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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: Editing

The Editing Agenda: When Is It Time to Call in a Professional?

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

You’ve written the first draft, you’ve had your friends read through it, and you’ve even edited it a few times yourself. Time to start hunting for a professional editor, right? Well, not quite. First, there are a few steps you should take to ensure your book is at its best so you can find the perfect editor for it.

1. Beta testing. One of the easiest ways to find out if your piece is successful is to hand it over to some beta readers. Ideally, these readers will not have seen any of the drafts up to that point, nor will they know the details of the plot. Some of your beta readers can be your friends, but be sure you also have impartial voices who will provide completely honest feedback, even if it means that your book didn’t work for them. Sometimes that’s tough to swallow, but it’s a crucial step you don’t want to shortchange yourself on. If you can’t rely on honest feedback from your betas, you might end up with a book that is doomed to flop, but you won’t know it until after it’s published and the negative reviews roll in—or until you receive a brutally honest letter from one of the publishers or agents you queried telling you just how bad it really is. That’s not to say this always will be the case. Your book might be totally amazing, and if so, that’s awesome! But to be sure, get a second opinion before you commit to the final steps in the process. Once you hit the “send” button, you can’t take it back.

2. More edits. Once you get feedback from your beta readers, it’s back to the drawing board. A good place to start is with the comments that cropped up more than once. Those are usually the ones most worth listening to, and they should take top priority. Make any necessary adjustments, then scan over the remaining comments. Do they make sense? Are they based on personal opinion, or do they add validity to what you’re trying to accomplish in your piece? Pick and choose those which are both critical and uplifting—the ones that point out the positives in addition to what could be improved. Not all comments will be worthwhile, but the ones that are can vastly improve your manuscript. When you’re done editing your piece—again—or when you no longer know how to fix what’s wrong, that’s when it’s time to seek out a professional.

3. Research. Not all editors are the same. We each specialize in various types of editing and different genres, so you’ll want to find an editor that is the best match for your piece. Querying an editor who primarily deals with sci-fi about a romance novel probably won’t yield great results. Having said that, editors also have varying levels of experience, and you’ll want to find the right one for you. I recommend searching for one with reasonable pricing who is also a qualified professional. Two great sites to look on are Reedsy and 10 Minute Novelists. There are TONS of awesome editors on both, and I’m honored to be one of them. If you still can’t find a good match for your project after searching there, I’ll be glad to help!

4. Commitment. One last step before you send your query: Make sure you’re willing to work hard at improving your manuscript. Even with copy and line edits, you’ll still need to review changes and suggestions. An editor should ideally coach you through your piece, helping you identify its strengths and weaknesses. The best editors will not only give you suggestions to improve your piece, but they will also teach you how to become a better writer. For my own clients, I generally give suggestions first, then have my clients implement the changes themselves. It’s a lot of work for both parties, but by doing so, the author can practice the techniques of better writing as they learn them, making them stick longer. An editor can only be as invested in you and your work as you are in them; if you’re not willing to make sacrifices and work hard on your piece to make it perfect, you won’t get as much out of the editing process as you could.

Well, that wraps up the editing series. I hope my tips have been helpful, and if anyone has any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

The Editing Agenda: Adding Layers

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

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Once you’ve finished your first draft and you’re ready to delve into the editing process, one of the first things you should tackle is adding layers. Layers make every great story come to life. They make a well-rounded character realistic, a plot and its details that much juicier, and they have a way of making the final pieces of the puzzle fall into place. And while there is definitely a time and a place for punctuation, grammar, and all things syntax, without layers, your story will always fall flat. So where should you start?

Plot

While there’s really no right or wrong answer to that question, the place I tend to start is overall plot. Take a look at your outline, timeline, storyboard, or whatever you have in the way of notes for your story, and review the major plot points. Don’t have an outline? I strongly suggest making one at this point. It will help you weed out any inconsistencies in your plot, and it will become increasingly crucial in tightening your story. Once you have a rough outline in place, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does the plot make sense?
  2. Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end?
  3. Does the first two-thirds of the book build tension and conflict?
  4. Do the subplots make sense? Do they make sense on a timeline?
  5. Are there any inconsistencies, particularly with placement and foreshadowing?

