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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

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From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Filtering by Category: Writing Advice

The Editing Agenda: Making Your Sentences Stronger

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

If there’s one thing that makes writing weaker than anything else, it’s those blasted filter words and passive sentences. They work their way into multiple paragraphs, sucking them dry, and before you know it, your manuscript has withered away into nothingness! Okay, not really. But they are a nuisance, and they do tend to sprout in unwanted places, making your writing less than awesome. So how do you identify filter words and passive lines, and how do you improve them?

Identifying Weak vs. Strong

Let’s start with filter words and phrases. Filter words are ones that put a veil between the reader and the character. Instead of the reader directly experiencing the action as the narrator or main character does, they hear it through a secondhand account. Many editors (myself included) will argue that the use of filter words—effectively summarization—separates the reader from the events of the story, making it harder for them to connect with the book and its characters. Many of you might recognize this as the old show, don’t tell technique.

The upside to identifying these filter phrases is there are some key words that can tip you off. Here are a few of the main ones:

  • to begin
  • to try
  • to seem
  • to start
  • to watch
  • to realize
  • to notice
  • to look
  • to feel
  • to decide
  • can/could/couldn’t
  • to know
  • to find
  • to remember
  • to be able to
  • to note
  • to let
  • to experience
  • to wonder
  • to touch
  • to gaze
  • to observe
  • to help
  • to become

These words won’t always indicate weak writing, but if you find one of these phrases or a variation of one, chances are pretty high that the sentence is in need of editing, even if it’s just to condense. To illustrate how filter words and phrases can distract the reader and overshadow an otherwise sound passage, here’s an example of a paragraph riddled with these creatures:

Jennifer WATCHED the school disappear and then closed her eyes, LETTING the scene slowly fill her head. She REALIZED just how slowly she was moving when she APPROACHED the finish line, and she FELT the air rush past her cheeks as she BECAME the first to finish. She heard the others behind her, but they were far enough away that she COULDN'T make out their words.

Now let’s take that same paragraph and reword, eliminating the filter words and strengthening each line:

As the school disappeared from view, Jennifer closed her eyes, the scene slowly filling her head. Her feet lunged toward the finish line in slow strides, and air rushed past her cheeks as the tape broke across her chest. She had done it. She’d won! The others straggled far behind, their words garbled in the wind.

Which paragraph would you rather read? Which one makes you feel more connected to Jennifer? Chances are, you picked the second paragraph. Not only is the veil lifted between the reader and the character using this method, the writing itself is clearer and more concise. Think of this technique as watching a movie versus a friend telling you about the same movie. While you can get a pretty good idea about what happened in a movie when your friend recounts it, the experience will likely be a more pleasant one if you see it firsthand. This technique also explains why first person and close third points of view have become popular in modern works of fiction—readers find it much easier to connect with those narrative styles.

Here are some additional articles I recommend for tackling filter words:

http://writeitsideways.com/are-these-filter-words-weakening-your-fiction/

http://www.invisibleinkediting.com/2013/12/23/how-to-find-filter-words-and-filter-them-out/

 

Taking the Active Approach

Another pest that may be inhabiting your paragraphs are passive sentences. Passive sentences are those in which the subject does not perform the action but rather the action is done unto them. While a few of these are okay, a manuscript filled with them can have the same effect as filter words and phrases: an unfortunate veil between the reader and your characters.

For example, let’s take this paragraph about a cake (because, you know, who doesn’t love a good cake?):

There WAS a three-tiered cake on the counter with chocolate icing. As I stepped closer and took a bite, I COULD TELL THERE WERE different flavors for each layer. The top layer HAD TO BE chocolate—my favorite. But the middle WAS much lighter in color, presumably a plain white cake. The bottom layer CONSISTED OF more chocolate cake, but it HAD BEEN FILLED with a gooey cherry filling. The cake TASTED absolutely delicious!

Apart from these lines being mostly passive and sprinkled with filter phrases, there’s little about the flavor and texture of the cake. After reading this passage, a reader might think, “Hey, cake sounds kind of good right about now.” But that’s not what we're after. We don’t want the reader to crave just any cake—we want them to crave that specific cake.

