Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Prepositional Preponderance

Sandy Tritt

As writers and editors, we continually study the language and find ways, both new and old, to write better. One way we can make our writing sharper is to limit the number of prepositions we use. Now, that is not to say prepositions are bad. They are not. We need them. They often give us additional information such as where something takes place or how something happens. But what is bad is when a sentence is so full of prepositions that we need a road map to find our way through it.

First, it’s important to identify prepositions. Somewhere during the middle years of our education, we memorized a huge list of prepositions. To help jar that memory, here’s a short list of the more popular prepositions:


For a full list, you can visit one of the many websites devoted to this topic, such as or Do be aware: just because a word appears on the list does not mean it is always a preposition. Some words (such as “but”) sometimes act like prepositions and sometimes act like a different part of speech, such as a conjunction. So, it’s important not to memorize the list, but to recognize prepositions because of the way they behave. How do they behave, you ask? They add information. They tell us where or when or how.

A prepositional phrase is a phrase that begins with a preposition and includes the added detail that follows it. The detail usually comes in the form of a noun, pronoun, or gerund. Sometimes an adjective or other modifier will modify the noun. So, a prepositional phrase looks like this: at the store; before the storm; until it rains; while the sun is shining.

So, let’s get to how using prepositions—or, more specifically, NOT using prepositions—can make your writing sharper. As an editor, we are trained to keep our eyes open for anything that sucks the power out of prose. If you’ve looked over the tip sheets available on our website, you’ll know we preach against the overuse of a lot of things—adjectives, adverbs, ellipses, em-dashes, exclamation marks, italics, unnecessary words, etc., etc. One thing—at least, as of this date—we haven’t complained about is the preponderance of prepositions. But recently I’ve noticed overuse of prepositions in both fiction and nonfiction. And overusing prepositions creates long, boring sentences. Take this one, for example:

I sat at the pool at Stacy’s house under the umbrella with red stripes with Sherry from Grantsville until the clock beneath the awning of the clubhouse showed dinnertime.

Yuck! Just for fun, how many prepositions can you find in that sentence? Go ahead and count them. Here’s what I found: at, at, under, with, with, from, until, beneath, of. Nine!

So, how can we write this better? First, we look for ownership. How many times did we use a prepositional phrase instead of using a possessive? I’m seeing three times. If the pool is at Stacy’s house, we can probably assume it’s Stacy’s pool. So, we can cut at Stacy’s house and make this Stacy’s pool. If we’re under the umbrella with red stripes, why can’t we just say the red-striped umbrella? Another preposition cut. And then there’s always that pesky of. Of is unnecessary when it’s used to show ownership, such as in this case. So, we can quickly ditch it by changing the awning of the clubhouse to the clubhouse awning. We’ve cut three prepositions and now have:

I sat at Stacy’s pool under the red-striped umbrella with Sherry from Grantsville until the clock beneath the clubhouse awning showed dinnertime.

Second, we look for unnecessary details. Does it matter where the clock is located? Unless this has something to do with the story, it most likely does not. What is important is the time the clock shows, not where the clock resides. So, let’s cut beneath the clubhouse awning (or the original, beneath the awning of the clubhouse). And, really, do we need to involve the clock at all? It’s only the time that matters, not the clock. So, let’s cut the clock. Does it matter where Sherry is from? This one is tough to tell when a sentence is pulled out of context. But, more than likely, we don’t need that information.

Our sentence now looks like this:

I sat at Stacy’s pool under the red-striped umbrella with Sherry until dinnertime.

That brings us down to four prepositions: at, under, with, until.

Can we do better? Of course! If we’re with Sherry, why don’t we say, Sherry and I?

Sherry and I sat at Stacy’s pool under the red-striped umbrella until dinnertime.

Those are about all the easy fixes, and we’re down to three prepositions. According to some style guides and other advisors of good writing, we should never have more than two prepositions in a sentence (count how many prepositions are in this sentence). So, let’s see if we can cut one more. Reading this sentence, the prepositional phrase that still bothers me the most is under the red-striped umbrella. The first thing we can do is consider if this is needed information or not. If not, we can simply cut it. But if we need this information, we’ll need to rearrange the sentence. Note that rearranging can result in sentences with stronger verbs—a side-effect we can celebrate.

The red-striped umbrella shaded the pool where Sherry and I sat until dinnertime.

