Editing Workshop, 9: It All Starts with Sentences

I wish I could have sat my recent author down early on in his project and offered a few basic hints about sentences. He could obviously teach me a few things about organizing vast amounts of research into a reasonably coherent narrative. Structure matters even in a very short work — a letter to the editor, for instance — but in a work that runs well over a thousand pages in manuscript it’s crucial.

However (the editor said testily), you can’t create structure without sentences, and a work that runs well over a thousand pages in manuscript contains a lot of sentences. Word won’t tell me how many sentences there were in my recent copyedit, but if I take the word count, 347,179 (which doesn’t include endnotes), and divide by 15 (an arbitrary number based on a quick Google search on “average number of words in a sentence”), I get 23,145.

How to ensure that each one does its job of conveying information and moving the reader forward? This is what I would have told my author if I’d had the chance:

Sentences, like clotheslines, tend to sag in the middle.
  • Sentences tend to sag in the middle. The longer the sentence, the greater the sag. (This is also true of paragraphs.)
  • Subjects and verbs gain impact when they’re fairly close together.
  • Modifiers (adjectives, adverbs, phrases, and clauses) gain impact when they’re close to what they modify.
  • Sentences don’t exist in isolation. They link the preceding sentence to the one that follows. (This too is true of paragraphs.)

Here’s an example of a sentence that sags in the middle and in the process separates a clause from the main part of the sentence. (I’ve edited it to remove identifiable specifics.)

When the issue concerned civil liberties—“the problem is a thorny one,” Mr. X wrote, and it was being emphasized by [several individuals whom X doesn’t like], and even [a colleague] (who saw him “as an obstructionist”)—X’s pique rose.

The important point here is that X got pissed off when the issue of civil liberties came up, but what comes between the beginning and end of the sentence is so long and involved that it’s easy to lose the connection. What comes between the em dashes really belongs in a separate sentence. This is what I came up with:

When the issue concerned civil liberties, X’s pique rose. “The problem is a thorny one,” he wrote, and what’s more, it was being emphasized by [several individuals whom X doesn’t like], and even [a colleague] (who saw him “as an obstructionist”).

Here’s a shorter example, taken from a longer sentence about a political campaign:

Accompanied by numerous local officials and party leaders, she stumped across the city, charming nearly all, according to the reporters in tow, whom she encountered.

Is there any good reason to impose such distance between “whom she encountered” and the “nearly all” that it clearly modifies? I don’t think so. “According to the reporters in tow” belongs at the end of the sentence: “. . . charming nearly all whom she encountered, according to the reporters in tow.” In this version “whom,” though correct, could be safely dropped: “charming nearly all she encountered.”

I surmise from the original that the author thought it was important to provide a source for the assertion that this woman charmed all she encountered; otherwise he wouldn’t have stuck “according to the reporters in tow” in such a prominent place. It serves its purpose at the end of the sentence, but it might also be safely relegated to an endnote.

Like many biographies, my copyedit included many quotations and even dialogue constructed from journals, letters, and notes taken at meetings. Books have been written about how to write effective dialogue, and I’ve blogged about it more than once, but here’s an example of how sentence structure matters in dialogue.

An indispensable tool for shaping dialogue is the tag — the short bit, often no more than a subject and a verb, that attributes the words to a speaker. I think of tags as a sort of punctuation: where you put them influences how the reader hears what the speaker is saying. My author’s penchant for dropping phrases and clauses into awkward places carried into his placement of dialogue tags. Consider this one:

“I thought,” he later said, “I was dying.”

“I thought I was dying” is a dramatic statement, and here it comes at the end of an extended scene that makes it clear that the speaker had excellent reason to believe he was dying. But here the dialogue tag undermines the impact of that short, strong sentence. So I suggested putting it at the end.

The author sometimes does the same trick where dialogue isn’t involved, as here:

At the station, for the first time, Richard held his eight-month-old daughter.

This fellow is just back from extended wartime service. (As it happens, he’s the same guy who thought he was dying in the previous example.) In other words, this scene is as dramatic in its way as the one in which he thought he was dying — and “for the first time” interrupts the visual image. It’s significant, but not as significant as the picture of a young man seeing his first child for the first time. Move it to the end of the sentence and all is well.

One last example:

The project soon fell through, in a clash of personalities and objectives.

There’s nothing wrong with this sentence as a stand-alone. My snap decision to rearrange it was due to what preceded it: a vivid description of those clashing personalities and objectives. So I turned it around: “In a clash of personalities and objectives, the project soon fell through.”

In the online editors’ groups I frequent, editors will often request help or second opinions on a particular sentence. Sometimes it’s easy to see how the sentence could be improved, but other times it depends on what comes before and what comes after.

When you’re editing, you make most of these decisions on the fly. When you’re writing, you can usually take time to try out various alternatives and decide what works best. (If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know I’m a big fan of reading stuff out loud. Often it’s easier to hear the emphasis in a sentence than to see it inert on page or screen.)

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Got a question about sentences, punctuation, usage, or anything else editorial? Either leave it in the comments or use the contact form on the menu bar up top — click on, you guessed it, “Got a Question?”

