Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thoughts on The Craft -- c.anne.gardner

This week I thought I would stray away from the art of writing for a moment in order to revisit some of the technical aspects of the craft, specifically: grammar with respect to sentence structure.

Since self-published books are part of my complete bookshelf, I suppose I get a bit more exposure to the “technical issues” and so maybe I am a bit of a hypersensitive editor. I am told that can’t be bad thing.

Anyway, according to WhiteSmoke, the top three common writing mistakes made are:

  1. The Use of the Dangling Participle or rather the misplaced participle phrase or modifier.
  2. Confused use of Homophones and Homonyms.
  3. Using non-parallel sentence structure when giving lists.
Of those three, the issue with poorly placed participle phrases and modifiers is the one I see most often and does the most damage to the writing. A misplaced modifier can change the meaning of a sentence, can make a sentence confusing or long winded, and can also make a sentence downright ridiculous. It rates the highest on my list of faux pas along with overuse of adverbs, emotionally redundant dialog tags, repetitiveness, melodramatic characters and idle action, and simile/metaphor abuse (or self-indulgent "trying too hard to be literary" writing.) For today though, I will just stick to the modifiers.

So what is a Dangling Modifier? The Oxford Companion to The English Dictionary states: In grammar, a dangling modifier (or dangling participle) attaches itself to a word different from the one the writer apparently intended. The writer may have meant to modify the subject, but word order makes the modifier seem to modify an object instead.

Most often I see this happen with participle phrases, when the author is trying to do some fancy footwork with sentence structure and it doesn’t quite work out as intended. Most novice writers are told to vary the structure of their sentences to improve readability, and the use of participle phrases is one of many grammatically sound strategies. It also happens to be the strategy chosen most often by new writers and the one most egregiously misused. This happens because of the non-finite verb derivatives or the active progressive participles. These verbs indicate active action or progressive action, and this is fine, but when the action is misplaced or the subject it modifies is unclear, we can wind up with sentences like these:

Ducking into the bedroom, I changed my dress.
Here we wind up with two actions happening simultaneously. Funny, but not possible.

After falling from the balcony, my mother picked up the busted flower pot.
Did the mother fall from the balcony or the flower pot?

Walking down the cobblestone path, the flowers were beautiful.
Here we have a flower parade, and I am wondering if they were wearing top hats?

I saw the glowing street lights peeking through the curtains.
Damn nosey street lights.

Taking a bite of egg she nodded and continued chewing.
I often try not to move my head when I find myself approaching it with metal utensils. Really, has anyone ever tried to take a bite of anything while actively nodding their head?

This my favourite: As president of the kennel club, my poodle must be well groomed.
That last one is from The Elements of Style and is a different kind of modifier but one that still poses some difficulty for new writers. Must be one hell of a poodle.

So what is a writer to do when they want more sophistication than “see spot run?” Well, there is nothing wrong with complicated sentence structure, and as with all things, it should not be overdone. So have at it, but I also recommend in these cases that during the editing process the writer make one pass with the sole purpose of cuing in on modifiers and participle phrases. (Participle Phrases usually have an ing word.) With each one, read the sentence and consciously ask yourself some questions:

  1. What is the phrase modifying: the subject of the sentence or an object within the sentence?
  2. Is that subject or object missing? If so, we need to rework the sentence and make sure it’s there.
  3. Is the modifier placed appropriately within the sentence so that it is crystal clear what subject or object the modifier is actually modifying. We have to take emphasis into account here as well as clarity. Modifying for mood can make a difference when deciding where to place a clause.
  4. How many non-finite verb derivatives do I have in a sentence, in a paragraph, or on a page? Could some of them be reworked into stronger sentences on their own. Impact is everything, and too much modifier rambling weakens the writing.
Now, back to the sentences:

I ducked into the bedroom and then changed my dress.
My mother picked up the busted flower pot that had fallen from the balcony.
While walking down the cobblestone path, the women noticed the beautiful flowers.
Peeking through the curtains, I saw the street lights glowing.
She took a bite of egg, nodded her head, and then continued chewing.
Since I am president of the kennel club, my poodle must be well groomed.