Here’s the same paragraph with active sentences, more descriptors, and fewer filter phrases:

A three-tiered cake sat on the counter, creamy chocolate icing covering every inch of its surface. As I stepped closer and popped a bite into my mouth, an array of flavors coated my taste buds. A powerful punch of fluffy chocolate cake—my favorite—created the first layer. A lighter-colored layer of plain white cake followed. An additional layer of chocolate cake lined the bottom, but a gooey cherry filling seeped through its pores, and a definite sweet-but-tart flavor danced on my tongue. Absolutely delicious!

To avoid passive sentences, I use a two-fold approach. The first task is to identify all the linking verbs and eliminate them wherever possible. The same is true for filter words and phrases. This may take a few attempts and sometimes even a considerable amount of wording, but that’s okay. If the changes make your sentences more powerful, the effort will be worth it. Once you’ve identified those and made necessary changes, go back through each line and apply some personification. This is an especially useful method for tackling descriptive paragraphs like the one above.

Though you may be skeptical that small changes like these make such a big difference to your manuscript, give it a try. It might take a considerable amount of time and rewording, but the process is well worth it. The result will be stronger sentences and an overall stronger manuscript.

10 Things 2015 Taught Me About Writing

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

A new year is now upon us, and with that comes the tradition of setting new goals and facing new challenges and achieving new victories. But I’m not quite done with 2015 yet. In fact, I’d like to think that my new year really began back in November—and it started with Nanowrimo. For those of you who haven’t heard of it yet, Nanowrimo gets a pretty mixed reputation. It’s an event where writers around the world pledge to write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. While some say that it’s a great thing, others say that encourages churning out crap stories, which some writers then seek to publish without ever revising. But whichever your stance, I think the heart of Nanowrimo, to push ourselves as writers and learn from it, really resonates with most of us. So this is my resolution for the new year: I want to use the things I learned in 2015 to make myself a better writer this year. And I want to start a new tradition of my own—an end of the year list for how I grew as a writer.

1. No more excuses. I’ve stopped making excuses for why I don’t have time to write. Yes, I’m busy. I’m a full-time stay-at-home mom of two kids under five. I also happen to be a professional editor. And believe me, there are so many things that can and do get in the way of my writing. I’ve been stopped midsentence by everything from phone calls and emails to sibling rivalries and food being thrown. But this past year, I’ve learned to prioritize. It really is that simple. If you want to be an author, you have to treat it as a career, not as a hobby. And if you want others to take your writing seriously, you have to be the first one to do so. Sometimes that means putting everything else aside or putting a few things on hold to make it happen. Being an author is all about making sacrifices and learning how to balance those things that are important to you.

2. Challenging yourself is important. Whether you participated in Nanowrimo last November or not, challenges and deadlines for writing projects will likely be something you can relate to. We’ve all had them, either for school or work or personal goals, and we all know what it feels like when we succeed in those challenges. One way to keep that positive energy and use it to improve our writing skills is by doing writing sprints. Writing sprints will force you to sit down and hammer out as many words as you can. Even if what you write is completely crap (and it likely will be as a rough draft), you’re still doing yourself a favor. You’re pushing yourself and keeping the creative juices flowing. I actually did participate in Nanowrimo for the first time this past year, and believe me, what I wrote probably is complete crap. But it was a still a massive accomplishment. I pushed myself, and as a result, I grew as a writer—and completed another short story.

3. Daily writing habits are overrated—but they still help. This has been my kryptonite for years. I love writing, and I wish I had the motivation to do so every day. But the truth is, sometimes I just don’t feel like it. And that’s fine. There will be days where you can’t write or don’t feel like writing. But the best thing you can do for yourself as a writer is still to make it a habit, even if it’s not daily. Some weeks it’ll be easy, and others it’ll be a massive struggle. But in the end, it’s still our job as writers to sit our butts in a comfy chair—perhaps with a furball or two around—and write!

4. Failure can still be a success. Did I fail in 2015? You betcha. Loads of times. I fell behind on my blog. I didn’t write every day. I took naps when I should have been working on manuscripts. I let my kids watch a few too many cartoons so I could have some extra me time occasionally. Heck, I even fell short at Nanowrimo. I barely reached 10,000 words. But I had some tremendous successes too. I made connections with other writers. I finished the first draft for part two of a short story series I’m writing. I gained loads of followers for my blog and on Twitter and even got some new subscribers to my newsletter. I finally got over my fear of reaching out to the community when it came to my writing, and I signed up for my first local author event. I’ve written more this year than I have in the past three years combined! Bottom line, I GREW as a writer. And that far surpasses any how any failure could make me feel.

