This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by Bonnie Trenga, author of THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE MISPLACED MODIFIER) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent -- by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.
I collect Criminal Sentences, real sentences where something is amiss. Laugh at some of the best ones of 2009 and improve your writing at the same time.
1. Remember to use Spell Checker, but don’t rely on it to find every mistake. Avoid something like Criminal Sentence 235: “That releaves a lot of stress.” Use Spell Checker, but don’t expect it to catch word-usage errors, like these—Criminal Sentence 164: “a raised medium” (is Whoopi Goldberg from “Ghost” floating around?); and Criminal Sentence 215: “If the infection builds up, the eardrum may rupture to allow the puss to flow out” (how did a kitty get into the eardrum?).
2. Learn what misplaced modifiers are and then avoid writing them. Misplaced modifiers often make writers—even New York Times-bestselling authors—look ridiculous. Category A: misplaced modifiers at the beginning of a sentence—Criminal Sentence 243: “As First Lady, the agents acted as my protectors” (the agents cannot be the First Lady). Category B: misplaced modifiers involving a “that” or “who” clause—Criminal Sentence 150: “Soon after, he grew a swelling in his foot and in his groin that had to be lanced” (ouch; the swelling, not the groin area, had to be lanced). Category C: misplaced modifiers involving prepositional phrases—Criminal Sentence 225: “The man watched him and the girl with slow eyes” (the man watched the girl slowly; the girl does not have slow eyes).
3. Try not to be so wordy. Don’t follow the example of Criminal Sentence 312: “Several actions have been taken with great success including (but not limited to)...” This blather is vague, repetitive (“include” means you’re giving a partial list), and passive (why not say who did what exactly?). You can do better.
4. Become familiar with the kinds of mistakes you tend to make and then check for them. Some writers have problems with apostrophes. Others confuse similar-sounding words. Figure out what you need to work on and then do so. These three Criminal Sentences illustrate common problems—Criminal Sentence 195: “hand’s down” (careful with your apostrophe’s!); Criminal Sentence 248: “I hear lots of people complaining about the economy and how it’s effecting them” (watch your “affect” and “effect”); and Criminal Sentence 255: “All parents must make sure there kids are taking the right shoes” (“there,” “they’re,” and “their” sound alike but mean different things).
5. Be precise. Your thoughts swim around in your head, and it’s your job to make sure those thoughts come out onto the page in the way you intended. Criminal Sentence 156 misfired: “My goal is to tell anglers where to start fishing and how to catch them.” The writer seems to want to catch anglers, not fish, since “anglers” is the only plural noun that could go with “them.” Make sure your pronouns refer back to nouns as intended! (And if you state you have one goal, be sure to list only one; this sentence lists two goals.) Criminal Sentence 256 displays an alarming amount of imprecision. A reporter told us, “The missing fetus was discovered during an autopsy.” This is ridiculous. The sentence was supposed to say that during the autopsy, the medical examiner discovered there had been a fetus and it was now missing. The baby was found unharmed, but one reporter was harmed during the explanation of this sentence.
6. Remember your basic grammar. Problems with parallelism and subject-verb agreement crop up often. Check out Criminal Sentence 201: “He was smart, decisive and had sound judgment.” The parts don’t fit together correctly: adjective (“smart”), adjective (“decisive”), verb (“had”). As a copy editor, I can understand how this mistake occurs; it’s just carelessness. Avoid this problem by reviewing your sentence and making sure all parts go together smoothly. On the other hand, I cannot excuse Criminal Sentence 158: “The meaning of these words aren’t known.” Apparently, the meaning of grammar aren’t known either. Omit the prepositional phrase and you’ll see the mistake: “The meaning ... aren’t….” Pesky prepositional phrases often get in the way of stellar subject-verb agreement, so be vigilant.
7. Your first draft shouldn’t be your final draft. Sadly, what first comes out of our heads isn’t always brilliant, and we all make mistakes. Of course, you don’t want important thoughts to evaporate, so scribble away while your ideas are fresh; you’ll shape your sentences during subsequent drafts. Once you’ve been away from your piece for a while, you can catch your own Criminal Sentences—or maybe I will. Become more suspicious of yourself (assume you’re imperfect), and don’t become attached to any particular sentence. You can probably make it better.
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