Jan 23, 2008

Yet Even More Thoughts on Improving Your Writing

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

Many writers have a solid grasp of basic writing skills, and they avoid the most egregious mistakes that send subtle and unfair messages about educational levels. There are a number of less obvious mistakes that writers make, however, that separate them from more polished and confident writers.

Today we will examine a few stylistic and grammatical problems that I frequently encounter as an editor and writing coach.

1. Make sure that pronouns match antecedents in number. An antecedent is the noun to which the pronoun refers, and it is typically found before the pronoun. The best way to illustrate this phenomenon is through an example:

A teacher should carefully prepare their lesson plans. (incorrect)

Teachers should carefully prepare their lesson plans. (correct)

2. Be cognizant of the dreaded comma splices. A comma splice is a type of run-on sentence in which two independent clauses (complete sentences) are incorrectly joined together with a comma. Here again the problem can best be defined by examples:

I ran to the corner, the ice cream truck had sped away. (incorrect)

I ran to the corner, but the ice cream truck had sped away. (correct)

The use of the conjunction "but" in this example corrects the mistake.

3. Be judicious in your use of the passive voice. With sentences that use the passive voice, the subject receives the action expressed in the verb, or the subject is acted upon. Typically the passive voice uses a form of the verb "to be" with a participle. There are examples, such as in business or legal writing, where groups prefer the passive voice, but in general writers create stronger sentences using the active voice. Here are some examples:

The mouse was chased by the cat. (passive voice)
The cat chased the mouse. (active voice)

The novel Beowulf was being read by the literature students. (passive voice)
The literature students read the novel Beowulf.(active voice)

Jillian is loved by Mergatroid. (passive voice)
Mergatroid loves Jillian. (active voice)

Again, use of the passive voice constitutes correct grammar, but most sentences improve by using the active voice.

4. Be prepared to annhilate the adverb 'very' from your writing. This overused adverb adds little to the average sentence, and writers who litter their prose with "very" run the risk of being seen as prone to exaggeration.


microdot said...

Thanks again, Mike.
These little examples always find their way into my writing.
Interestingly enough, I find my self writing more and more in French on French blogs. The attention I have to pay to French grammar to make sure I am simply understood has translated to making me pay more attention to English grammar, to be more precise.. .

historymike said...

Good point, Microdot, about the study of other languages and one's ability to better understand grammar in the native tongue.

The undergraduate work I did in Spanish (some 20 credits, just shy of a minor) made me hyper-aware of linguistics in a way I never previously was.

Mad Jack said...

Thanks for the post, Mike. I enjoy reading the writing improvement topics.