5. The first draft will be crap. As an editor, I really should have known that my first drafts would be less than perfect. But somehow, I got it in my head that because I know how things should be written, I’d be able to do it myself. Boy, was I wrong. But after getting over the initial frustration of my first draft being an embarrassment to writers everywhere, I used that to fuel the editing stage. My point is, not every draft is going to be a good one—especially the first one. And that’s okay! It’s what makes us human and what makes us writers such hard workers. We write…and then we rewrite. How good your first draft is doesn’t matter nearly as much as what you do with it to make it better.

6. I don’t have to go this journey alone. If you do a quick search on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or any other social media site, you’ll find swarms of writing groups. Most of us face similar issues in our writing, and one of the most awesome perks to this century is that you don’t have to look very far for support. There have been a few writing groups that I’ve joined over the past year or two, and I can’t tell you how much help they’ve been with my journey. I’ve had more successes because of their encouragement and support than I ever would have gotten on my own. It sounds mushy, but it’s the truth. We’re stronger in numbers.

7. There are millions of writers in the world. But there’s only ONE with my voice. This has been one of the hardest lessons for me to swallow this past year. I’ve let self-doubt creep in one too many times, crumbling my piles of success. Is my story really worth sharing? Am I really a good writer? Am I even an okay writer? Coming to terms with the fact that my voice really is unique was difficult. I struggled with self-confidence for a good portion of my life, and it’s only in recent years that I’ve really started to embrace it. And then there’s the fear of swinging the other way. Do I sound too arrogant? Can I really trust others with my ideas? What I’ve come to find out is confidence actually makes your voice. If you know what you want to say and aren’t afraid to say it, others will be passionate about your ideas too. And even if someone does try to steal your plot, they’ll never be able to tell it the same way you do. Why? You’re unique. There’s only one you, and no one knows your voice better than you do.

8. Plotting and pantsing can coexist. Personally, I’m more of a plotter myself—always have been. I like order and structure, and trying to write something off the top of my head goes against my nature as an editor. But you know what? Some of the most rewarding ideas for pieces I’ve had have come from pantsing. And after doing Nanowrimo and working with a few clients who are pantsers, I have a new appreciation for that group. I started Nano with a solid outline in place and an exact idea of what I wanted to write. And that did keep me on track and pushed me forward in the piece. I never ran out of ideas for getting through the story. But as I was writing, something else took over: my inner artist. And my characters! Sometimes they told me to go in a completely different direction—and I let them. If I had be stubborn with my outline and not listened to my gut, my story would have gone stale quickly. But by letting the story take a few odd and unexpected turns, my story turned out far better than it would have otherwise. And kudos to those who can pants and churn out a whole book! You guys are seriously talented.

9. Connections are a beautiful thing. Most of us at some point or another in our lives have been assured that the connections you make early on in your life can determine where your career goes. From personal experience, I can completely vouch for that statement. But making connections isn’t a hassle like I was led to believe. It’s actually a lot of fun. I’ve never been much of a people person, but being able to connect with other writers and even a few readers this year has been incredibly rewarding. I’ve had some fun debates and discussions with other people who love books, and a few of those have led to other opportunities. Several more of them have led to new friendships, new fans, and some new great books to read. Connections don’t have to be a pain. And if they feel forced, they probably aren’t genuine.

10. Marketing is a lot harder than it looks. Before I published my first book, I thought I had the whole marketing thing figured out. I did my research, read plenty of books on marketing, and had a plan in place. I was set. But I learned pretty quickly that there’s a lot more to it than that. Marketing is an ongoing process (including the pre-publication stage!), and mastering it takes some practice. There’s a fine line between promoting your books and spamming your followers. If you go on Twitter and search the hashtags #author or #amwriting, you’ll see exactly what I mean. A lot of authors are so busy promoting their books and retweeting other authors’ promos that they neglect to actually connect with their followers. Building genuine connections with other readers and writers is probably the most powerful marketing tool you have. The lasting impression you can make by chatting with people and taking an interest in them will go a lot further than some promo you shove in their face.