Why Are We So Horrible to Each Other Online?

This historian Heather Cox Richardson posted this question as a hypothetical and invited responses. As often happens, I realized that my response was the rough draft of a blog post, and because it’s about written communication, this is the blog it belongs in. I have, of course, messed with it a bit. 😉

Aside: If you have any interest in U.S. history and/or the current U.S. political situation and you aren’t already following HCR’s Letters from an American, you should. As a subscriber, I can blather in the comments, but you can read it for free. You can find it in your inbox almost every morning. Also for free, you can listen to the podcast Now and Then, which she recently started with sister historian Joanne Freeman on the Vox/Cafe network.

Well, in my experience plenty of people aren’t horrible to each other online, and “online” isn’t monolithic. Some online situations facilitate horrible behavior and others don’t. My hunch is that a big factor is that online we can’t see the reaction our words are having. In face-to-face (F2F) encounters we can. (Need I say that some people are capable of being horrible F2F and never regretting it.) Humans are sensitive to the physical presence of others — this is even true for those who perform before large audiences. Online we don’t have those cues. We’re posting in isolation.

I suspect that my mostly positive experience over the years on Facebook is partly due to the fact that a significant percentage of my FB friends are, like me, editors and/or writers, or they work in fields where communication is front and center, like education or health care. We pay close attention to the intended audience for what we’re writing or saying. This shapes how we say it, both the words and the tone. Most of us most of the time probably do this without thinking too much about it.

Those of us who move through different circles in the course of a day or write/edit for different audiences become adept at code-switching. I’m currently editing a book-length manuscript about the oil industry. The intended audience includes readers who know a lot about the oil industry and/or a fair amount about economics, but it also includes readers who are interested in energy politics but know little about economics or the oil company at the center of this book. Earlier this year I edited (1) a travel memoir focused on the Adriatic, and (2) a memoir that combines personal history with African-American history and women’s experience into a hard-to-describe whole. I’m here to tell you that no style guide recommendation I know of could apply to all three jobs. Too much depends on the subject at hand and the intended audience.

Consider, too, that plenty of people active online have less-than-stellar skills in written communication, period. They aren’t accustomed to speaking with people outside of their own circle either. In other words, I’m not surprised that many people are horrible to each other online. This makes me value all the more the skills I’ve developed as an editor.

Over the decades I’ve learned to pay close attention not just to individual behavior but to the underlying systems that shape it. Since I joined Facebook 10 years ago and Twitter last year (I held out for a long time, and on the whole I don’t think I’ve missed much), I’ve noticed a big difference between them and the e-groups I’ve been part of since the late 1990s. Part of it has to do with effective moderation (on Facebook and Twitter there effectively isn’t any), but even more it has to do with structure. The structure of social media makes it hard to have anything close to a conversation or discussion. The comment threads move in one direction only. Subthreads surface here and there, but they’re mostly ephemeral.

If you take umbrage at what someone else has posted, it is very hard to ask that person what s/he meant. Since we generally know very little about the person whose post we’re pissed off at, misunderstandings are inevitable, and it’s much easier to fire back a rejoinder than to ask for clarification.

And we’ve learned that Facebook et al. ❤ this. Their algorithms privilege posts that inspire immediate reactions — emojis and sharing — not those that encourage temperate speech and clarification. As writers and editors we know how much communication benefits from the ability to step back for a few minutes (or hours, or days). Social media do not encourage this.

The short version? As writers, editors, and other word people we know that communication is possible across political, regional, ethnic, and all sorts of differences. We know that we have the skills to help it happen. But social media does not make it easy. I hope it doesn’t make it impossible.

Editing Workshop, 6: Parallelism

Chances are you’ve been told at least once by an editor, a teacher, or another writer that “this construction isn’t parallel.” Or someone has scrawled “faulty parallelism” in the margin of your manuscript or in a comment on your Word file.

This is shorthand for straying from, as Words Into Type puts it, “the principle that parts of a sentence that are parallel in meaning should be parallel in structure.”

Faulty parallelism comes in an daunting array of varieties. It can involve nouns, verbs, phrases, clauses, and whole sentences. It’s easiest to spot in a list, like this one:

These tips might help you complete a long writing project:

  • Schedule a specific time for writing.
  • Write even when you don’t feel inspired.
  • No distractions.

The first two elements are imperative verbs. The third has no verb at all. This is an easy fix: make the third element parallel to the first two by adding a verb. “Avoid distractions”? “Ignore distractions”? “Resist distractions”? It’s your call.

Faulty parallelism can be harder to spot in a sentence, especially a long, complex sentence — which is exactly where parallelism tends to go off the rails, so to speak. The list above can be turned into a sentence: “To complete a long writing project, schedule a specific time for writing, write even if you don’t feel inspired, and no distractions.” The sentence is short enough to make it pretty clear that something’s wrong.

The longer the sentence, the harder it can be to keep track of its parts. Here’s where the ability to diagram sentences can be very helpful. If you didn’t learn it in school or have forgotten how, plenty of websites out there can give you the basics, including “How to Diagram Sentences” on WikiHow.

