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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 Advice

The Editing Agenda: Those Darn Dashes

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

When it comes to formatting and punctuation issues, hyphens and dashes take the cake. Their use in books is incredibly inconsistent, which leads to a lot of confusion for anyone trying to learn them. This article will give a thorough breakdown of each kind and their uses as they pertain to fiction. Keep in mind that the rules I’m covering are the ones that are the most beneficial for fiction writing—there are some that won’t be addressed in this post. And all rules mentioned are based on The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition.

Hyphens

Phrasal Adjectives

Phrasal adjectives are a short group of words (usually two but sometimes three or more) that link together to modify another noun. They typically precede the noun and are very common in fiction writing.

Example 1: rose-colored glasses

Example 2: four-chambered heart

A fantastic resource for this can be found on The Chicago Manual of Style website: https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/dam/cmos/tables/pdfs/table07-hyphens.pdf

(Please note that the hyphenation table is no longer accessible on the website without a subscription. Unfortunate but true.)

Phrasal adjectives almost always call for a hyphen if they're followed by a noun. The linked chart shows the breakdown of various combinations of adjectives and how they should be punctuated, including permanently hyphenated words and exceptions. The CMOS advises following Merriam-Webster’s dictionary for determining which words and phrases should always be hyphenated. Some of examples of this are the words life-form, run-down (not to be confused with rundown, which holds a different meaning), and short-lived.

Compound Name

Hyphens are also used for compound names, including surnames, first names, and other names.

Example 1: Merriam-Webster

Example 2: Mary-Kay

Example 3: Theta-Gamma

Word Division

The most common word division breaks where you’d find hyphens would be line breaks, syllable breaks (often used for pronunciation purposes), and prefixes and suffixes. Which isn’t all that common in fiction writing. However, you will often see it in dialogue, particularly with stuttering.

Example: “W-w-where’d you l-l-leave it?” Tom asked.

Separators

Hyphens can also be used to separate letters and numbers. That’s that type of thing you see with phone numbers, ID numbers, and the like. However, a great use for separation hyphens in fiction writing is when have a word that you need to spell out completely or partially.

Example: The sign read: “C-A-U-T.” The rest had long since worn off.

En Dashes

Dates, Times, and Page Numbers

The en dash’s main purpose is to replace the word to. The most typical occurrence of this would be with dates, times, and page numbers.

Example 1: He held office from 1929–1932.

Example 2: The event is Saturday, 2:30p.m.–4:30p.m.

Example 3: Tonight’s assignment is to read pages 32–45.

You also might see this with scoring/votes and with an unfinished number range.

Example 4: We won our last game 13–2.

Example 5: The magazine (2003–) has produced six volumes so far.

However, you should always use the word “to” instead of an en dash if “from” precedes the range.

Example 6: He joined us from 11a.m. to 12p.m. but had to leave for lunch after that.

Directions and Compound Adjectives

En dashes are also sometimes used with words, as can be the case with directions.

Example 1: I took the London–Paris train last week.

And sometimes—very rarely—an en dash is used with compound adjectives. This is where it gets tricky because the intended meaning can often get muddled by using this method, so it’s usually best to reword and find a more elegant solution when possible.

Example 2a: I’d like to find more Taylor Swift–style music.

Example 2b: I’d like to find more artists like Taylor Swift.

Version 2b of the above example flows much better and is less confusing than the first, so it’s easily the better choice.

And with two sets of compound adjectives where the sets are acting as coordinate adjectives to each other, a comma is the best option.

Example 3: This run-down, high-maintenance property will end up costing a lot of money.

Universities

The last use of en dashes is one that you probably won’t find in most fiction writing, but it’s useful to know nonetheless. You will sometimes find universities with multiple campus locations using an en dash to include the location name.

Example: I put my application in for Fordham University–Westchester.

Em Dashes                                                            

Em dashes are used to set off phrases and clauses in a manuscript that require an abrupt break, either to draw attention to it or because there is a large shift in the train of thought. This is one of the most useful tools an author has in fiction writing when used correctly and sparingly. Note that em dashes should NOT be substituted with ellipses; the two serve different purposes.

Em Dashes vs. Ellipses

Em dashes are used for interruption or to set off an explanatory element. An ellipsis is used to indicate hesitation or trailing off.

Example 1: “Lucy, where did you put—”

“It’s none of your business!” Lucy shouted from the other room.

Example 2: I stumbled down the stairs—the power had gone out earlier that evening—before I found my way to the bathroom.

Example 3: “I don’t know…” I admitted. “I hadn’t really thought much about it.”

Interrupted Thoughts

Sometimes the interruptions can come in the form of narrative thoughts.

Example: Justin’s feet pounded against the ground as he blazed down the trail. Awesome. If he kept up the pace, he’d beat—a tree root caught his foot, and he was sent sprawling into the dirt.

And if you have a character that is having trouble forming a sentence due to the circumstances at hand and/or heighted emotions, em dashes can be used to indicate stammering between words (not syllables).

Example: “What I meant was—why can’t we—oh, just forget it,” Julie spat out.

Words and Phrases

An em dash can also be used to set off noun or pronoun at the beginning of the sentence.

Example: Cowards—they were the ones who sought power.

Another common use for the em dash is before the phrases “namely,” “that is,” “for example,” and others similar to those.

Example: We spent most of the afternoon in the garden—that is, until the heat became unbearable.

Note: You should never use em dashes within or immediately following an element that already has a set of em dashes. Not only would this look terrible aesthetically, but it could also cause potential misinterpretation.

Interrupted Dialogue

The last use of em dashes for fiction is probably one of the trickiest, but it can also be the most useful. If you have a line of dialogue that is split up by an action in the middle, you can use em dashes to set off that action.

