Free the Scene!

Here’s a revision tip for you. I’m currently working on the second draft of my second novel, and it just came in handy (again).

When reading your early drafts, keep an eye out for the potentially interesting scene that happens off-stage. Maybe you were in a hurry when you wrote that part. Maybe you didn’t see the possibilities. Maybe you did, but they were a little bit unsettling and you didn’t want to go there — yet.

Open the door. Let the scene out. Give it room to breathe. See what happens.

These things are little gifts from the Muses, or your subconscious, or wherever you think your writing comes from. They’re the treasures you find at the bottom of a heap at the thrift shop, or in your own closet.

Here’s one of mine. In draft #1, Shannon, one of the novel’s two viewpoint characters, gets a phone call. It goes like this:

Meanwhile, Shannon had had a call from some busybody on the conservation commission, whose members apparently cruised around looking for unsightly objects that detracted from what they called “the character of the town.” The busybody objected to the snow fencing Shannon and Ben [Shannon’s next-door neighbor] had put up to reinforce the post-and-rail fence in the back yard. Shannon explained about Wolfie [the dog she’s just rescued], and how the post-and-rail alone wouldn’t keep Wolfie in for a minute. The busybody was not impressed: the fence did not conform to the town’s fence bylaw and that was that.

This phone call had the makings of a fun scene, and I was ready for a little comic relief. What if the busybody showed up in person? What if she caught Shannon in the act of installing the fence?

snow fence 1Consulting the town’s zoning bylaws — the scene takes place in the town I live in — I discovered that the snow fencing didn’t violate any bylaws, but this wouldn’t stop some of the busybodies I’ve run into in my time. I also decided that she wasn’t actually on the conservation commission. She had appointed herself guardian of the character of a neighborhood she didn’t even live in.

This is what the phone call turned into this morning. Note that I’m still in early-draft mode. I strongly suspect that the scene will appear in the novel’s final draft, but I don’t know what it will look like. Will this woman appear again? No idea. It’s up to the Muses.

[Shannon] was halfway done when a white Honda Pilot passed on the road, heading toward the intersection with the Edgartown Road. She didn’t recognize it. Not that she knew every vehicle that lived between here and Sepiessa, but her mind half-consciously sorted them into familiar and unfamiliar and this one she’d never seen before.

Even more unusual, two minutes later it passed by again in the opposite direction. Shortly after that it rolled to a halt on the grassy shoulder opposite her driveway. Looking for directions?

The driver got out of the car, looked both ways, and crossed the road. She carried a cane but walked briskly, barely tapping it on the pavement. Her mostly gray hair was done up in a french twist and her garb said “country gentry”: heavy wool cardigan with leather elbow patches, an ample wool skirt that hung just below the knee, and sturdy walking shoes, all in autumnal browns and russets. She did not look lost. She caught Shannon’s eye briefly then rapped the top rail of the roadside fence with her cane.

Taking this as a summons, Shannon wiggled the stake she had just driven into the ground to make sure it was steady, laid mallet and zip ties on the ground, and walked up to greet the visitor.

The visitor wasted no time on introductions. “Do you have a permit for that fence?” she asked, in a clipped accent that sounded somewhat English but wasn’t.

Loaded for bear, thought Shannon, but with no bears in sight. “That fence has been there for over fifteen years,” she said pleasantly. “I don’t believe I need a permit.”

“That orange fence” — the woman pronounced the word with obvious distaste — “has not been there for fifteen years. You are just now putting it up.”

Caught red-handed, Shannon thought. “I don’t believe I need a permit for that either,” she said. “It’s temporary. I’m fostering a dog for a few days, and I don’t want him getting loose.” She resisted the temptation to tell the woman why she didn’t want Wolfie getting loose. Maybe the woman did know someone on the road. Maybe she kept chickens.

“It is unsightly,” said the woman. “It is not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood.” She rapped the railing with the head of her cane for emphasis.

snow fence 2

In Shannon’s fourth grade Sister Mary Clement had habitually rapped her eighteen-inch ruler on the desktop while fixing the latest class miscreant with a glare that promised trouble. Shannon hadn’t thought of her in twenty years. Her visitor wasn’t a nun but she was cast from the same mold.