For those in need of some extra encouragement for their New Year’s writing resolutions, try this: start small. Setting yourself up for an unrealistic goal will only leave you disappointed and discouraged. Set smaller, daily goals for yourself, and reward yourself when you follow through. Writing fiction is challenging. I’ve been doing most of my life, and let me tell you, while you do get better at writing, it isn’t ever a piece of cake. So don’t sell yourself short when you only write 500 or even 200 words in a day! Every success, no matter how small, will lead to you being a better writer.

What did 2015 teach you?

10 Reasons Every Fiction Writer Should Learn Technical Writing

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

If you write fiction, you might be cringing at the words technical writing, but hear me out. Though fiction and technical pieces are very different and require unique skills, they also have a remarkable amount of overlap. I’ve been writing fiction most of my life, but I’ve spent much of my career working as a technical writer. I’ve worked on brochures, manuals, newslettersyou name it. It sounds pretty drab, but there’s something beautiful to me about meticulously crafting words into an artistic yet technical document. It’s not for everyone, but I enjoy it. So why am I insisting fiction writers learn it?

1. You'll learn to write concisely. Yes, fiction writing is an art and a creative process. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a method to it. By learning to write concisely, one of the main skills of technical writing, you can learn to get your point across quickly and efficiently without filling your story with a bunch of fluff. Too much fluff, and your readers will be removed from the story and might be less likely to continue reading. Just look at all the books out there about the craft of writing fiction. If there was no method, there’d be no reason for those books.

2. You'll get better at line editing. Technical writing focuses a lot on taking apart sentences and reconstructing them, especially since you often have a limited amount of space to fit the text. That knowledge will easily translate to line editing, where you’ll focus on the flow and wording of a sentence to make sure it doesn’t break from the style of the narrative; you’ll also learn to pick up on redundancies.

3. You'll improve the structure of your plot. Good technical writers are masters at structuring the content of their work in a way that will both inform and propel a reader through it. By learning that skill, you’ll gain critical insight as to what works in a story and what doesn’t. You’ll be able to better see if a scene is inappropriately placed or if it needs to be cut altogether.

4. You'll get a taste for another genre and develop experience and skills while doing so. For those who have dabbled in tech writing or have perused manuals and instruction booklets, you know that technical writing is a whole different beast from writing fiction. (That’s also part of the reason there are so many poorly written manuals.) Well-written manuals include only the essentials. They have one job: to give the reader knowledge about a particular product and to do so efficiently. They don’t—or at least shouldn’t—be wishy-washy and open to interpretation. Gaining experience in tech writing will help you establish a clear path for your story and give it a purpose. One of the biggest indicators of amateur writing is ambiguity. Tech writing skills can help you avoid that.

5. You'll gain a better understanding of which questions to ask and how to find the best editor/agent for your manuscript. One of the main tasks a technical writer undergoes is to research and ask questions. Loads of them. Tech writers are jacks of all trades; they acquire knowledge about many different subjects, and if they’re writing a piece on a subject they’re unfamiliar with, they are expected to track down those who do, interview them, then translate that knowledge into words the average Joe can understand. Having the skill to do so gives you a huge advantage as a fiction writer. It gives you the ability to know how to approach potential editors, agents, and publishers and CONNECT with them—a must in the publishing industry. It can also help you gain efficiency with your research.

6. You'll get a chance to dip your toes in graphic design. It’s true that you can hire a professional to design your book cover (which I highly recommend in most cases), but becoming familiar with the basics of graphic design can be very beneficial to you as an author. Apart from your cover, you’ll have to consider all the graphics you’ll need for marketing your book. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve published traditionally or independently; either way, you’ll be responsible for most of the marketing. If you’re a self-published author, having the skills to market your work will make or break your success. So how does tech writing play into this? As a technical writer, you learn the aesthetics of font and layout. You'll learn what draws readers’ attention, how to make focal points on a page, and how to create text-based designs in a limited amount of space. Take a look at any billboard or graphic on top social media profiles, and you'll see how quickly placement of text affects your perception of a brand.

7. You'll learn how to analyze your manuscript and take a critical approach with it. Since technical writing is all about writing, rewriting, and assessing your own work, the experience you’ll gain from learning the techniques involved can be invaluable when it comes to editing your fiction. Getting the first draft done is an awesome first step, but being able to see the bigger picture and reevaluate your work is crucial to its growth. I’ve read plenty of books that were published “as is” because the author didn’t want to change it, and I’ve read books that have been through hundreds of revisions because the first twenty times weren’t quite right. Believe me, I’ll take a thoroughly edited book over the others any day, and I’m betting you would too.