Wow! We’ve come a long way from our awkward original sentence. I’d still like to play with it and be more creative like saying “until the dinner bell rang” or something, but without knowing the context, it’s difficult to do those things. Still, we have a more precise sentence that’s easier on the eyes, the ears, and the brain.

Our goal in life should not be to rid ourselves of every preposition. Prepositions are essential. They provide the details and specifics we need to make sense of information. However, overusing prepositions is a serious problem and one we need to fix. We need to make it a habit to count the prepositions in our awkward sentences—and then find ways to get rid of as many as we can.

As with anything, practicing is what makes us better at identifying and finding replacements. I challenge you to:

1.      Count the prepositions in the example sentence, and
2.      Reduce the prepositions.

Put your response in a comment below, and we’ll send a set of “Comma Usage” and “Writing Wrongs” tip cards to a random commenter.

Here’s the sentence to stretch your patience—er, I mean, your writing skills:

Susan went to the dentist by the name of “Will Hurt” to have her tooth with decay pulled with forceps for extraction after she had a shot of Novocaine to anesthetize her gums around the tooth with pain.

(Hint: chronological order is a good habit).

Thursday, August 20, 2015

SPECIAL LOOK: Out of the Ashes

Sandi Rog

Last week, Charl revealed some of her early and not-so-great writing. This week, Sandi Rog addresses the flip-side of that post by giving us an excerpt from her recently published book, Out of the Ashes. The following post is taken (with permission) from Sandi’s blog Dare to Dream. You can find the original post and complete first chapter here.

The book opens with a note to my readers:

Dear Readers:

Had it not been for the Lord and the many thousands of people who prayed me through cancer, this book never would have been written. If you’re one of the people who prayed for me, thank you. Mere words aren’t enough to express my gratitude.

Having emerged back onto the writing scene after the two-year battle, and feeling rather beat up after the long fight, I needed something with a happy ending. Like a fairytale. Think Cinderella. That’s what this book is, something bright and cheerful. So, Out of the Ashes is a lighter read than my other books: The Master’s Wall, Yahshua’s Bridge, and even Walks Alone.

What a blessing it has been for me to have the strength to write Nathaniel and Amelia’s story. Thank you, precious readers, for walking with me as I dig my way out of the aftermath of this battle one step at a time. Or shall I say, one page at a time.


Sandi Rog

Book Jacket Description

A stranger. A kiss. A shotgun wedding.

NATHANIEL WARD, wealthy entrepreneur, needs a wife. But he’s not interested in the preening, high-society women who are offered to him on a silver platter. He wants one woman, and one woman alone: the girl who gave him all the money in her reticule years ago when the Great Chicago Fire left him destitute. He sets out to find this woman and discovers she’s unattached. There’s only one problem, a shotgun wedding may be able to bind them, but will he ever be able to win her heart?

AMELIA E. TAYLOR blows a kiss to a street rat. Little did she know, years later that kiss would follow her to Green Pines, Colorado. When a handsome stranger arrives in her hometown, she guards her heart from the stirrings this man ignites. Despite society’s disapproval of spinsterhood, she is determined not to marry, having witnessed first-hand the lack of love and horrors that accompany marriage. But will a shotgun wedding reveal blessings that arise out of the ashes?

Chapter One

Green Pines, Colorado, 1882

Gun smoke burned Amelia’s eyes and her ears still rang. She blinked the tears from her lashes.

“Do you, Nathaniel Ward,” the preacher scowled, “take Amelia Taylor to be your lawfully wedded wife?”

Amelia’s father cocked his rifle and aimed it at the reluctant groom.

“I do,” Nathaniel said, his voice firm and unwavering. Despite her father’s threats, Nathaniel’s very presence exuded power, his raised chin, broad shoulders and wide chest unflinching against the barrel of the rifle.

Amelia didn’t dare look up at him. What must he be thinking? How many women had hoped to get him this far, and now, here she stood where most women dreamed of standing—shotgun wedding, or not. If only she could melt into the parlor’s wooden floor like the candle burning in the nearby lamp. Or disappear like the smoke. Disappear into nothingness, with no remnant left of her existence.

“Do you, Amelia Taylor, take Nathaniel Ward to be your lawfully wedded husband?” The preacher’s words rushed over Amelia like a gush of foul air.