Shannon conceded that the blaze-orange snow fencing was not especially attractive but noted that it was only visible from the road if you slowed down to about five miles an hour and stared out the passenger-side window. She did not ask the woman if she’d ever been down this road before, and if not, how she knew so much about the character of the neighborhood. The character of this neighborhood was more disturbed by big gray dogs running loose than by blaze-orange snow fencing in someone’s back yard.

“The town bylaws are quite clear what sorts of fence are allowed,” the woman said, “and this is not one of them.”

Shannon had no idea what the town bylaws said about fences, but Ben had once served on the zoning board. If he thought snow fencing might be a problem, he wouldn’t have suggested it. Besides, it was past the middle of October. No one who came down this road at this time of year would be bothered by snow fencing. Those with more delicate sensibilities had mostly gone home. “I’ll see what I can do,” said Shannon, turning back toward her interrupted labor.

“I intend to communicate this to the conservation commission,” the woman called after her.

“You do that,” Shannon muttered, not quite audibly. She heard the staccato whack whack whack of the woman’s cane on the asphalt. The car door opened and slammed shut. A moment later the engine rumbled. Shannon zip-tied the snow fencing to the new post and set about pounding the next one into the ground.

My Voice! Where’s My Voice?

There’s a lot of gobbledygook out there about “the writer’s voice,” also known as “the author’s voice.” Writers worry about finding their voice, and about not finding it, and about not knowing whether they’ve found it or not.

Copyeditors worry about interfering with the author’s voice, often without being too clear on what an author’s voice is, what a particular author’s voice sounds like, and when it’s OK to mess with it.

Agents and acquisitions editors often claim that it’s the writer’s voice that lifts a manuscript from the slush pile and into the elite ranks of the Traditionally Published. What exactly do they mean by that?

When I hear writers talk about finding their voices, this is the image that comes to mind: "His Master's Voice."

When I hear writers talk about finding their voices, this is the image that comes to mind: “His Master’s Voice,” the voice coming out of the record player. Where the hell did my voice go? Who’s talking?

Time to cut through the obfuscation and mystification. Your writer’s voice isn’t something you find, like the prize at the end of a treasure hunt or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s something you develop on the journey.

If you’re writing in English, you start with pretty much the same rules and conventions as everybody else. The way you use, abuse, ignore, and stretch those rules and conventions will be influenced by the things you choose to write about, the audience(s) you’re writing for, your traveling companions, the places you pass through and sojourn in, and so on and on.

Think about it: Our speaking voices are flexible. We can whisper or we can shout. The foul-mouthed among us can clean up our language when we’re in polite company or interviewing for a job. Our writing voices can be likewise.

In some kinds of writing, the writer’s individual voice takes a back seat. News reporting, technical writing, scientific writing, the writing in textbooks and legal documents: these don’t generally show much personality. They’re not supposed to. They’re supposed to communicate clearly and, often, concisely. The writers write and the editors edit with this in mind. It takes tremendous skill to do this well.

Note, however, that some lawyers and academics write novels, journalists write memoirs, business people write poetry, and scientists write essays for the popular press. The novels don’t sound like legal briefs, the memoirs don’t sound like front-page news stories, the poems don’t sound like annual reports, and the newspaper op-eds don’t sound like scientific papers, even though they’re written by the same person.

Even though the writers are almost certainly applying the skills they’ve developed in one milieu to the writing they’re doing in another.


My malamute, Travvy, has a flexible voice. Here he is trying to persuade a tractor to move.

These writers have flexible voices that can be adapted to different kinds of writing. I know a bit about this because over the years I’ve written reviews, essays, poems, news stories, op-eds, newspaper features, short stories, one-act plays, and a novel, not to mention something like 500 blog posts. Some forms I’m more comfortable with than others, some I’m better at than others, but they’re all coming out of the same well of words, opinions, and experiences that is contained in my brain.

Flexibility is especially important for fiction writers and writers of “creative nonfiction” — which seems to mean by definition nonfiction that encourages a distinctive authorial voice. Characters speak in different voices, and all those voices come out of the writer’s head.