8. You'll acquire more marketing skills. In additional to the marketing benefits you get from studying graphic design, you can pick up even more through learning to write for a target audience. In a technical piece, it’s vital to first know your audience and then cater that piece to fit your audience. And while most of us fantasize about readers appreciating the artistic beauty in our books and the sometimes-flowery language within, the truth is, superfluous wording doesn’t sell 90% of the time. The ideas behind your book might be genius, but if the writing isn’t well executed and you can’t market it well, you’re still sunk.

9. You'll learn how to view your manuscript as a beta reader. Technical writing is all about trial and error. You write the document, test it to see how well it captures the use of a product, then revise it. You’ll likely have others reviewing it as well. Beta readers will do the same thing for your story. They’ll tell you what worked for them and what didn’t and what other readers might find confusing. Working in the technical writing industry can give you a better feel for that process, and it’ll teach you to view your own work through the eyes of a beta reader.

10. You'll get more experience with research. Tech writing is all about research. Like I mentioned before, most documents written in the tech industry are manuals, brochures, and articles explaining how something works. And since most of us don’t have extensive knowledge in science, math, engineering, medicine, etc., a lot of research is often required. Familiarizing yourself with the various methods of research and knowing how to apply what you find will have a tremendous effect on your ability to incorporate outside information into your novel. You’ll become well versed at weaving in facts and making them flow with the rest of the manuscript.

Top 10 FMTP Blog Posts

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Today I'm going to share the top ten blog posts of mine based on your feedback. All these posts are articles that you guys have chosen as helpful resources for writing and editing advice. As always, thank you guys for the support, and I hope to see you at the chat about self-publishing this coming week!

10 TIPS FOR BECOMING A BETTER EDITOR
http://rachellemnshaw.com/blog/2015/03/10-tips-for-becoming-a-better-editor
http://fmtpextended.tumblr.com/post/114724958550/10-tips-for-becoming-a-better-editor

5 REASONS A LITERARY MAGAZINE WILL REJECT YOU
http://rachellemnshaw.com/blog/2015/4/27/5-reasons-a-literary-magazine-will-reject-you
http://fmtpextended.tumblr.com/post/117519306850/5-reasons-a-literary-magazine-will-reject-you

THE GRAMMAR GRIND: PARTS OF SPEECH
http://rachellemnshaw.com/blog/2014/03/the-grammar-grind-parts-of-speech
http://fmtpextended.tumblr.com/post/80811387571/the-grammar-grind-parts-of-speech

MAKE EVERY SCENE COUNT: ENVIRONMENT AND PACE
http://rachellemnshaw.com/blog/2013/04/make-every-scene-count-environment-and-pace
http://fmtpextended.tumblr.com/post/48366108174/make-every-scene-count-environment-and-pace

WHY GOOD WRITING MATTERS: PLOT STRUCTURE
http://rachellemnshaw.com/blog/2013/02/why-good-writing-matters-plot-structure
http://fmtpextended.tumblr.com/post/43610099541/why-good-writing-matters-plot-structure

THE GRAMMAR GRIND: APOSTROPHES
http://rachellemnshaw.com/blog/2015/03/the-grammar-grind-apostrophes
http://fmtpextended.tumblr.com/post/113168327580/the-grammar-grind-apostrophes

WHY GOOD WRITING MATTERS: GRAMMAR AND SPELLING
http://rachellemnshaw.com/blog/2013/02/why-good-writing-matters-grammar-and-spelling
http://fmtpextended.tumblr.com/post/42937491311/why-good-writing-matters-grammar-and-spelling

WHY GOOD WRITING MATTERS: ENVIRONMENT AND MOOD
http://rachellemnshaw.com/blog/2013/02/why-good-writing-matters-environment-and-mood
http://fmtpextended.tumblr.com/post/43751026787/why-good-writing-matters-environment-and-mood

THE GRAMMAR GRIND: SENTENCE TYPES
http://rachellemnshaw.com/blog/2013/11/the-grammar-grind-sentence-types
http://fmtpextended.tumblr.com/post/66900843050/the-grammar-grind-sentence-types