Those may seem like rudimentary questions, but if the answer to any one of these is no, you have some corrections to make before you begin adding in layers to the plot. As anyone who has ever attempted to write a book can tell you, a solid foundation is immensely important to a writing a successful book. Without it, your work will break down and eventually cave in on itself like a house of cards, leaving you both frustrated and discouraged.

After you’ve made any necessary revisions and can answer yes to all of those questions, it’s time to add more layers. For plots, this means adding additional subplots, minor conflicts that will build more tension along the way. But don’t add conflict in haphazardly. Each subplot that you add MUST contribute to the overall plot or character development. If it doesn’t, it’s fluff, and it doesn’t belong in your masterpiece-in-the-making.

Characters

When you’re done tackling the plot, it’s time to move on to characters. Again, it’s always a good idea to keep a catalog of all your characters and their bios. There are a lot of writing programs out there that can help you with this if, like me, you like to keep things organized electronically, but plain old index cards work just fine too. Whatever your method, keep your character notes handy. You’ll need this during the editing process both for fact-checking and for layering. If you need help with writing character bios, I highly recommend using scribbledwriting’s (Kayla Detton's) character analysis worksheet. It’s got just about every question you could ever imagine on it.

After you’ve gathered all your character notes, use your outline to go through your book piece by piece and find your weakest characters, the ones who should stand out but don’t, or the ones who just don’t seem realistic enough. Those are the ones you’ll want to focus on. Pull their character charts and pick a handful of dominant traits you know you want to use in the story or that should be focused on in the plot. Then ask yourself these questions:

  1. What does this character want and why?
  2. What sacrifices are they willing to make to get what they want?
  3. What obstacles does this character have to overcome along the way?
  4. Is this character successful, or do they fail?
  5. How does this character change along the way?

By understanding what drives your characters and using their traits to affect their actions, you’ll be able to layer in scenes that reflect that and further develop them, making them more realistic to the reader. Dialogue is a great way to do this, and occasionally so are thoughts or backstory. But again, when you add in scenes, it’s important to keep only those that propel the plot or the character. Anything else would likely be seen an as info dump.

Environment and Worldbuilding

Next is environment and worldbuilding. This is my favorite part of the layering process, mostly because it gives the author a chance to really shine and bring to life the world they’ve created. Even if your story takes place in a real location, you still have to make the events of that location believable, and that’s where environment and worldbuilding come in.

The first step is to, yet again, dig up any notes you have about the world you’re dealing with. If it’s a real location, pull actual blueprints if you can find them, dig up articles about the kind of plants and trees that grow there, the weather, and the general atmosphere of that area and the surrounding ones. If your location is made-up, create a list of guidelines, rules, and/or any laws of physics that may come into play. Now it’s time for the questions:

  1. Do the rules of this world make sense?
  2. Are the rules consistent with each other and with the plot?
  3. If a character breaks a rule, can it be justified in the plot?
  4. Is the world easy to picture? Are there enough descriptions?
  5. Does each location serve a purpose?

If you answered no to any of these, it’s time to go back and rework the environment, or perhaps the rules involving it. Consistency is by far the most important thing since it’s the thing readers will probably call you out on first. If you make a rule, stick to it. If you have a character that breaks it, it should be justified. And each location you mention in your story should absolutely serve some purpose in the overall plot. After all, you want to relay the events in your book that matter the most. Most readers don’t like consuming empty calories.

Once your answer is yes to all the questions, you get to my favorite part—the incredibly artistic part—of writing fiction. You can add layers by bringing in new vivid descriptions and extra details to areas that were previously lacking them. One of the best ways to do this is through the eyes of the characters, describing the environment and objects when they first come across them, slowly adding more detail bit by bit as the scene unfolds. This part of the layering process is a lot like painting a picture—probably another reason why it’s easily a favorite of mine. Just remember, there is a line with adding description that you don’t want to cross. Too much detail or wordiness will leave your world looking more like a toddler’s finger painting than a Picasso masterpiece.