The writers of memoir and travelogue often have occasion to quote actual people. This requires first the ability to listen attentively and then the ability to translate the other person’s voice onto the printed page. Sometimes this means putting words in the other person’s mouth that the other person never said. If the other person is dead or fictitious, he or she won’t sue for libel — but astute readers often know when a character steps out of character. When the lapse is obvious enough, the reader may lose confidence in the character, the story, and the author.

My editorial diet is similarly varied. Most of it is nonfiction, but it ranges from scholarly books and dissertations to memoirs, essay collections to book-length works by journalists. Most of the novels I edit are stand-alones: they aren’t part of a series, and they don’t belong to a recognizable genre. Each genre and kind of writing has its own conventions and its own objectives, and in most cases some flexibility is allowed — even encouraged.

In the early pages and chapters — I work primarily on book-length works — I listen for the author’s voice. Sometimes it’s distinctive; often it’s fairly subtle. I notice the words and constructions that the author is particularly fond of. These are perfectly OK in themselves, but used to excess they can become cloying. Some authors (like me) like long sentences and write them well, but that doesn’t mean that the occasional long sentence doesn’t get tangled enough to trip even a careful reader up.

I do this pretty much without thinking. If you asked me at the end of a job to describe the author’s voice, I’d have a hard time doing it — until I went back with a more analytical eye and identified the various components that make up the author’s style. As a result, I can be a little suspicious when agents, acquisitions editors, and writing teachers go on and on about the importance of that mystical, mystifying entity, “the writer’s voice.”

A few weeks back, though, I was reminded of just how important a writer’s voice can be. A writer I didn’t know asked me to critique his just-completed novel. Like many another editor upon receiving a similar request, I was wary. Most such manuscripts turn out to need serious work before they become publishable, or even readable. “Serious work” translates into serious time, which means serious money. The writer doesn’t have it, or doesn’t want to spend it, and I can’t afford to work for nothing.

So I asked to see a chapter or two. I was already bracing myself for frustration.

Then I started reading. Sure, the punctuation needed work and some of the word choices were a little off, but it was clear almost immediately that the author was one hell of a storyteller and that he had one hell of a story to tell.

Send me the whole thing, I said.

Since then that storyteller’s voice has conjured scenes I couldn’t imagine, taken me places I didn’t want to go, and made me laugh at the same time. This voice isn’t my voice, but it’s so strong and distinctive that I’ve had no trouble slipping inside it and hearing it while I meddle with the punctuation, rearrange the occasional sentence, and ask questions about things that aren’t clear.

Editing doesn’t get much better than this.

When this novel makes it into print, you will hear about it. I promise.


People Talking

People talking. Dialogue. Here’s what the American Heritage Dictionary (online) has to say about it:

1. a. A conversation between two or more people. b. A discussion of positions or beliefs, especially between groups to resolve a disagreement.
2. a. Conversation between characters in a drama or narrative. b. The lines or passages in a script that are intended to be spoken.

Here we’re mainly concerned with #2, but as you’ll see, #1 is also important, especially #1a.

Writers of technical and scholarly material may not have to bother with dialogue. They can write papers and whole books in which people don’t talk to each other. For fiction writers, memoirists, and writers of nonfiction of a more personal kind, dialogue is almost indispensable. It also comes in handy for journalists and academics who incorporate interviews with real people into their work. They don’t make the dialogue up, but it takes skill and sensitivity to make effective use of it.

I say “almost indispensable” because it’s definitely possible to write a story, a personal essay, or even a novel or book-length memoir with no dialogue in it. But think of all the wonderful things that good dialogue can do:

  • It moves the story forward.
  • It reveals character, and the relationships between characters.
  • It breaks up the text so the reader isn’t confronted by a wall of print on every page.

Don’t discount this last one. Page after page of solid, often lengthy paragraphs can make a book look pretty forbidding. That’s one reason good writers, editors, and designers of technical manuals and academic books use paragraph breaks, headings, illustrations, and other graphic devices to break up their pages.

