Thursday, July 29, 2010

Empower Your Sentences

By Jessica Murphy

Our writing needs not only to hook our readers, but also allow them to understand and remember its information. To do so, we need to write clear, powerful sentences. Four tips will help you write readable sentences:
  1. Put the main idea in the independent clause
  2. Put the subject and verb at the beginning of the sentence
  3. Vary sentence length
  4. Avoid double negatives

Put the Main Idea in the Independent Clause

The independent clause is the strongest part of a sentence because it is complete by itself. Along the same lines, the subject and verb are the strongest parts of the independent clause. Therefore, the most important information (the main idea) belongs here.

Take the following sentence: “If you touch that wire, it will electrocute you.” The most important information is that the wire will electrocute anyone who touches it, hence why it is in the independent clause. If we buried it in the dependent clause, then the sentence structure would not properly emphasize the important information.

Also, avoid introducing sentences with passive phrases (such as “there are” or “it is”), which delay the main idea and waste space. After all, which of the following sentences conveys the important information better:

“There is a wire that will electrocute you.”
Active: “That wire will electrocute you.”

Put the Subject and Verb at the Beginning of the Sentence

The beginning of a sentence establishes the sentence's topic. By putting the subject and verb at the beginning, you can let your readers know what to expect in the rest of the sentence. Otherwise, the delay will prevent readers from understanding the sentence and may force them to waste their time and energy rereading it:

Delayed information: “From my driveway to my front door, I was chased by wasps.”
Immediate information: “Wasps chased me from my driveway to my front door.”

This does not mean you should cut introductory phrases, which provide context: “When I mowed over their nest, the wasps chased me from my driveway to my front door.”

Vary Sentence Length

If several sentences are the same length, the monotonous rhythm will lull your readers to sleep. To fix this, vary sentence length. You can also do this to emphasize key points; following a long sentence with a short one emphasizes the latter: “As I groped in the dark, my fingertips touched something wet and hot, and the reek of copper filled my nose. Blood.” This also works with paragraph length.

Avoid Double Negatives

A double negative (e.g., "Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee") forces your readers to waste their time and effort interpreting its meaning. Instead of saying "I don't dislike vegetables," just say "I like vegetables." It saves time and effort, which will keep your readers reading.

By following these tips, you will help your readers understand and remember what you write. And that's the point of writing.

Rude, Carolyn. Technical Editing. 4th ed. Longman, 2006. 254-258, 260.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Sound Edit

One of the most important self-editing tips I can give writers is to read your work aloud.

Writing is not a visual art. It is more like a symphony than an oil painting. Words make sounds—even when read silently--and it is the way you string these sounds together that satisfies or irritates the reader.

Think about it. You probably hear many grammatical errors in conversation. You might not know the grammatical rule that defines it, but you know it sounds wrong. You have developed an ear for grammar. The same holds true for writing. Reading your work aloud will help you to develop your writer’s ear. It is a quick way to identify any problem areas.

When something doesn’t sound right, there are several things that you can try to make it work.

a) Vary the length of sentences. Short sentences can increase urgency and excitement or build tension. Long sentences will slow down the story and create a particular mood. Your ear will tell you when you need more sentence variety.

E.g. The sun had already set. He went around to the back of the house. Everything was quiet. He got his gun from the cabinet. He headed for the woods. It had to be here somewhere. He just had to keep looking. His breathing was ragged. The gun slipped in his sweaty hands.
Do you see how this rhythm is annoying after awhile? You’d better hope that something exciting happens fast or you will lose your reader. Variety is the key. Save the short sentences for a really exciting part. Even then you will only want to use a few in a row and you’ll want to vary the length a bit among them.

b) Vary sentence construction. It keeps the reader from becoming bored by the monotonous drone of several sentences with the same construction strung together.

E.g. Mike thought about what he had to do. He couldn’t do anything about the past. He could do something about now. He picked up his instrument. He walked onto the stage.

These sentences are somewhat varied in length but they all have the same simple sentence construction. The rhythm is annoying. The one caution here is to avoid starting sentences with gerunds (ing verbs) just for the sake of variety. When a sentence begins with a gerund, it means that two actions are occurring simultaneously. Eg. Singing Jingle Bells, she stirred the soup slowly. This is correct because she can sing and stir soup at the same time. Slamming the truck door, she ran to the house. These actions do not occur at the same time. She slams the door and then runs for the house.

c) Try to use complete sentences. Used sparingly, sentence fragments make writing sound more natural and can add emphasis. If overused, they become ineffective. Don’t let rules inhibit your writing but break them only if there’s a reason to do so.

d) Repetition. If used properly repetition can be powerful, but don’t fall into repetition because you are too lazy to find a synonym. Be equally wary of overusing an unusual word. Uncommon words stand out and if you repeat one of these, even with a couple of paragraphs separating them, the reader will notice.

e)Listen. Make a habit of listening to your words the way you would listen to a band rehearsal. Is something out of tune, off the beat? A sound can be inappropriate--just as laughter is a good sound in the school yard but not so good in a math test--or it can simply interrupt the rhythm of the story. Listen for things that are out of place as you read your work aloud.

It is always helpful to have another person read your work, aloud if possible. If they stumble over words, or you find them going back to re-read something because they don’t understand it, you will know there is a problem. But when you don’t have someone to share your work with or you are pressed for time, reading aloud can give you the emotional distance that it takes to find awkward spots. Taping your story and playing it back is an excellent way to find inconsistencies in your text, repeated words, dialogue confusion, switched subjects and so on that the eye misses.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


"Ten Things You Can Do To Support Your Favorite Book or Blog"

1. TALK ABOUT THE BOOK/BLOG with friends, colleagues, and contacts. Are you part of a reading group? Suggest the book be read and discussed.

