Oct 7, 2007

Still More Thoughts on Improving Your Writing

This is part of a continuing series of posts on improving your writing and on getting published.

Those who read our writing often make subconscious judgments about us based upon the prose we create. When writers take the time to develop a creative and coherent writing style, they are in essence buying themselves entry into higher socioeconomic strata. Unfortunately, writers who possess stylistic and grammatical shortcomings subtly tell the world that they lack education and sophistication.

Now, we could debate whether or not writing is a true measure of character or intellectual ability (I would argue that it does not), but the fact remains that a person's position in the social hierarchy can be reinforced by the presence or absence of writing skills.

With this short lecture out of the way, let us continue with tips to improve your writing.

1. Use the relative pronoun "that" to describe inanimate objects and "who" to describe people. A few examples could better illustrate this rule than a refresher on grammar:
The car that was parked on the street was vandalized.

The teenager who was arrested by police for vandalism posted bail.
2. Affect versus effect. This is a common error made by even seasoned writers, and the quick rule for sorting out these homonyms is that "affect" is usually a verb, while "effect" is usually a noun:
When you affect something, you have an effect upon it.
However, there are a few exceptions. "Affect" can be used as a noun (provided, of course, that you put the accent on the first syllable):
Bluto's fake Parisian accent was an affect that did not suit the burly sailor.
"Effect" can occasionaly be used as a verb, again by placing the accent on the first syllable:
The voters were able to effect a change in government.
3. Avoid useless adverbs. The adverbs "hopefully" and "basically" should be thrown into your grammar fire pit and ignited. After this incendiary act, take stock of your use of such overused adverbs as actually, frankly, very, regretfully, strictly, and thankfully, the removal of which often causes a sentence to improve.

4. Beware of the dreaded misplaced or dangling modifiers. A dangling modifier happens when a writer loses track of the connection between a phrase and what it is supposed to be describing. Here are some examples to show dangling modifiers in action:
After being thrown in the air, the dog caught the rawhide bone.

Being in a rundown state, I was able to purchase the house at a low price.
In the first sentence, it sounds as if the dog was being thrown in the air, and in the second sentence readers might assume that the home purchaser was a disheveled sot who just happened to have the ready cash to buy a home.


Anonymous said...

Here's what I do with one of your paragraphs:

"We could debate whether writing is a true measure of character or intellectual ability. I would argue that it is not, but the fact remains that a person's position in the social hierarchy can be reinforced by the presence or absence of writing skills."

historymike said...

You are beginning to understand, young grasshopper. A journey of a thousand pages begins with a single restructured paragraph.


mud_rake said...

Being that it is Columbus day, thanks, frankly, for the writing tips. It, hopefully, will have an affect on my writing who ought to improve, actually, for the better; not for the worser.

Barb said...

good advice but additionally:

The voters were able to effect a change in government.

One would wonder what is the difference in meaning here of effect or affect --because either could be used in this statement.

So I would add to your explanation that this use of EFFECT --means to "cause" or "produce" or "result in"...."a change in gov't."

"Affect a change" would mean to "influence a change."

Slightly different meanings.

Barb said...

also, it struck me as new when you said that "effect" should be accented on the first syllable when used as a verb and I couldn't find it in the dictionary that way.

But, as you noted, AFfect is accented on the first syllable when you use it as a noun to, e.g. mean "an observed emotional response." "His affect was inappropriate for one who claimed to feel guilty."

I used to teach English --but I don't recall winning any collegiate competitions! as you have.

Hooda Thunkit said...

So Mike, do let us know when the book comes out ;-)

I would be tempted to order a case of them, but they (except for one) would see more use if they were purchased by someone wishing to improve their writing skills, rather than if they were given to them as gifts...:-(

James F. Trumm said...

Your first note (about the distinction between who and that) is my favorite rule of grammar because it's so weird. The actual rule is that 1) people, and 2) animals with names should be referenced with "who," while everything else is referenced with "that." There's the dog that bit me, but this is my dog Sophie, who has never bitten anyone.