Listen to people talk. Eavesdrop shamelessly but be discreet. Think twice about writing things down. (Recording people without their consent is definitely unethical and possibly illegal. Don’t do it.) You don’t need the exact words. Pay attention to tone, facial expression, body language.

Listen to the voices talking in your head.

Pay particular attention to conversations where one person is trying to persuade another of something, or trying to get that person to do something.

If you have an opportunity to watch an improv troupe at work, in person or online, use it.

Read everything you write out loud. Especially dialogue. Try it this way and that way till the reader is likely to hear it the way you do.

Lesson #1: The dialogue in novels, memoirs, and even plays sounds real, but it doesn’t sound the way real people talk. Real conversations meander all over the place. Often they never get to the point — or they do, but it’s not obvious what the point is. Sometimes the point is just to keep silence at bay. Sometimes it’s to keep another person from talking.

Lesson #2: Wonderful, vivid dialogue can be crafted from this raw material. Some writers take to it naturally, others have to work harder at it — but it’s like most things to do with writing: the more you practice, and the more observant you are, the better you’ll get at it.

A couple of my previous blog posts deal with dialogue. See “Of Dots and Dashes” and “Editing Workshop, 1.” Both focus on punctuation, which is an essential tool in shaping dialogue.

So — have you got any bits of dialogue that are giving you trouble? Other Write Through It readers can learn from your questions — and from the bits that work especially well too. Send them along using the contact form below.

Got Dialogue?

I use a lot of dialogue in my fiction. I’m pretty good at it. (My writers’ group says so. <g>) I’m planning to blog about it in the not-too-distant future, and probably more than once, so here’s a request:

If you’ve got a short (say 50–75 words) snippet of dialogue that you’d like feedback on, send it along. Use the comment form in this post or the one in Got a Question? above. They both go to the same place. If you like, I’ll include a link to your blog or website along with your question, but if you prefer to remain anonymous, that’s fine too.

Editing Workshop, 1

bedbugged coverAuthor Susan Kroupa has several good questions about her almost-done novel in progress. All of them are about punctuating dialogue, which presents some challenges not generally encountered in straight narrative. (The novel is the fourth in Susan’s Doodlebugged mystery series, about the adventures of Doodle, a bedbug-hunting Labradoodle; Molly, his 10-year-old human cohort; and Josh Hunter, Molly’s father, who needs all the patience he can get. A must for dog-loving mystery readers and mystery-loving dog people!)

Where to put the period?

She’s the type of person Miguel, my old trainer, calls a “charmer”. Or a “charmer.”

My dad likes to say that the certification means he’s not ‘just some guy with a business license and a dog’.”
Or “. . . and a dog.'”

This is a point where American English (AmE) differs from British English (BrE). In AmE, periods and commas nearly always go inside the close quotation marks, both single and double. Even when the element enclosed in quotes is something less than a complete sentence. So:

She’s the type of person Miguel, my old trainer, calls a “charmer.”

Same deal with the “My dad” sentence. Notice, however, that this sentence is missing something. See it?

My dad likes to say that the certification means he’s not ‘just some guy with a business license and a dog.'”

Single quote marks are used for quotations within quotations. (BrE does the opposite: the primary quotation is set off with single quote marks, the quotation within with doubles.) The period is followed by both a close single quote and a close double quote. This means that somewhere in the preceding copy there should be both an open double quote and an open single quote. This sentence has an open single quote mark — but no open double. This sentence has been lifted from its context, so the missing open double quote mark is probably in an earlier sentence, but I’m going to ask Susan to check to make sure.

By the way — if I were copyediting, I’d suggest losing the quote marks around “charmer.” They aren’t wrong, but they aren’t necessary either. They do come in handy with distinctive phrases. If Miguel habitually called this type of person a “two-faced charmer,” I’d keep the quotes.

With the stronger terminal punctuation marks, question marks and exclamation points, placement is a little more complicated. Does the question mark or exclamation point go with the quoted bit? If so, it goes inside the close quote. If not, it goes outside. Here’s a variation on Susan’s first sentence:

Would Miguel call her a “charmer”?

