A smattering of tips to sharpen your writing

From Rick:

(1) Consider the following passage, which is an excerpt from a novel I read. I changed the characters’ names and replaced one term with “mutants”:

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As soon as Tom put away the radio, something immense and heavy thundered close by. It sounded like a stampede of onrushing bulls.
Tom rolled his eyes. “What the hell now?”

John peered around the corner to get a closer look, and as soon as he saw what was heading in their direction, he motioned toward the others and shouted, “Run!”

In a matter of seconds, the floor beneath their feet began to tremble as they took off in the opposite direction.

Mike’s eyes bulged as he glanced over his shoulder and saw about a dozen mutants charging after them.

When Bob spotted a door a few feet ahead, he directed the others toward it, praying the damn thing was unlocked. He let out a sigh of relief as he pushed through it and held it open for the others. As soon as everyone made it inside, Bob slammed it shut.

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This passage has two huge issues: major POV shifts and overuse of “as.” Did you catch them both? Which did you notice first?

Both are serious issues, but the head-hopping/POV shifts are not an issue if the POV is either third-person omniscient or is being told from the perspective of a character/narrator who is actually observing this scene from a distant perspective or watching it on a video camera. However, neither was the case for this writing.

The other issue is the extensive use of “as” clauses and “as soon as” three times (two in successive paragraphs) in the passage. The first use is fine, but the second use could be easily avoided by replacing it with “when,” which makes a bit more sense in this situation. And the third should be replaced by another word or rewritten (With everyone safely inside, Bob slammed it shut.).

One of the biggest issues I see with “as” clauses is sequencing issues. Always remember that one use of “as” means “happening at the same time.” Look at these examples:

>> The gunman kept his gun pointed as his partners collected the jewels from the case. [No problem here, but “while” might be a better option instead of “as”]

>> “I don’t give a damn!” Michael shouted as he tried to stand. He collapsed into the wheelchair as pain shot through his leg. [Aside from two uses of “as” clauses in successive sentences, the second “as” might be better replace with “when.”]

My reasoning in the above is that “as” denotes ongoing action, whereas “pain shot through his leg” here is a one-time event, not an ongoing one. The pain might continue after he collapses back into the chair, but that’s not how the sentence is written.

>> I love your furniture Sarah said as James opened the door. [Somewhat illogical sequence because James is still opening the door and most likely she hasn’t had enough time to look into the apartment. Here “after” might be a better word.]

Therefore, be careful that you don’t overuse “as” clauses and that you’re referring to one action happening while another takes place and not one action and another.

Before I end this section, I want to point out that “as” can function as many different parts of speech (adverb, conjunction, preposition, pronoun) and that the use of it here is as a conjunction in the sense of “while” or “when.” (Did you note I wrote “as a conjunction” in that last sentence? It serves as a preposition there. Here’s another example as a preposition:

>> I ended up spending six months as a prisoner of war.

I recommend you look up “as” in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary to help you understand the many uses of this little word.

(2) Speaking of parts of speech, my second tip for writers involves being able to recognize the parts of speech of words. Yes, I know some of you say you’re poor at grammar, others question why you need to know grammar details to be a writer, and a few others acquiesce and say that your editor will fix the errors. But that last one assumes that you have a good editor, and the more you do right from the start, the better your chances are of having your editor catch everything.

But there’s a good reason for knowing the parts of speech. Let’s look at some examples from my compound words list available under RESOURCES at the top of the blog. At the very least, it’s important to know in some cases whether the compound word is acting as a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb (abbreviated as n, v, adj, adv in the examples below) because some words are written differently depending on their use. Look at these examples where I indicate the part of speech.

>> You stayed out all night attending an all-night (adj) party.

>> An inside-out (adj) T-shirt is that way because it got turned inside out (adv).

“In between” is two words when acting as an adverb or preposition, but it’s hyphenated (in-between) when a noun or adjective.

>> The two police officers caught the killer by trapping him in between (prep) them.

>> Fighting hand to hand (adv) is hand-to-hand (adj) combat.

Or here’s a favorite where the compound can be all three forms (one word, hyphenated, two words) depending on the part of speech:

>> The detective gave him the rundown (n) on the accident where the victim was run down (v) by a run-down (adj) vehicle.

Granted, most of the time we know if something is a noun or a verb, but sometimes we have to think about the difference between adjective and adverb, and if you don’t understand the parts of speech, you risk getting the spelling wrong.

(3) Problems with -ing words

In the past I’ve talked about -ing word clauses in the context of using them appended to the end of sentences:

>> “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said, walking away, smiling over her shoulder at me.

There’s nothing wrong with this on occasion, but overdone, it can grate on the reader. I love this extended exaggerated example:

>> While wrapping a soothing sling around the fledgling’s broken wing, Selma was humming, dreaming of her charming Arthur. Yet troubling thoughts about his depressing friend Billy kept intruding, interrupting her very entertaining daydreams. The thing was, there was something intriguing regarding Billy. And Selma’s best friend was convincing in her untiring promoting—no, her overwhelming and inspiring selling—of him as the next king. Needing to sing her own princeling’s praises, Selma started planning, knowing that anything she tried would need to be convincing, entertaining, and overwhelming. Giving her man a happy ending would be challenging but ultimately gratifying since that had been the sole reason for her being made into a living being back in the beginning.

I got this one from the following excellent article that I recommend you read. The article points out the advice you may have heard about not using -ing words, but as it points out, not all the words ending in -ing are a problem.

WRITING ADVICE ABOUT -ING WORDS

You might want to check out the other articles referenced at the beginning of that article as well.

Until next time.

—Rick

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