Example 1: “Well, the thing is”—Tommy quickly turned his attention to his feet—“it’s just not working out between us.”

Note that the em dashes go outside of the quotation marks in such a case, and the quotation is a continuous line of dialogue that is being split. The first word of the dialogue after the split should be lowercased. You can’t use this method if you have two separate sentences that have an action in between. In that situation, you’d use periods.

Example 2: “You really mean it.” My voice caught in my throat. “I just don’t understand what happened.

Two-Em Dash

One type of em dash that isn't commonly used in fiction writing (though it's probably my favorite) is the 2-em dash. The 2-em dash is used to omit words or parts of words that are missing or illegible, or to conceal a name. Two em dashes are most useful for the genres of fantasy, thriller, and mystery, where characters might come across documents that have damage to them. The example below is from a snippet of a work in progress of mine: book one of the Ansakerr series.

My dearest I——,                                                                        
If you are reading this, I have long since p—— away. I can only pray that my —— box and this letter have fallen into your hands and your hands alone. There is much you have yet to learn about me. There is still a D——k O—— out there, one more dangerous than you can imagine. For now, you are protected, but be on your toes, my girl. One day soon, I fear the p—— will fade, and you'll need to be ready. He is coming.
The key will lead you to A——. It will hold the answers you’re looking for.
Deepest love and affection,
Grandma Bea

Notice that most of the missing parts are for key elements, including names, places, and very specific items that are clearly crucial to the plot. If you craft these parts well, you can purposely mislead a reader in the narrative, giving a twist to your story.                                                                                   

Formatting and Stylistic Use

No spaces should be used around hyphens or dashes except in the case of the 2-em dash when it is being used to completely omit a word. This is probably the most common error regarding formatting of hyphens and dashes that I come across. Though there is some debate about spacing among various sources, the CMOS is pretty clear about it. But again, as with anything else in writing, consistency is the most important thing.

As for formatting the different dashes, mainstream word processors include symbols for each that you can insert into your document. In fact, some of them even automatically convert two hyphens used together into an em dash. While most publishers will accept em dashes in the form of two hyphens (in fact, some even request that you submit manuscripts that way), when it comes to actual printing and online publishing of the material, you’ll want to make sure they’re replaced. Your document will look more professional when you use the correct symbol, and your readers will likely notice as well.

Tip: To quickly find and replace any stray instances of two hyphens with an em dash symbol, use your word processor's Replace function.

Lastly, when it comes to use with other punctuation, a question mark or an exclamation mark can precede an em dash, but never a comma, colon, or semicolon. In other words, if you use an em dash where one of the latter punctuation marks would typically be used, the dash takes the place of the punctuation.

Example: He bent down to tie his shoe—but he stopped when he saw Alyssa approaching.

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.

The Editing Agenda: Why You Should Edit Your Book

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

The hardest thing for any writer to do is actually finish writing the first draft. It’s one thing to have a great idea and write a few scenes or a good portion of a manuscript, but it is a HUGE feat to actually finish writing an entire book. So if you’ve taken the time to sit down and scribble out that idea in your head and somehow combine all your words into a complete book, congrats! You are already far ahead of the game and definitely deserve praise for your accomplishment.

So you have a complete manuscript sitting on your computer. Now what? Time to start writing query letters? Get an agent? Find a few publishers? NO! In fact, one sure way to sabotage yourself is to move too quickly in the writing process. It’s great that you’ve written a whole book, and it may be a very sound piece, but it still needs some work. In fact, I’d venture to guess it needs a lot of work. No matter how good of a writer you are, your first draft will not be a flawless masterpiece. But that’s OKAY. All good writers have to go through the editing process. It’s how you turn a good piece into something fantastic. But why? What do you gain from editing?

1. You’ll learn to take criticism from others. This is probably the hardest one for new writers and emerging authors to accept. There will be problems with your book. Not everyone will enjoy your work. But that’s okay! Really. Learning to grow a thick skin early and accept that readers and reviewers are not out to get you but to give you honest feedback will make you a better writer in the long run. And in case you’re wondering how it might play out if you don’t learn to accept criticism and edit your work profusely, just take a peek at some of the heated conversations that took place between some critics on Twitter and EL James a couple weeks ago.

2. You’ll improve your writing skills. Practice really does make perfect. Even though some people have more of a knack for writing than others, no one becomes a bestselling author overnight. Being able to pick apart your own work and fix the flaws is an invaluable skill that will only help you with your future projects.

3. Your book will be more professional (and marketable). One of the biggest obstacles newly published authors face is building a reader base. With the publishing industry being turned on its head over the past decade or so, it’s led readers to become choosier about their book purchases, making it hard for newer authors to break through. But that’s actually not altogether a bad thing. When the digital age of self-publishing first got its footing, there was a lot of subpar work being put out there. Self-publishing was pretty much synonymous with poor writing, and most people just steered clear of reading books by indie authors. But that’s not the case anymore. In fact, most people can’t even tell the difference now between self-published books and ones that were traditionally published. But what that does mean is that authors are under the ever-scrutinizing eye of smart readers. They don’t just want a great book to read; they want a professional one. The editing process will help make your book just that.

4. You’ll have a better shot at getting it published. It stands to reason if you make your book professional, you’ll have a better shot at getting published. This is especially true if you decide to go the traditional route and side with a publisher or agent to get your work out there. No matter how original you think your work is, there is probably at least one similar book out there. That makes it crucial for yours to stand out. The editing process will give you that edge.

5. Your hard work will pay off! If you take the time to edit your work, I promise you will be rewarded. You will be a better writer for it, and you will very likely have a larger and more loyal fan base because of it. What you put into this process is what you’ll get out of it. Readers know that and won’t hesitate to call you on it.

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.