The question mark applies to the whole sentence, not just “charmer,” so it goes outside the quote marks. Here’s an example of the opposite:

As a child she was taught to greet grownups with “How do you do?”

The whole sentence isn’t a question, but the quoted bit — “How do you do?” — is. So here the question mark goes inside the close quote.

Exclamation points work the same way. Imagine that the dad in Susan’s second sentence has been accused of being “just some guy with a business license and a dog.” He might reply, “I am not ‘just some guy with a business license and a dog’!” The exclamation point goes inside the double close quotes because the whole reply is an exclamation. (He’s a little miffed at the suggestion.) But it goes outside the single close quote because that quoted bit isn’t an exclamation.

How to write stuff the way people say it

“Find it on our website, states of affairs slash low down news dot com.”
Or add dashes between the words? This is being heard over the radio.

In writing it’s a no-brainer: the URL is statesofaffairs/ Actually that doesn’t look quite right to me — did I say I’ve been learning Dreamweaver in my spare time? would be more like it, or, or The domain name comes first, and the folders follow the slash.

But I digress. The challenge is to translate something written into something oral, using the written word to do it. Writers and editors have various opinions on this. Some think that numbers should always be spelled out in dialogue because we can’t pronounce numbers. And some numbers, notably those dealing with money and time, can be pronounced in different ways. How does a character pronounce “10:45”? “Ten forty-five” or “quarter to eleven” or “a quarter of eleven”? How does he say he’s got $6.35 in his pocket? “Six thirty-five” or “six dollars thirty-five” or “six bucks and thirty-five cents”? If you hear a character saying it a certain way, by all means spell it out. That way your readers will be more likely to hear it the same way.

But suppose my character says, “My dog was born in twenty-oh-eight.” I don’t know about you, but I have to look twice at that to realize it’s a year. I had the same problem with “states of affairs slash low down news dot com”: It didn’t say “URL” to me till I’d screeched to a halt and gone “Huh?” Verisimilitude is nice, but not if it makes things unnecessarily hard for the reader. So my character would say “My dog was born in 2008” and Susan’s newscaster would say “Find it on our website, statesofaffairs/” — after checking to make sure that the bogus URL has the syntax of a real one.

Dashing dialogue

I use dashes a lot and am uncertain whether this structure for quotes and dashes is correct:
“Absolutely. I have my reputation to think about. With the public—” she meets her son’s eye—“and with you.”

Dashes are a handy way to work body language, intonation, or thoughts into dialogue. Both dashes can go inside the quotation marks or both dashes can go outside. This sample has one inside and one outside. One of them needs to be moved — but which one? Depends on how Susan hears the dialogue, and how she wants her readers to hear it.

#1: “Absolutely. I have my reputation to think about. With the public—” she meets her son’s eye “—and with you.”

#2: “Absolutely. I have my reputation to think about. With the public”—she meets her son’s eye—“and with you.”

What’s the difference? In #1, the dash inside the quotation marks suggests that there’s a pause in the speaking. In #2, the speech itself isn’t interrupted, so she’s meeting her son’s eye (or “eyes”?) while she’s speaking.

Note that in conventional AmE typography the em dash is usually set solid (i.e., without extra space) to whatever precedes and follows it. Hence there’s no space around “she meets her son’s eye” in #2 but there is in #1.

Also note that if you’re using “smart” or curly quotes, dashes often fool automated typesetting systems into making the quote marks go in the wrong direction: the system thinks that a quote mark following a dash has to be a close quote, but as you can see in #2, this often isn’t true.

Got a question about editing, writing, or how to keep going? Ask away! There’s a contact form on the You! page. See the menu bar at the top of this page.


Of Dots and Dashes

Dashes and ellipses. Many editors don’t like them. Dashes and ellipses take up space. They call attention to themselves. And they’re often overused: writers may resort to dashes and ellipses when they can’t figure what else to do.

But dashes and ellipses are handy critters. Used with care, they’ll help you shape your writing to say what you want and sound the way you want it to.

First off, what are they?

An ellipse consists of three periods in a row. (In British English, periods are called full stops.) Like this: . . .