Backstory and Final Touches

After you’ve made it through all the other stages of layering, you’re ready for the final step: finishing touches. This including weaving in a bit more backstory and any other last-minute details that help put the final pieces of the puzzle together. The best way to do this is to examine the story scene by scene (a storyboard comes in handy for this one), breaking it down into chunks. You can then add in any remaining details that you wish, but please do so sparingly, or you’ll be left with—yep, you guessed it—fluff. Too much frosting on a cake, and you can no longer taste the cake.

The Editing Agenda: Expressing Thoughts

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

A huge challenge every fiction writer faces is finding a way to express characters’ thoughts. Many writers use italics or quotation marks; in fact, a lot of authors do. But too many italics are overwhelming, and quotation marks can be confused for those of dialogue. So which is the best method? In my opinion, neither is. So how do you effectively convey a thought without relying on italics or quotation marks?

Option 1: Tags

When using tags to indicate thoughts, structure the sentence just as you would for dialogue, but omit the quotation marks and include an appropriate thought tag.

Dialogue: “We sat in silence for the better part of an hour,” she said, “but it was the most intimate conversation we ever shared.”

Thought: We sat in silence for the better part of an hour, she thought, but it was the most intimate conversation we ever shared.

One issue that arises by using this method, however, is that in order to correctly punctuate an interrogative thought, you’re sometimes left with a lowercase word that follows a question mark. Readers are very much used to seeing this with dialogue, so they don’t think anything of it in those cases. But when it comes to thoughts, the punctuation is awkward, even when it’s correct. In fact, Word flags it regardless.

Dialogue: “What was she thinking?” a tall boy in the back said.

Thought: What was she thinking? a tall boy in the back wondered.

Since option one has a few flaws, let’s try a different approach.

Option 2: New Paragraphs

By using a new paragraph, you can bypass the need to use tags altogether, avoiding the awkward punctuation that sometimes comes along with it. Each time a character has a thought, move that thought to a new paragraph, just as you would with dialogue when a new person is speaking. If your main narrative is in third person, switch to first person for the thought.

The leaves crunched beneath her sneakers as she ran along the narrow path. The sun would be setting soon, but Jennifer was getting close.

Almost there. I just need to make it past the highway.

She picked up the pace and continued pounding the pavement, sweat saturating her thin t-shirt.

The potential problem with using new paragraphs to indicate thoughts is that some readers find the constant jump between POVs distracting, and you can also wind up in a situation where there are multiple characters in a scene but only one has a thought. (This is especially true for third person limited and third person omniscient narration.) Then you’re left with finding a way to clearly express which character the thought belongs to, and that’s tricky:

Melinda swept the sidewalk while her husband, Tim, continued to mow the lawn. Both were being pelleted with the sun’s unrelenting rays.

I can’t take another day of this.

Without more context, it’s a bit unclear whether the bolded part is Melinda’s thought or Tim’s. And even though the reader could probably figure it out, especially with the surrounding lines, you’re better off not chancing a misinterpretation. For thoughts and dialogue alike, ownership of the idea expressed should always be clear.

So let’s look at a third option.

Option 3: Narrative Integration

Smooth narrative integration is by far the best option and the most effective in terms of clarity, aesthetics, and writing style. When you integrate a thought into the narrative itself and you do so smoothly, the reader will automatically pick up on the fact that it’s a thought without ever skipping a beat. The best way to do this is to keep the thought as part of the same paragraph and in the same point of view.

A terrific example of this is from a short passage in chapter twenty-nine of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

Harry looked at her. Perhaps it was the effect of the chocolate—Lupin had always advised eating some after encounters with dementors—or simply because he had finally spoken aloud the wish that had been burning inside him for a week, but he felt a bit more hopeful....

Narrative integration works particularly well with first person narration. Take this example from chapter one of The Hunger Games:

My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named.

However, sometimes narrative integration doesn’t always fit so well with the style of writing you’re going for, and that’s okay. Using any combination of the above methods will still give you options for expressing dialogue WITHOUT resorting to italics and quotation marks.

After you pound out the first draft of your manuscript, go back and take a look at the thoughts you used throughout. How did you format them? Does it work for the narrative style, or is there a better way of doing it? Try playing around with the options above, and you might find that there’s a more effective way of incorporating them. Keep in mind, though, there are several ways to express thoughts in writing. What works for one story won’t work for all stories, and what works for one author might not work for another. Find your style and voice, and go with what is the best fit for you.

