Shannon Bolithoe : A Writing Life

How I try to make my sentences better

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By Shannon Bolithoe

Grammarians intimidate me. Once someone starts talking about verb moods, dangling whosits, and misplaced whatsits, I shrink. When I try to struggle through their prose explanations, my brain hurts. I refer to words ending with “ing” as “ing words” (even if I’ve read that they can be gerunds or participles and that there’s a difference.) When I think about not using adverbs, I think of words ending with “-ly” even though I know different kinds of adverbs, and adverbial phrases are essential, and they don’t all end in “-ly.”

I’m not convinced that studying grammatical labels would help my prose. I didn’t know what comma splices were until it was pointed out to me. Did I mean to do that? Was it a quirk of my style? But I appreciated the call to examine each case. Some of the sentences sounded exactly as I had intended; others needed a friendly “and” or a sturdy semicolon. I had been asking commas to do the heavy lifting; they collapsed under the burden. (See how that poor little guy is straining? Comma splice!)

Despite my fear of them, I have learned plenty from grammarians. I try to translate their directives and explanations to make my sentences better. For example, on the simplest level, we’re told not to be vague, to write with strong nouns and verbs. But it can be hard to remember what vivid looks likes. We need to notice. We need to scrub dirty, flaccid bits from our sentences if we want to be read. But telling me that “nominalizations” weaken prose doesn’t help. The word alone can send me scurrying for cover. Nominalization, as I found out, turns verbs into fuzzy nouns. “Investigate” morphs into “investigation”; “applicable” dresses up as “applicability.” To weed them out I’ve learned a trick. I scan my manuscripts for words that end in -tion, -ism, -ty, -ment, -ness, -ance, and -ence. Then I grab a more muscular verb and slip in a concrete noun (when it makes the sentence better).

How many silly redundancies do we use without a second thought? There are tricks to eliminate them. How many unnecessary uses of “this” “that” and “there” can I take out? I have also compiled a list of useless words that seem to creep into my writing, without me being aware of them. I won’t say doing this forces me into less passive constructions–because I would be taken to task for not knowing what a passive construction is. But they often drag down or bloat the prose. So in my merry way, I go on search-and-destroy missions for these words or forms of “to be.” I try to write with strong nouns and verbs and delete the incarnations of “to be” (when it makes the sentence better).

I find it hard to cut into my manuscripts, but life is too short to ask people to read bloated sentences loaded with junk phrases like “in the event that”, “on the grounds of” or “under circumstances which”. I try to remember to “omit needless words” and use the tools in my little bag of tricks to identify and delete those words, when appropriate.

I also look at how the manuscript pages look. Are the paragraphs too blocky or too fragmented? When I look at tiny unreadable versions of my prose, I’m able to think differently about the formal structure of the project.

With my latest book project, a novel, when I needed to read the whole thing from start to finish, I loaded the Word document onto my Kindle. That way, it looked like a “real” book, and I read it as if it were already published. Holy crap! I blushed to see sticky sentences and embarrassing mistakes. I picked away at it until I felt (for that moment) satisfied.

I also read my drafts out loud in such a way that my dogs pay attention. Clunky sentences sound a whole lot clunkier when you’re forced to listen to them. I also try to write sentences that don’t use puffed-up syntax and thesaurus-unearthed words to attempt to cover up my many flaws.

Another strategy for how to get more writing done is to create the first draft as a PowerPoint presentation and use that as an outline. Alternatively, you can use the Outline View in Word to do the same thing. It’s is a great way to trick yourself into writing. You think about your article–or book–as a series of slides or sections, come up with the right titles for each, list the most important points you want to make, and then shuffle them to get the right order and flow. These become cue cards to guide you in writing the full document.

It’s taken me a long time to feel secure enough to admit to such simple and obvious practices. Grammarians can chastise me for my faulty education, lax attitude, and insufficient attention to the complexities of language, and they will probably do so in sentences that give me a headache. I’m happy to hear their suggestions, as long as I can understand what they mean (preferably in words of one syllable.)

Author: SBolithoe

Librarian, author, blogger, presenter, history buff and animal lover.

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