There’s a space between the dots, and one at each end. What your word-processing program calls an ellipsis looks like this: … No spaces between the dots. If you want to score brownie points with your editors and your more discerning readers, don’t use this shortcut. Type dot-space-dot-space-dot.

The ellipsis serves an important purpose in academic and other nonfiction: when you’re quoting from another source and you want to abridge the quote, the ellipsis is used to indicate where words have been left out. Say I wanted to quote the second sentence in the second paragraph of this post but not all of it: “Used with care, they’ll help you shape your writing to say what you want and sound the way you want it to.”

I’d render it thus: “Used with care, they’ll help you shape your writing to . . . sound the way you want it to.”

Important resources for learning more about ellipses, dashes, and other stuff

Important resources for learning more about ellipses, dashes, and other stuff

Aside: Leaving words and whole sentences out of quoted material can distort and misrepresent the original author’s intent. Use ellipses with care. For more about this use of the ellipsis, consult your favorite style and grammar handbook.

In fiction and non-scholarly nonfiction, the ellipsis indicates a trailing off. Words are being omitted not because they’re being dropped from a quotation but because they aren’t being said.

Here’s a snippet from my novel in progress. Giles and Shannon are friends. Wolfie and Pixel are dogs. Giles is meeting Wolfie for the first time.

Giles was pointing at Wolfie. “Who, or what, is that?”

“This is Wolfie,” said Shannon. “I told you about Wolfie.”

“You did,” Giles conceded, “but I wasn’t prepared . . .” He fluttered his fingers at Pixel, who was lying in the hallway paying close attention.

Giles doesn’t complete his sentence. He shifts his focus — and the reader’s — from Wolfie to Pixel. The reader doesn’t know what Giles was about to say or why he didn’t say it.

In dialogue the dash, in contrast to the ellipsis, indicates an interruption. Here’s an example from later in the same scene. Giles and Shannon are both artists. They’re looking at a wall mural in Shannon’s house.

With his coffee mug Giles indicated a long line across the middle distance. “What this wall needs,” he pronounced, “is some movement.”

“Thank you, Mr. Picasso,” Shannon said. “You could just stand there and direct traffic —” She stopped short. “Aha!” she said, setting her coffee down and joining Giles at the wall.

Shannon interrupts herself. Dashes can also be used when characters interrupt each other. An interrupted sentence sounds different from one that trails off. It’s like the difference between walking into a door because you didn’t see it and slowing down before you get there.

Dashes have other uses too. Like commas and parentheses, they often come in pairs. Note my sentence above:

He shifts his focus — and the reader’s — from Wolfie to Pixel.

The dashes could be replaced by either commas or parentheses:

He shifts his focus,  and the reader’s, from Wolfie to Pixel.

He shifts his focus (and the reader’s) from Wolfie to Pixel.

Or the punctuation could be dropped altogether:

He shifts his focus and the reader’s from Wolfie to Pixel.

I chose dashes on the fly because I heard “and the reader’s” as a very slight detour, a stepping-back from the sentence before following it to the end. If I revise the sentence (which I probably won’t — this is a blog after all!), I might consider the alternatives. Set off by commas, “and the reader’s” is more fully integrated into the sentence, but not as fully as it would be with no punctuation at all.

Set off by parentheses, it becomes an afterthought, as in “Why include it at all?” When I put something in parens, it’s often because I have a sneaking suspicion it doesn’t need to be there but I can’t bear to delete it. The parens are there till I muster the nerve to yank it out.

Now take another look at the paragraph just before the preceding one. There’s a sentence in there that includes a dash and an exclamation point and parentheses all bundled up together. Am I going to warn you “Don’t do this at home”? I am not. I’m going to say “Try it. See if it works. If it doesn’t, try something else.”


Location, location, location!

It’s not just about real estate. For writers it’s also about where you place the words, phrases, and clauses that make up your sentence.

English is wonderfully flexible in oh so many ways. Sentences don’t have to follow the same subject-verb-object pattern. The same word can change the meaning of a sentence depending on where it’s placed. Here’s a simple example, using “only”:

Only she would eat coffee ice cream for breakfast.

She would eat only coffee ice cream for breakfast.