THE GRAMMAR GRIND: COMMAS
http://rachellemnshaw.com/blog/2013/09/the-grammar-grind-commas
http://fmtpextended.tumblr.com/post/62753008536/the-grammar-grind-commas

The Grammar Grind: Parts of Speech

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Parts of speech are the mechanical building blocks of the English language. They’re at the heart of all writing, and each word used to form a sentence is categorized into one of those parts. Those parts can then form clauses and phrases to develop even more complex sentences, which blossom into the beautiful art known as writing. So why is it important to learn them? Well, for one, they help shape your writing. At the core of every work for an individual author is the style in which they structure their sentences. I made a post on Tumblr last week about an article that analyzed four popular authors and their corresponding best-selling series. The article broke down each piece into its main components: parts of speech. The author of the post then went on to describe (quite wonderfully) how each author showed the same patterns throughout their book, and it was pretty easy to see which authors were the better writers just from that. So, what better way to improve your writing than by starting with the very basic elements?

In this post, I’d like to briefly cover each part of speech and its effect on writing. Studying the various elements can really help polish your work and improve your style to be the most effective when it comes to good storytelling.

Noun

A noun is a naming word. It names a person, place, thing, idea, or action. Nouns can name something concrete or abstract, can be proper or common, and can be singular or plural. They can also be collective, name a countable or non-countable amount, and can be gerunds (action words usually ending in –ing).

Nouns are one of the strongest parts of speech that you can implement into your writing. Using nouns that are specific and descriptive to the surrounding are typically the best ones to use. Sometimes using a noun that falls into several of the categories is a good fit as well.

Using Nouns to Add Description to the Environment

Original sentence: The front door was surrounded with decorations.

The nouns used here are okay, but let’s see if we can pick some more descriptive ones.

Modified sentence: The entryway was surrounded with beautiful paneling and stained glass.

Much better. The detail makes this door a unique one and gives the reader some vivid imagery to remember it by.

Verb

A verb is a word that describes an action or a state of being. They can be action or linking verbs, main or auxiliary verbs, or transitive/intransitive (requiring an object or not) verbs. They also determine the tense of a sentence.

Verbs are your most useful tool in writing. Making a great verb choice will reduce the need for adjectives and adverbs, and it produces concise and powerful sentences. Whenever possible, replacing weak verbs with strong ones—and avoiding linking ones—is always a good idea for a quick way to improve your writing. Verb choice is usually the most problematic area for writers, so it’s important to be especially aware of this during your revisions.

Using Verbs to Strengthen Your Sentences

Original sentence: Jamie looked over her shoulder just in time to see the car driving past.

The verbs here are weak and leave a bit to be desired. Without context, you can’t tell the pace or mood of this scene. Let’s see if we can spruce it up a bit.

Modified sentence: Jamie craned her neck just in time to see the car swerving by.

Not only did we shorten this sentence with the changes, but there is a definite sense of urgency now, and the suspense has been heightened. The pace is picking up.

Adjective

An adjective is a word that modifies/describes a noun. It tells you something specific that otherwise might not have been known. Typically, the adjective precedes the noun that it modifies, but they can also come after linking verbs. They can be used for comparison or as superlatives. (Note that when they are used as superlatives, you should NEVER use both an –er ending and the word more or an –est ending and the word most.)

Adjectives are most effective when they are used sparingly. You should use them to give specific descriptions that make the noun they are modifying unique, but only when the situation calls for it. Like with verbs, strong—and less common—adjectives make for better writing.

Using Adjectives to Enhance Descriptions

Original sentence: Serena is a beautiful young girl with long, flowing blonde hair.

There are several adjectives here that do tell us a bit about Serena, but some more distinct and descriptive ones would be nice. Replacing a few with stronger parts of speech would help too.

Modified sentence: Serena is a stunning teenage girl with fair hair that flows halfway down her back.

Now we can see that Serena is not just beautiful but stunning. That makes her stand out from everyone else. We also know a more specific age for her and can tell the exact length of her blonde hair.

Adverb

An adverb is a word that modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb. It can tell you how something is done or when/where something happened. Many adverbs end in –ly, but not all. Though they typically appear before the verb they modify, they can also come after, especially when it comes to dialogue.