2. CREATE AN EMAIL SIGNATURE with comments and a link to the book/blog. People who get your emails are apt to check out the link especially if you have known the person for a while. They will trust your suggestions.

3. WRITE A FAVORABLE REVIEW for the book at and any of the other online book seller's sites you frequent. Link this in an email signature and your own blog or enewsletter.

4. WRITE A LETTER TO THE EDITOR of the local paper or for any newsletters you receive from the groups and organizations you belong to.

5. CARRY YOUR COPY OF THE BOOK WITH YOU to the places you go. Take the opportunity to strike up a conversation about the book with people.

6. GIVE THE BOOK AS A GIFT to people you think might enjoy it.


8. ADD A LINK TO THE BOOK/BLOG WEBSITE as part of your blog or newsletters.

9. ASK THE AUTHOR FOR EXTRA POST CARDS OR BUSINESS CARDS OR BOOKMARKS and give them to friends. You can also drop them in the bills you pay.

10. WRITE SOMETHING ABOUT THE BOOK ON YOUR BLOG and provide a link to the author's website and online sources for buying the book.

These are also great ways to promote your own books!



I have way too many romance novels and other goodies collected recently at the Romantic Times Booklover's Convention in Columbus, OH in April and I'm sending them to one lucky IFW blog reader! That lucky reader could be you. All you have to do is respond to this blog or send me an email and tell me briefly why you love to read romance novels and you will be entered into the drawing for a super tote bag, novels, and goodies. DEADLINE IS JULY 31, 2010 AT MIDNIGHT. Good luck! Winner will be announced in my next blog 8/9/10.

Be well, write well,
Joy Held
"Writer Wellness, A Writer's Path to Health and Creativity", New Leaf Books, 2003.

My email:

What I'm reading right now (just finished!)
Read my review at

What are you reading???

Copyright Joy Held 2010

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Top Ten Writing Tips

by Sandy Tritt

1. Get it on paper. Once you’ve written it, you can edit it. But until your story is on paper, in black and white, you have nothing.

2. Focus. Write one sentence—yes, one sentence—that states what this manuscript is about. Once you have that, you can refer to it to know if a scene belongs in this manuscript. If a scene doesn’t support the focus statement in some way, it doesn’t belong.

3. Ground your reader at the beginning of each scene. Make sure your reader knows where the scene takes place, when the scene takes place, and who is present in the scene. If you’re using a controlled third person point of view, the first character mentioned should be the viewpoint character for that scene.

4. Know who your narrator is. If you are using the omniscient point of view, your narrator will be an invisible character who is present in every scene, but will not be any one character (although your narrator will have the ability to pop into any character’s head). If you are using a first person point of view, your narrator will be the “I” character. If you are using a controlled third person point of view, your narrator will be standing right next to your viewpoint character and will only be able to see, hear, smell, etc. what that character sees, hears, smells, etc.

5. Act it out. Yes, it’s been said over and over, but it’s still the first rule of writing. Don’t tell your reader what is happening—allow your reader to experience it through action and dialogue.

6. Use active voice. Don’t start a sentence with “there is” or “there are” or “there were” or “there was.” Doing so automatically puts you in passive voice. Instead of saying “there were seven cheerleaders at the mall,” say “Seven cheerleaders shopped at the mall.”

7. Use the strongest verbs possible. Replace “was” with “moved.” Replace “moved” with “walked.” Replace “walked” with “strolled.” Constantly search for stronger and stronger verbs. For truly, it is verbs that give a manuscript its power. Avoid adverbs—instead of saying “He walked slowly,” say “He strolled.”

8. Use an action or body language instead of dialogue tags. Challenge yourself to replace EVERY dialogue tag with an action by the character speaking. You’ll be surprised at how your story comes to life.

9. Never name an emotion. If you say, “He was angry,” you’re telling, not showing. Let us see him slam his fist on the counter. Let us feel the breeze as he storms by.

10. When in doubt, leave it out. If a sentence makes sense without “that” or “of,” leave it out. Leave out any word or phrase or paragraph or scene that is optional.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

When Characters Won't Behave

by Sandy Tritt

What if your character won't behave?

Have you ever had that problem? You've sat down and created a character, giving him or her just the right eye color, height, and family background, and then he simply refuses to do and say the things you need him to do and say. What has happened?

I'll tell you what has happened. You have achieved the ultimate success as a writer: you've brought your character to life. Not only has your character become multi-dimensional, he is exercising free will.

So, what can you do? One of two things. You'll either need to "fire" this character and move him to your "Characters for Hire" file, or you'll need to accommodate his desires and allow him to take on a different role in your story. This means you need to open your mind to the possibilities--and you may very well discover your story will take on a new dimension.

When characters mature, they become so real to us we know how they will react in any given situation--or, if they would avoid a situation altogether. "Real" characters are what make a reader stay glued to the page and want to read more. "Real" characters are what make us laugh and cry and become angry. "Real characters" are why we write--and for what we strive.

The PLAIN ENGLISH Writer's Workbook includes a section on breathing life into characters. In it, we discuss ways to bring a character to life, from the point of conception to the breath of life to emotional maturity, and offer a variety of worksheets to help you discover all the nuances of your character's personality. If you don't yet have a copy of this workbook, be sure to order it at PLAIN-ENGLISH-Writers-Workbook Even better, send your manuscript for a free sample edit. We're here for you.