She would eat coffee ice cream only for breakfast.

Phrases and clauses can mean different things depending on where they’re placed in a sentence. I do much of my copyediting for trade and university presses. The authors of the manuscripts I edit are a generally experienced, accomplished lot. They know what they’re doing. When a sentence brings me screeching to a halt, it’s often because a phrase or a clause either creates ambiguity or gives the wrong impression altogether. The phrase or clause itself is fine: it’s just in the wrong place.


Recently I copyedited a biography whose author had a penchant for dropping short phrases in between subjects and their verbs. An example: “Smith, at times, tried to relax.”

Mind you, this isn’t wrong. Sometimes sticking a phrase between subject and verb yields exactly the shading and cadence you want. In general, though, proximity strengthens the connection between two parts of a sentence, and usually we want our subjects clearly and closely connected to their verbs. More to the point, this particular author was splitting up subjects and verbs so often that I suspected a literary tic — one of those habits writers get into without realizing it. So I made it “At times, Smith tried to relax.”

If you deal in dialogue or quoted material, where you place the attribution — whatever you’re using to identify the speaker — can make a big difference in how readers  read/hear the text. “He said,” “she said,” and all the rest function like punctuation. They can create a pause or emphasize a phrase or group a string of phrases together. Here’s a random example from my novel in progress. Matthew is a four-year-old being bratty in the back seat.

“That’s enough, Matthew,” said their mother, not turning around. Matthew looked surprised. “When we get home,” she promised, “I’ll put water in the play pool and you can play in it while I work in the garden.”

That last sentence could be arranged in several ways. “She promised” could come at the end, or after “play pool.” The “when” clause could come in the middle or at the end. For now I like it the way it is. (I beginning to suspect, however, that the mid-October weather is too chilly for the play pool and that Mom isn’t much of a gardener.)

Here’s a nonfiction example, adapted from the biography mentioned above:

“The big issue of the campaign,” stated Williams, “will be security.”

Coming upon this sentence, my immediate reaction was that putting the attribution in the middle weakened the connection between the subject and the object — when “big issue = security” is the whole point of the statement. So I moved it to the beginning:

Stated Williams, “The big issue of the campaign will be security.”

Again, the original isn’t wrong, but the edited version is stronger. (The author liked it better too.)

The lovely flexibility of English makes it possible to construct sentences that are perfectly grammatical but that either don’t say what the writer meant to say or make it unclear what the writer did mean to say. Here’s an example. The author is writing about the New Deal.

The Republican resurgence in the elections of 1938 and 1942 spawned a congressional counterattack against FDR’s domestic agenda which saw such agencies as the National Youth Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps vanish amidst the exigencies of war.

Huh? thought I. FDR’s domestic agenda killed the NYA and CCC? On second reading, I realized that no, it was the congressional counterattack that helped do the agencies in. The “exigencies of war” evidently had something to do with it, but “amidst” was vague about what. And was the congressional counterattack just sitting on the sidelines watching all this happen?

As a writer, I know that ambiguity can be intentional, but in a history book it’s generally not a plus. I didn’t see a way to move the “which” clause closer to “counterattack” without making a big snarly mess, so I broke the sentence in two:

The Republican resurgence in the elections of 1938 and 1942 spawned a congressional counterattack against FDR’s domestic agenda. That, along with the exigencies of war, caused the demise of such agencies as the National Youth Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps.

Because the original was somewhat ambiguous and because my edit made the cause-and-effect relationship more explicit, I flagged it with a query to the author: “OK?” It was.


Finally, here’s an instance where a very capable writer didn’t realize that the words weren’t saying quite what he meant to say. The question was whether Jones (not his real name) was “the right man for the job in China, which required more diplomatic finesse and fewer prejudices than he was capable of.”

Jones was fairly riddled with prejudices, and being capable of more wouldn’t have made him the right man for the job. The writer knew that; the problem was the word order. The fix was easy: I swapped “diplomatic finesse” and “fewer prejudices” and voilà, the question now was whether Jones was “the right man for the job in China, which required fewer prejudices and more diplomatic finesse than he was capable of.”