By: Cassie Robbins
When it comes to self-edited work, some of us may be too lax with grammar and may not even correct the small stuff until the final drafts. It isn’t the fun stuff about writing, anyway. As EB White said, “writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.”
Emily Dickinson made a decent legacy using dashes where they weren’t “correct.” But for the most part, writers are to be held accountable for knowing and following the rules.
But it isn’t all comma splices and dangling modifiers, sometimes a sentence is just not quite at its full potential. There are lots of things that can make a good piece even better, and some of those have easy fixes. Basically, just be on the lookout for these:
Abstractions are ideas. That’s it. They are words that leave holes in meaning and don’t leave a clear one that everyone can agree on. Think of the word love and how many meanings it has. We love our families, our friends, our significant others– but not all in the same way.
When a word like love is dropped into, let’s say a poem, it opens the entire work into a discussion on what the meaning is, most likely who loves who and in what way? And that’s a problem.
Avoid fear, wisdom, misery, anger, good, bad, evil, peace and reality. Let the imagery and the language explain where each of these occur.
Nominalizations make verbs into nouns and create long, useless sentences. Think about that paper you finished about two pages too short of the bare minimum. You know the one; even if you’ve never experienced the ecstasy of having written a paper last minute, you’ve probably read one. There are straightforward ways to say things, and then there are nominalizations. Consider this:
Bad: She made the argument that more abstractions make better poems.
Better: She argued that more abstractions make better poems.
The first is easier for the mind to process and will keep the reader happier. It is also a safe way to avoid passive voice and keep the subject/verb/object flow rolling.
This one is touchy, and I debated adding it in. Writers have strong feelings for both sides, either axing them or leaving them as they occur.
Like adverbs, most adjectives can be replaced by preexisting language.
Sherlock Holmes wore a flapped hat.
Sherlock Holmes wore a deerstalker.
Context also provides necessity.
She threw on her burgundy coat and glided across the floor for her shoes.
If she’s throwing on her coat in a hurry, would the typical person notice its color? Better yet, is the color necessary information for the reader, meaning, does it further the plot or develop character? If the answers are no, it’s best to cut.
Adverbs are the friends that weren’t invited to the party but showed up anyway, a lot of times with said.
Mark Twain said, “when you find an adverb, you kill it,” and the craft is always stronger when a writer does. For every adjective that exists, there is always a better verb.
He walked sloppily.
The cat sat lazily on the square of sunshine from the window.
The cat flopped into the square of sunshine.
Another downside of peppering a work with adverbs is it says a lot of what the reader already knows. Readers can observe the obvious.
She shouted angrily.
Shouting is an act done with passion, and context will let the reader know how the character is feeling. Don’t patronize.