It happens often enough that the parallelism is faulty but the meaning is still clear. I encounter many sentences like this one: “She let the dog in, gave him his supper, and then they went for a walk.” It sets off to be a series of three verbs with the subject “she,” but then the subject changes. What we’ve actually got here is two independent clauses, the first of which has two verbs, the second of which has one: “She let the dog in and gave him his supper, and then they went for a walk.”

I sometimes feel a little pedantic inserting the conjunction, because the meaning is clear, but often enough the meaning isn’t clear, or the sentence can be interpreted in more than one way. The other day I came across a doozy in a nonfiction book I’m copyediting. In this example, I’ve changed the details but retained the structure of the original. The original subject was a man who never wrote a best-selling novel and didn’t go to Spain either.

Mindy Moore had not begun to think about traveling to Spain, still less write her best-selling novel.

See the problem? There are three verbs in the first part of the sentence — “begun,” “think,” and “traveling” — and it’s not obvious which one “write” is meant to be parallel with. Keeping in mind that even very good writers occasionally mess up our verb tenses, you could read this in (at least) three ways, some of which might not be accurate.

  • Mindy Moore had not begun to think about traveling to Spain, still less written her best-selling novel. (“Written” is parallel with “begun”: “Mindy had not begun . . . and had not written . . .” If this were the intended meaning, I would probably insert “yet” before “begun” to make it even clearer.)
  • Mindy Moore had not begun to think about traveling to Spain, still less to write her best-selling novel. (“To write” is parallel with “to think,” meaning that Mindy hadn’t begun either to write her best-selling novel or to think about traveling to Spain.)
  • Mindy Moore had not begun to think about traveling to Spain, still less about writing her best-selling novel. (“Writing” is parallel to “traveling,” meaning that Mindy hadn’t even begun to think about writing her best-selling novel.)

Context gave me no clue about which of the three options was intended, but my gut said it was probably #2 because it was the easiest to clarify: add the “to” to show that “to write” was an infinitive and therefore parallel with “to think.” So I added the “to,” but I also queried the author and explained the other options. He’s the only one who knows for sure what he intended and what was in the subject’s head.

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Got an editorial question or comment? Send it in on this form, or use the one in the “Got a Question?” tab at the top of this page.

Questions, Anyone?

Got a question or comment about editing or writing? Send it along! Here’s a handy-dandy form to make it easy. You can also find one up on the menu bar. Both of them go to the same place.

When I started this blog, I hoped it would be at least partly driven by questions and comments from other writers and editors. I’ve got plenty of experience packed in my head, but where to start, where to start? What I’m loving most about this A–Z Challenge is the way it helps me focus on a specific topic and carry on from there.

In the online editors’ groups I’m in, threads often start when an editor posts a snarly sentence that she’s not sure how to fix, or maybe asks about the usage of a particular word. Other editors will weigh in with their suggestions. Sometimes the thread will take off in a different but equally interesting direction. I can’t begin to tell how much I’ve learned about, for starters, English spoken in other countries and in different regions of the U.S., and editing in fields about which I know little or nothing.

So if you’ve got a snarly sentence, a dubious usage, or a structural problem that’s bugging you, either in what you’re writing, what you’re editing, or something you’ve read, send it along. The chances are good that whatever it is, others, including me, have dealt with it too.

The Lovely Bones: Structure In Memoir

This blog post is about writing a memoir, but as a writer whose fiction doesn’t follow a “tried-and-true” plot structure, I find its advice very helpful. Maybe you will too.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

A Halloween-themed blog post from Janice Gary:

GHOSTSYou could say I’m a ghostwriter. All memoirists are. We commune with the spirits of the past, inhabit old haunts, sift through the bones of the people we once were (and once knew) in an attempt to reanimate what was and illuminate what is.

Our ghosts are real. Or at least as real as we remember them. One thing we cannot do is make stuff up. And we don’t need to. We have more than enough material to conjure life on the page. But that’s part of the problem. What do you do with it all – all that experience, all that emotion?  What spooks those of us who write from life the most is this dilemma: how to wrangle this vast, unwieldy life of ours into a well-shaped story.

Fiction writers have the old tried and true (and yes, trite) basic plot triangle…

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Divide and Conquer (Your Prose)

This focuses specifically on blogging, but the message applies to all kinds of writing, fiction and nonfiction. In my novel in progress, the sections are scenes. Each has a beginning, middle, and end. Each links what precedes to what follows. Check out the two examples cited. They’re good.

The Daily Post

Reading, like breathing, is a continuous process that’s made up of numerous discrete acts. (If you’re like me, the same is true of eating gummy bears.) Whatever style we write in — from the most traditional to the more experimental — our job as writers is to make the experience so smooth for our readers that they don’t even notice the little seams that hold it all together.

We do this in ways both big and small. We make sure our grammar doesn’t call attention to itself (unless we want it to, like in some forms of poetry). We keep our posts clean, and their format easy on our readers’ eyes. We embrace the screen’s white space.

Dividing your text into smaller units is another way to make the reading flow and engage and push your audience onward. I’m not talking about breaking down walls of text into paragraphs — unless you’re James Joyce you’re hopefully doing this…

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