Often when I refer to Editorial or Technical Issues while I am writing a review, I am specifically referring to sentence structure issues, in particular, ineptly placed modifiers. It tells me the work wasn’t thoroughly edited, and it indicates a sloppy revision process. Oh yes, I have been there myself, much to my own embarassment, but this is how we learn -- through study and critique. The writing/revision/editing process takes time to develop. I know that, so I can forgive a typo or two and a punctuation error or two. It happens -- been there, done that. Homophones and Homonyms are silly errors, and if it’s not pervasive, I let it pass. Not pervasive means only 1. I gotta tell ya my wench/winch story sometime. The visual had me on the floor, and it was an error I shouldn’t have missed, but alas, at that time, my editor pencil wasn’t as sharp as it is now. However -- I tend to ramble on -- misplaced modifiers make for convoluted writing, and that just knocks me right out of a book, and it will result in a lower review rating.

Copy editing is tough work, but you gotta do it -- by eye. Yes, use your word processor’s spell check and grammar check for proofreading, but it won’t get everything. I also recommend a backup like Whitesmoke. I use their software and have been pleased with its performance; although, it too, won’t catch everything. An adverb or a participle phrase might be grammatically correct, but in so far as the art of writing is concerned, it might not be the best choice. So the rest of the revision process has to be done line by line, one line at a time, by a live person who has some knowledge of theory and an eye for grammar and style. I believe every author should know how to copy edit. Today’s editors want a “near perfect” manuscript, one they can get to print quickly, so, to be negligent here is ill-advised. To err is human; to err in the same fashion over and over and over again is the definition of lazy.

Edited to add: Still think all this isn't important. Well, maybe the average reader won't notice the technical errors, but agents and publishers will, so if you have any thoughts of a publishing contract, you had better think again. I read a few Lit Agent Blogs, and this morning I came across an article discussing Query letters and what warrants an instant rejection. This was number nine on the list: "Lack of knowledge of the English language, proper sentence structure, or word usage. And yes, I can tell the difference between a typo and knowledge of the English language. Instant reject." Quote courtesy of Book Ends Literary Agency

Cheryl Anne Gardner
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Jim Murdoch said...

One of the biggest problems I find when I'm proofreading my own work is that I know what its supposed to say and what it supposed to mean and so I don't always actually read the words of the page, they're just an aide-mémoire for what's in my head. The only answer is to go over and over a manuscript until it flows perfectly. And then get other people involved. Four of us have proofread my most recent manuscript and once I got the proof copy I still found a typo! That and a few punctuation issues.

I do have a problem with homonyms these days. I never used to. And the worst offender is: it's vs its. You have no idea how many times I make that mistake. Luckily I have a wife who edits everything I put up online bar my comments.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

A second set of eyes is definitely helpful. I edit all day long at the day job, and still, a few slip by me. I have gotten a lot better at detaching my left brain from my right brain -- the analytical from the artistic. This helps and anyone can do it; it just takes a little practice.

I find reading the text aloud "slowly" helps, especially in dialog areas where a new writer wants to fill in with unnecessary idle action like pushing hair behind the ears, smoking, staring off into space, and all the adverbial grimacing.

Editing and revision just takes practice, and it can be the best part of the writing process. This is where we become intimately familiar with the story. I think anyway.

My reviews tend to focus on substance and style. Bad technique takes away from the substance, and so a critical review that focuses on those two things can be a wealth of information for any author even if it stings a bit at first.

I was fortunate enough to have some hardass professional writers look at my work. They gave me the straight shit about where I was going wrong, and I would like to think I have improved and continue to improve with each story. We should always strive to improve our art. It's a labour of love, right?

I have an advantage in that I have studied Lit Theory and Grammar extensively for over 30 years. But knowing the theory isn't enough. We have to apply it to the writing, and that's where critical commentary comes in. It lets us know whether or not we know our theory and if we were successful in applying it to the work.

That's why I write this column. To share what I know. To pay it forward by helping other authors, and to let readers know what I look for when I review a book.