Tag Archives: stylistic variation in writing

The Red Pen: Top 3 Errors in Grammar

Following up on my previous post, below are the three most-recurring grammatical corrections I make in my editing assignments.

1. Tense consistency:

All manuscripts I’ve edited so far have been narrated in past tense. While it’s still okay (and necessary) for their dialogue to use present tense, sometimes there are incorrect lapses into it in the narrative. More often, though, I’m correcting the times when past tense is used instead of past perfect.

Past perfect is basically the past tense of past tense. If the main action of your narrative is already in past tense, events described as having occurred prior to that are denoted as even further in the past by using past perfect tense. e.g.:

  • I called him. (past)
  • I had called him. (past perfect)
  • I was upset. (past)
  • I had been upset. (past perfect)
  • Why didn’t he tell me this before? (past)
  • Why hadn’t he told me this before? (past perfect)

[Brief flashbacks can be easily handled this way. If ever writing a lengthy flashback, though, in which you think using past-perfect for paragraphs or pages on end might be awkward / distracting / lacking immediacy, you can alternatively offset the scene in italics and/or as its own section.]

2. Commas for coordinating conjunctions:

Unless denoting a pause for particular emphasis, a comma is only needed before and, but, or, for, so, nor, yet if the clause following one of those conjunctions could stand alone as its own sentence. e.g.:

  • I called him, but I hung up before he could answer.
  • I called him but hung up before he could answer.
  • I called him, and I asked about tonight.
  • I called him and asked about tonight.

3. Semicolons:

A semicolon is basically the same thing as adding a comma + conjunction (and, but, or, etc…). It separates what are otherwise two complete sentences that could stand independently from each other. e.g.:

  • I called him; I hung up before he could answer.

The easiest test for when it’s appropriate to use a semicolon or comma+conjunction is to ask yourself if you could use a period in place of either. And the point of not just always using a period in that case is to vary your simple sentences with complex ones.

This goes right back to what I was saying last time about varying sentence structure. Unless repeating a certain structure for emphasis, it’s good to change it up. Of course, sentence fragments can also be used for an effect, but you’ll use those only to a limited extent. As long as I’m totally dorking out here, I’ll take this opportunity to share the basic sentence formulas for evaluating structural soundness.

The cheat-sheet of basic sentence structure & punctuation:

I = Independent clause (it can stand alone as its own sentence)
D = Dependent clause  (it can’t stand on its own, unless for stylistic emphasis)
c = coordinating conjunction

Starting with the simple sentence below, the subsequent compound sentences can be formed a few different ways:

I .           The monkey screeched.
I , c I .    The monkey screeched, and it fell out of the tree.
I ; I .      The monkey screeched; it fell out of the tree.
I D .      The monkey screeched when it fell out of the tree.
D , I .    When it fell out of the tree, the monkey screeched.

So there you have the basic building blocks for any sentence you could come up with, like the compound-complex ones below that combine the above in different ways for all sorts of crazy fun ;):

ID,cI.
The monkey screeched when it fell out of the tree, and it grabbed for a vine.
D,I,cI.
When it fell out of the tree, the monkey screeched, and it grabbed for a vine.
D,I;I.
When it fell out of the tree, the monkey screeched; it grabbed for a vine.

I,cID.
The monkey fell out of the tree, and it screeched as it grabbed for a vine.

I;D,I.
The monkey fell out of the tree; as it grabbed for a vine, it screeched.
I;ID.
The monkey fell out of the tree; it screeched as it grabbed for a vine.

And blah-blah-blah, blah-blah. I think you get the idea. How we phrase our sentences usually comes from a more innate, magically creative place, but the basic formulas above remind us of the options and, at the very least, are a great way to check commas and semicolons. Even if you want to play with this punctuation, too, for stylistic reasons, you still have to know the writing rules in order to break them.

I’d better leave it at that before the red pen editing section of my brain lights your brains on fire, too…

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The Red Pen: Stylistic Variation, Story Arc, and Other Manuscript Concerns

Hey there! I haven’t shared any editing anecdotes in a while. To date, my first assignment has been published, the second has been passed on to the managing editor, and I’m getting started on my third. I’d never commented on the second one, so thought I’d retroactively share the issues addressed.

To start is advice I gave the author on stylistic variation:

Where sentence structure is concerned, you describe a lot of consecutive or simultaneous character actions, and, to convey that, “as he” and “as she” are very frequent (as are –ing verbs following a comma—these are called present participial phrases). While not technically incorrect, it’s when repetitions of this structure become noticeable that they can be an issue, so just keep an eye out and consider ways to vary the syntax of your sentences to mix it up. Reading aloud is an awesome way to work through sentence/paragraph flow and catch where words/rhythms might repeat!

Examples:

“As she turned on her heel, she smiled and took his hand to lead him through the forest.”
“She smiled and turned on her heel as she took his hand to lead him through the forest.”
“She smiled and turned on her heel, taking his hand to lead him through the forest.”
“She smiled while she turned on her heel, took his hand, and led him through the forest.”

Etc., etc.

Story arc also needed work. This happens to be a rather sexy romance, so:

A key element to pacing is varying the functions each chapter serves. Too much of the same “function” served by too many consecutive chapters risks flattening the story arc. In this case, the recurring function I see is sex, either with purpose or gratuitous. The sex is of course what readers will love about it, but from a story development standpoint (not a prude one :)), I’m concerned that the frequency of sex scenes is making the middle/third quarter of your story fall flat, with the underlying plot getting a bit lost. There can be too much of a good thing, and too much of anything can make reader attention wane no matter how exciting or saucy the action. And the function that sex serves in a romance novel is not only entertainment, but a vehicle for moving the central relationships forward, so it really ought to only appear when it does move the story forward, rather than be there for its own sake.

Don’t worry, if you ever read it, there’s still a-plenty left in it to warrant hosing yourself down afterward (hot damn!). Other issues addressed:

  • more than one dialogue tag used in a paragraph of the same character’s dialogue (not technically wrong, but judge when it’s superfluous)
  • dialogue tags used for almost every line of dialogue in a conversation – starts to sound overly “he said/she said” when it’s otherwise easy enough to tell who’s talking. Sometimes a corresponding character action suffices in place of tag; e.g.:
    • “Wait a minute,” she said as she held up her hand.
    • “Wait a minute.” She held up her hand.
  • redundancies in description / tendency to over-describe using lists of adjectives when one or two suffice
  • overly repeated (verbatim) words and phrases
  • use of “began to”/”started to” for actions that are followed through, not interrupted.
  • keeping each section within only one character’s POV (in keeping with 3rd person limited, multiple perspectives)
  • time continuity – matching the time-frame of an intermittent subplot to the main plot.
And regardless of how polished the new manuscript I’m editing is, I’m still encountering pretty common grammatical errors—I’ll pop back later this week to share these. Good luck with your own writing/editing!

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