Like adjectives, adverbs are best used sparingly. They are the most effective when giving specifics about an event that the reader otherwise wouldn’t have known and work best in the company of strong verbs. When placed well, they can add to the subtleties of environment and pace in a scene as well as the mood.

Using Adverbs to Enhance Environment, Pace, and Mood

Original sentence: Earlier that morning, Joe had carefully placed his school supplies in his backpack.

The sentence isn’t too bad, but let’s see if we can make it more specific and replace some of the adverbs and verb with stronger ones. Adverbial phrases work well in situations such as this one.

Modified sentence: Once dressed, Joe had meticulously arranged his school supplies in his backpack.

Because of the adverbial phrase, we now know a more specific time in the morning that Joe performed these actions, and the word meticulous tells us that he’s not only careful but unduly precise in the placement of his belongings. The stronger verb paired with that adverb also improves the sentence.

Pronoun

A pronoun is a word used in place of a noun to avoid repetition of that noun. Personal pronouns can act as subjects or objects; possessive pronouns indicate ownership. Reflexive pronouns are used to indicate that the subject of the verb is also the receiver of that action. Intensive pronouns (which overlap the reflexive ones) simply emphasize the noun they refer back to. The reciprocal pronouns each other and one another are collective pronouns used to express shared actions or emotions. Indefinite pronouns refer to non-specific people or things; demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, and those) are used to point out specific ones. Interrogative pronouns introduce questions, and relative pronouns, which overlap the interrogative ones, introduce dependent clauses that refer to a noun already mentioned in the sentence (i.e. the antecedent); the clauses they introduce can be restrictive or nonrestrictive.

Regulating between nouns and pronouns can be tricky at times, but when the pronouns are well placed, they drastically improve the flow of the sentence.

Using Pronouns to Improve Sentence Flow

Original sentence: Marcus didn’t realize that Lucy and Mary had already completed more of Lucy’s and Mary’s homework than Marcus had Marcus’s.

This sentence is not only cumbersome to read but it also doesn’t entirely make sense. Let’s clean it up with some pronouns.

Modified sentence: Marcus didn’t realize that Lucy and Mary had already completed more of their homework than he had his own.

The changes make a vast improvement. This sentence makes a lot more sense now and is much easier to read.

Conjunction

A conjunction joins together words, phrases, and clauses. There are three kinds of conjunctions: coordinating conjunctions, correlative conjunctions, and subordinating conjunctions. Coordinating conjunctions are the most common and are used with commas to create compound sentences. However, if one of the clauses is dependent, no comma is used with the conjunction. (See my post on commas for the rules.) Correlative conjunctions work in pairs and typically do not use commas. Subordinating conjunctions join together an independent clause with a dependent, subordinating one. When a subordinating clause is found at the beginning of a sentence, a comma is used after it. When it comes at the end, no comma is used.

There is also a fourth element that I’d like to bring into the picture: conjunctive adverbs. While they are not true conjunctions, they can work as such to join two independent clauses that are related but don’t use typical conjunctions. Like the other kinds of conjunctions, they require additional punctuation around them. However, the type of punctuation depends on placement of the adverb. If it occurs at the beginning of a sentence, a comma is used after it. If it occurs in the middle of a sentence as an interrupter word, it is surrounded by commas. When one is used to join two independent clauses together, a semicolon is required before it, and a comma is then used after it. The only time a conjunctive adverb does not require punctuation is if it falls at the end of sentence. An older rule dictated that a comma must always precede the adverb if that be the case, but this rule is no longer observed. Commas are only used before such an adverb at the end of the sentence for emphasis and clarity. (Refer to the Chicago Manual of Style.)

Each of these conjunctions is great for giving your sentences variety. Without them, you’re stuck with simple sentences that all sound the same—which certainly won’t hold your readers’ attention.

Using Conjunctions to Create Sentence Variation

In this example, let’s start with a whole paragraph so we can see just how big of an effect conjunctions have in creating sentence variation.

Original paragraph: Max’s test lay on the desk in front of him. He was completely unprepared for it. He should have been studying for it last night. He spent the night out with friends. He stared at it now. He wished he could remember the details of the American Civil War. He thought for several minutes. Nothing came to mind. He was certain he would fail at this point.