10 Tips for Becoming a Better Editor

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

1. Brush up on your grammar and punctuation. There is a sea of information about grammar and punctuation online. Research it, learn it, and practice it. Just make sure you’re getting your info from reputable sites that know what they’re talking about. I recommend Grammar Girl, Purdue’s OWL, and—for the most part—GrammarBook.com. You can also check out the latest blog series of mine, The Grammar Grind, for short but information-packed articles about grammar and punctuation as well as additional tips and examples. I’ve included exceptions and my personal style preferences in most of the articles.

2. Choose a style guide and stick with it. This one is extremely important for consistency. Chicago Manual of Style and Associated Press are the two most prevalent style guides in the publishing industry. Most fiction publishers typically use the former, and several nonfiction publishing houses and publishers in journalism use the latter. Whichever one you choose, make sure you stick with it throughout the whole manuscript. Both cover issues on punctuation, style, and give editing tips.

3. Cater to your audience. When editing your book, think about the audience you’ve written it for. Make sure that the content is age appropriate and that the plot elements are relatable to the book’s audience. If you’re catering to a YA market, make sure you include typical struggles of teens and young adults; they’re typically “coming of age” stories. If you’re catering to an adult audience, don’t focus on the characters’ inner realizations as much as the events going on around them. In both cases, use dialogue and a style of narrative that is fitting for both the story itself and your primary market.

4. Check for inconsistencies. If there is one thing lovers of books can’t stand, it’s internal inconsistencies. Think age/birthdays, time lapses, order of events, characters’ personalities, environment, narrative style, dialogue—pretty much any place where you could have a slipup. Use an outline or other guide to keep your story’s facts and characters straight. I highly recommend a program called Scrivener. You can use it to keep track of character traits, write individual chapters, keep notes about scenes or characters, and pretty much whatever else you like.

5. Take others’ comments into consideration. I know this one is tough, but listening to others is an important step to improving your writing. If all your beta readers are telling you that they have a hard time picturing a setting or that they had trouble getting through a particular scene, LISTEN. There’s a reason you’re getting the same comment over and over. By the same token, if you get one or two comments about a character or line of dialogue being off, look into it, but make the decision yourself. If the vast majority of your beta readers are okay with it, chances are it’s probably fine. And if you’re the one giving the critique, be specific with your feedback. Comments like “I really like this piece!” or “This scene didn’t feel right,” isn’t very informative or helpful. Instead, say things like, “I like the flow of the narrative here,” “This character is really witty!” or “The dress she was wearing seemed a bit elaborate for the scene.”

6. Cut the fluff. I’ve mentioned this as a writing/editing tip before, but if the scene doesn’t propel the plot or spark a change in one or more of the characters, cut it. The secret to writing a great book is crafting it in such a way that every piece of information in it is useful. Readers will skip past the fluff, and if there’s enough of it in your book, they could be discouraged from finishing it.

7. Double-check your work. Even for trained professionals, it’s easy to miss a few things the first time around. This is especially true for grammar and punctuation, but it’s also true for fact checking, character development, and worldbuilding. Don’t leave problems unsolved. Every issue should be resolved or at least heading in a clear direction. The only exception to this is in the case of book series, but even then, each book should be able to stand on its own.

8. Add layers. Books are like ogres, or onions—or both! One of the biggest parts of the editing process is adding in layers. Each time you revise a piece, add in elements that give characters depth, enrich the plot, or add to the environment. But be careful not to go overboard with it. There is a fine line between layers and fluff!

9. Take your time. Rushing the editing process will leave your book lacking every time, so just don’t do it. If you’re going to take all the time and effort to write an entire manuscript, do it right. Take your time going through it line by line and scene by scene to make it as perfect as possible before publishing. The goal should be a professional piece that is marketable.

10. Read, write, and research. The secret to becoming a better editor is becoming a better writer. Do your homework: read books that are well written; practice your writing skills; research topics you’re including, even if you’re already familiar with them. The more you do these things, the stronger your editing skills will become.

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.