Although I’ve been a reader and writer most of my life, much of it has been informal – such as this blog. When you write a book, it forces you to look at your writing in a new way. I realized I had forgotten basic grammar and syntax rules, as well as style issues that can bring clarity to your writing. A friend with an English degree helped me edit my book, and I was grateful for her assistance. Proper grammar/syntax/style can make a tremendous difference!
I am partly writing this post for my own future reference while these things are still fresh in my mind. If I ever write another book (?), I can look back to review the problems and know to be on the alert for them in my writing. By the way, for anyone who stumbles upon this, I write non-fiction exclusively.
Here are some things I learned and am still working on:
- I had essentially forgotten comma use and was placing them where it seemed “logical” but my logic was inconsistent. Commas are used in different ways, but they are used to separate independent clauses. I was haphazardly using them regardless of whether there were dependent or independent clauses. I had to review the difference between them.
- I have a terrible propensity for the passive voice. I still do. The active voice can bring clarity, meaning, or force to a sentence.
- I was sometimes using unnecessary descriptive words. For example, using two adjectives that were very close in meaning. I also had the tendency to use the two adjectives separated by the word and, because I was trying to make a point. But if the words are that close in meaning, are both needed? It is redundant and can create an unnecessarily verbose sentence. Don’t misunderstand, adjectives are good, but less can be more! Pick one stronger adjective.
- I overused the same transitional words and phrases, or used one not-quite-correctly when another transitional word would have been better. Ask yourself the point of the transitional word for the sentence. This website and how it broke down transitional words was helpful: Transitional words and phrases.
- This article was helpful too: It Is Important To Note That…And Other Unnecessary Phrases.
- I learned that Microsoft Word has a search function, meaning you can search for a certain word or phrase and it will highlight every instance of it in the document. How did I never know of this function before? Writing a book length document is different than an article length one. In a brief document you can easily note an overused word, but in a lengthy document you can totally miss it. I was horrified to realize how much I was using certain words. Hello thesaurus.
- Perhaps this piece of advice is more for others than myself, as I don’t think I generally have this problem. But having read a number of self-published books by novices, I have noticed that a common weakness is short, choppy sentences. There is an inability to form complex sentences, and this leads to monotonous writing that does not flow smoothly. It can be a real turn-off for the reader, even though the reader may not actually realize the problem. All they know is that they are not enjoying your writing very much! See here for an article about adding sentence variety and complexity.
- Something I have done over the years, without being told to do it, was to read my writing out loud. I’ve found this helpful. As I wrote my book and looked for writing advice, I repeatedly stumbled upon the advice to read your writing out loud. Why? Reading out loud can make bulky or awkward sentences more apparent. If you struggle to say it out loud, likely the sentence needs smoothing work. If you are attempting to write in a casual or conversational tone, reading out loud can bring to light that the sentences are not casual. Finally, reading out loud can bring “obvious” overlooked typographical errors to your attention such as a word incorrectly typed twice.
- Sometimes, in my opinion, incorrect grammar/syntax may be best! Note sometimes. How we speak English or say certain things may not actually be grammatically correct, yet that is how we say it nonetheless. On occasion you may want to ignore grammar rules simply because it sounds better or reflects how people speak. Sorry grammar and syntax purists!
- I know I am not addressing the underlying grammar/syntax issue here, but sometimes you may need to rearrange the content of a sentence. The second half of the sentence should become the first half the sentence. What part of the sentence is paramount or what do you want to get the emphasis? Swapping things around can make a difference in the point being made.
- While editing my book, I several times flipped through two English composition/grammar books I have long had on my shelf. They are both at the junior high level, but this is when many basic writing skills are taught in school. I found this review helpful. There is no shame in needing to review what you learned eons ago. You may need to sign up for a formal class. Which leads to a final point:
Just because you have “a gift” doesn’t mean you don’t need to practice and polish that gift. I think a common misconception is that a gift comes naturally and you just do it. While there are prodigies out there, most gifted people still have to work hard, practice, accept feedback, etc.
If you are a writer, do have any tips like these to share?
Please feel free to comment.
Link for my future reference: 5 fixable writing mistakes.