day when it was pouring buckets, she said, “We have to talk turkey.” It goes without saying that the moment of truth had come and she gave him the boot and tossed him out on his ear with all his belongings, lock, stock, and barrel.

Somewhere down the road, off the beaten track, he found a new, younger woman who, needless to say, was smart as a whip. Since it was love at first sight, he decided that he would strike while the iron was hot and ask her to tie the knot. It stands to reason, that because she came from the wrong side of the tracks, when all was said and done, in no way, shape, or form would she turn him down.

On the day of the wedding, who should arrive but the useless son, one and the same, last but not least. It was already raining cats and dogs, but a rude awakening reared its ugly head when slowly but surely, the son, strong as an ox, stood up in the congregation and told his father, “It goes without saying that you can’t marry her. She’s got a bun in the oven and it’s mine.”

The wedding plans were nipped in the bud, and in time, George gave up his job to look after his pride and joy, Georgina, the grandchild with many and diverse ways to wrap everyone around her little finger. She was sharp as a tack and cool as a cucumber, always getting her own way. She was the spit and image of her mother and used to calling the shots. She was on the right track and that was par for the course.

*****

I once heard someone ask a mother how her daughter was doing in the new school, since they had only recently moved to town and it was the middle of the school year.

She said, “Oh, thanks for asking. She’s liking it well enough, but she’s finding it hard to make friends because all the girls in her class have already formed their clichés and it’s hard to break into their groups once they’re formed.”

She meant “cliques,” of course. So you see, even the word cliché itself can be misused. STEER clear of clichés as much as possible.

*****

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Capital or No Capital?

Capital letters are important, but should they be used on all important words? Not necessarily.

Here are some general guidelines about where capitals should and should not be used.

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Of course we begin a sentence with a capital letter. That helps to alert us that a new thought is beginning.

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Important people get capital letters. We are all important, so our names begin with capital letters. If you happen to be the prime minister or president of a country, or even a king, queen, prince, or princess, you would have a capital letter on your title as well, but only when it is used as your name. Here are some examples:

Prime Minister Smith said to President Kendall, “Are you expecting a visit from King John this year?”

Mr. Kendall said, “Haven’t you heard? John is no longer a king. He abdicated to marry that woman who isn’t even a princess or a duchess, or any kind of royalty.”

“Aren’t we lucky? A prime minister or a president doesn’t have to worry about that.”

***

One of the most common misuses of capitals is in naming family members. Mother, father, mom, dad, aunt, uncle, grandpa, and grandma do not get capital letters unless that word is used as their proper name.

When you say, “my mother,” “the mother of the family,” or, “a mother and father,” think of it as if you had a cat or a dog and were saying, “my dog” or “my cat.” You wouldn’t use a capital for dog or cat.

Here are some examples:

My dog can do tricks. See the tricks Rover can do.

My mom is amazing. See what Mom can do. (Here it is used as her name.)

I love my dad. Do you love me, Dad?

My cat is sweet and loving. I love Scruffy.

That is my aunt over by the table. I can see Aunt Mary by the table.

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Places like heaven and hell are very important, but even they are not capitalized.

You can wish you were in heaven or tell someone to go to hell perfectly well without the capitals.

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Important buildings do not get a capital letter unless they are specific ones. The White House is a specific building, so it is capitalized. But if I live in a house that is painted white, it is only a white house.

The same holds true for any university you may be talking about. It only warrants a capital letter if it is a specific university, such as Cambridge University or any other university with a proper name attached.

Do you go to church? If church is important to you, it still doesn’t get a capital letter unless you are speaking of a certain one. Do you go to St. John’s Church?

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Words like nature, spring, summer, autumn, and winter, are all lower case words.

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And lastly, I would like to mention a very common capitalization mistake and that involves the directions of the compass. When the words are written out, south, east, west, and north are not capitalized. Neither are southeast, southwest, northeast, and northwest. But if you use abbreviations (SE, SW, NE, NW), these are capitalized, of course.

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If you are in doubt, use the dictionary. Don’t you think that’s a capital idea?

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