This Business of Writing

How to Clarify Your Novel Writing

In Editing Your Manuscript, How-to's, The Craft of Writing on April 19, 2010 at 8:07 am

by C. Patrick Schulze

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The essence of good writing is found not in the elegance of the writing but rather in the clarity of the writing. And clarity may have a purpose which you’ve not considered. Not only does it influence how those who read your novel understand and enjoy it, but clarity in writing can even have an effect upon your search engine rank. If your context and spelling are inadequate, your SEO may suffer. Who knew our seventh grade English teachers understood more than we realized?

Allow me to identify some of more onerous of the many clarity in writing issues.

The Dangling Particle: Remember that one from middle school English class? Until I began my research for this article, I could not remember what that thing was. A dp, as it’s known, occurs when an verb and noun are linked together in an incorrect manner. As you can see from the following example, there is no noun for the verb “run,” so it sounds as if that verb is associated with the rain.

Trying to run the race, the rain began to fall in heavy sheets.

Incorrect Pronoun Reference: This can happen when a writer uses a pronoun to refer to another word but does make clear to which word, or antecedent, it relates. The example that follows is unclear as to whether the teenagers resented the store or loiters.

The store prohibited loiters, which many teenagers resented.

A Comma Splice: This is when a writer connects two separate clauses with a comma. To fix this, you should insert a period or connect the clauses with a word such as “and” or “because.” You may also have to restructure both sentences. Your example of an incorrect splice follows.

I fell in love with her, she carries herself with such grace.

Comma Usage in a Series: When you have three or more items in a series, you should use a comma between each one, even before the “and.” You may wish to note this differs in journalistic writing where they use one less comma. Your correct example:

Bring the lantern, tent, and sleeping bag.

Tense Errors: This occurs when you do not indicate with clarity when an action took place. The example below is nebulous as to when the event actually happened, for we cannot tell if John left before Susanne arrived or when she arrived or even afterward. To correct this you’d rewrite the sentence or insert the word, “had,” after, “John.”

Susanne arrived, but John left.

Homonyms: Homonyms are words that sound alike but mean different things. The problem, of course, is your spellchecker won’t catch them. You have to read each word of your novel, aloud, to insure you catch these things. Here are your examples:

Read vs. reed

Write vs. right

To vs. too

Hear vs. here

Missing Words: As before, there’s not much you can do about this except read your novel aloud, word by word. Is this example correct or incorrect?

Why do you say we to the moves this evening?

Alright vs All Right. There is no, “alright,” in formal writing, all right? Over time, the word “alright” has become acceptable in informal writing, but it is still considered incorrect in novel writing.

The Ellipsis: The ellipsis is that symbol made up of three periods in a row. In writing, it means words are missing and it’s most common usage is in quotes. It also represents a thought that is incomplete, a pause in speech, or a sentence that fades into silence. You should be cautious when you use it in your novel, however. Should you use this punctuation mark too often it soon overpowers the page and makes for difficult reading. Consider using character actions to indicate incomplete thoughts and statements, rather than the ellipse.

Today I’ll end with the famous “ie” vs “ei” issue. The rule we all learned in grammar class still holds true today. “I” before “e” except after “c.” Works every time, guys.

The clarity of your writing can be of utmost consequence to your writing success. The acceptance of your novel and even your search engine optimization may well hinge upon it. Do you need to spend some time and study your grammar once again?

So, what common writing errors do you find and how have you learned to overcome them?

Until we speak again, I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers”

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