She stood paralyzed, unable to speak. She’d vowed never to marry. How would she bear this cross? She’d seen enough loveless marriages in her life to know it wasn’t worth the heartache, despite the shame of spinsterhood. And now, to be forced on a man? What miseries awaited her? Abuse? Neglect? Slavery? Any man in his right mind would despise her for the rest of his days. It would be impossible—unthinkable—to procure his affection … his love.

The minister, still in his nightclothes, cleared his throat. His wife, holding up the lantern, glowered from behind him.

Amelia swallowed, darting a glance at her terrifying father. With a snarl, he narrowed his eyes at Nathaniel and pressed closer with his rifle. Would he put another hole in the preacher’s wall? Or Nathaniel’s chest?

“Amelia, girl.” Her father’s voice sent a shudder down her spine as it echoed through the quiet house. “You know, I always keep my word.” He’d threatened to kill Nathaniel if she refused to be his wife.

“I do,” she said, her voice small and trembling, quite the opposite of the man next to her. The horror, the shame. How did her life come to this?

“I now pronounce you man and wife.” The minister slammed his Bible shut and pointed it at her father. “Now get out!”

Shadows clouded Amelia’s vision, and her legs wobbled like those of a newborn calf. Her knees buckled, but rather than landing on the hard floor, she found herself caught in Nathaniel’s strong arms.

Now her husband.

You can find Out of the Ashes on Amazon and Sandi's other works here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Believe It or Not, Editors Aren't Born Writers

Charlotte Firbank-King

A month ago—in South Africa, just to ground the reader—I had to pack up my house and studio in Port Elizabeth and relocate to Durban. In the process, I came across stuff I’d written when I was about eighteen. All the writing from my early teenage days must have been binned at some point, since, at eighteen, I was clearly past rubbish writing. I do recall being convinced that my romance novel, grandly titled, Inner Flame, was going to be a best seller—no question about that. One look at this title and you realize it doesn’t get much more purple than that. God help the poor soul who dares venture between those pages, but I can laugh at myself and did indeed go there. Let’s say it wasn’t really a venture, but rather a stumble over purple prose, a million adjectives and adverbs, and fat grammatical and spelling errors (no spellcheck back then). The head-hopping alone made my head spin.

Then I got married and nothing much happened because I was too busy breeding. I found more manuscripts, written when I was about thirty. I was clearly done with procreation, and I had a divorce under my belt. This second stab at writing was an improvement, but still no cigar for good writing.

The point of this trip into the past? Editors aren’t born writing with skill.

To be honest, if Inner Flame came across my desk now, I would probably send the writer every tutorial IFW has, including a thousand writing links on Google, and then tell them to go hide in a cave and learn to string at least one coherent sentence together before wasting their money on an editor.

Here are a few pearls from Inner Flame. I left the spelling errors in, even though MS Word kindly changed them for me. I must have been fixated on the size of the room, since I sure didn’t need full stops. This was all handwritten before I finally scored a wondrous typewriter.

Felicity walk down the wide stairs to the room below, it was a vast ball room hung extravigantly with chandeliers, the floor was glossy marble, Victorian furniture was arranged in it a large grand piano of oak stood at the far end of the room like a majestic queen of furniture, heavy curtains of deep red velvet adorned massive windows and french doors.

The chandeliers must have smiled from above to see this pink whisp of a girl almost float accross the huge room, she might have been a thistledown in a field for all she compared in size to the room.

Here is another gem:

Felicity was a long time in falling asleep, she lay between the soft linen sheets staring out of huge windows at the moon, clouds drifted like silver ships across her face, as round as a disc.

I could go on, but I would hate to hear a reader had died from laughing. The head-hopping examples of my eighteen year-old brilliance will take too much space, so I won’t bore you with those pearls of delight. You will just have to trust me that they’re there with oak-leaf clusters.

I now challenge our other editors to expose their badly-written-gems’ bellies to the public.

Surely, if we once wrote this poorly, there’s hope for you. If you need help bringing your writing up to the next level, email us at Besides simply editing your work, we explain why we’ve made the suggestions we make so you learn as you go. Need even more help? We offer coaching, which is a personalized tutoring service that teaches you the things we’ve learned over the years. One client told us she learned more from one of our edits than an entire MFA program in creative writing. We’re here to help. All you have to do is ask.