This paragraph retells a number of events, but it reads more like a laundry list than a story. There isn’t really a distinct voice to it. Let’s throw in some conjunctions to change the pace a bit.

Modified paragraph: Max’s test lay on the desk in front of him, but he was completely unprepared for it. He should have been studying for it last night; instead, he spent the night out with friends. He stared at it now and wished he could remember the details of the American Civil War. After several minutes, nothing came to mind. He was certain he would fail at this point.

Now the details of the situation are a bit clearer, and there is a distinct flow to the narrative. By doing nothing more than adding in a few conjunctions and connecting some of the ideas, a picture is starting to form, and a narrative is created.

Preposition

A preposition connects a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase to the rest of the sentence. Together, the preposition and the noun or noun phrase form a prepositional phrase. Prepositional phrases act as adjectives or adverbs and provide extra information in a sentence.

Prepositional phrases help add detail to a piece. They should be used to provide essential information and to help form imagery.

Using Prepositions to Add Context

Original sentence: Lacey found her notebook.

This is a pretty simple sentence. We get only the bare essentials and no other context. Let’s see if adding in a prepositional phrase or two can give us the information we’re missing.

Modified sentence: At the last second before the bus arrived, Lacey found her notebook next to the armchair.

With just a few prepositions, we can get quite a bit of context in one sentence. We now know that Lacey didn’t just find her notebook; she was also running late and found it just seconds before her bus arrived. We also know a generalized age for Lacey as well as where she found the notebook.

Interjection

An interjection is a word or phrase that can stand alone and expresses emotion or surprise. They can be set off with commas or exclamation points depending on the strength of the emotion being expressed. Examples: Oh! Wow! Hey! Yikes! Hooray!

When used sparingly, interjections can be an effective way of enhancing creative writing, particularly dialogue. They should be used to add subtle undertones to a conversation or scene and are a great way to avoid amateur tags in dialogue that directly state, rather than illustrate, characters’ emotions, especially when coupled with strong body language.

Using Interjections to Express Emotion

Original sentence: “That’s not fair,” Tom said, disappointed that he would be unable to go to the movie.

While it’s clear what Tom’s emotions are here, the writing itself is somewhat drab and doesn’t leave much for the reader to picture. Let’s add an interjection to the dialogue to give some emotion to it and then couple that with some body language to further illustrate his frustration.

Modified sentence: “Hey, that’s not fair!” Tom whined, staring at his feet and kicking up some dirt.

Now there’s a definite mood he’s expressing, and his body language confirms that. We can tell that he is both frustrated and disappointed without ever having it be directly stated. The only thing that is needed by altering the sentence is context.

Articles

An article is used to introduce a noun. It lets the reader know whether the noun is a specific one or a general one. There are only three articles in the English language: a, an, and the. The is used to indicate a very particular noun, and a/an is used to indicate one that is being mentioned when there are other possibilities. Whether or not there is a need to use an article depends on the noun it’s modifying.

If you’re using one of the general articles, you’ll have to decide whether a or an is appropriate. The trick is to pick out the initial sound of the word, regardless of how it’s spelled. For instance, you would say “an honest statement” rather than “a honest statement” because the h in honest is silent; therefore, the word’s beginning sound is that of a short o. Another thing to note is that the word immediately following the article is the one that dictates which of the two articles should be used. Even if the noun being modified has several adjectives or adverbs in front of it, the one that comes directly after the article is the one that will determine which article is correct. (E.g. “a perfectly honest opinion.”)

The biggest thing to watch out for with articles is to be certain you’re using the right one. Using a specific article vs. a general one—and vice versa—can drastically change the meaning of a sentence. Note that adjectives are more often coupled with specific articles than general ones.

Using Articles to Indicate Importance of a Noun

Original sentence: Mikey threw a ball.

The sentence implies that there is more than one item that Mikey could choose to throw. It also implies that which ball he threw isn’t really all that important.

Modified sentence: Mikey threw the ball.

This sentence implies that Mikey threw the only ball available to him. If you add in an adjective, the sentence becomes even more specific: Mikey threw the red ball.

Now we know that there were several kinds or colors of balls, but Mikey chose to throw the red one specifically. Details such as that generally indicate an object of importance.

From nouns to articles, each part of speech builds on the others. By breaking down sentences and tweaking individual words, writers can practice small changes to enhance their writing and produce well-crafted sentences.