Dr. Doyle's Editorial and Critique Services

thoughts on reading, writing, and editing

Stringing Ideas Together

Or, actually, not.

When you’re building up a sequence of ideas (which generally results in a paragraph, and a whole bunch of paragraphs together generally results in a completed story, or an essay, or a letter thanking your Great-Aunt Euphemia for the half-dozen silver fish forks in a pattern that isn’t yours), you don’t want to just string the ideas together as they occur to you.  You’re constructing something that has to stand up when you’re done with it, not just lie there on the carpet like a string of Christmas lights after the tree has come down.

This means that you need to think about the relationship of your ideas to each other, and put them together in ways that indicate those relationships – while at the same time making sentences that have good sound and good rhythm and good grammar.

Take a simple example.   Here’s a little paragraph where the sentences are all (mostly) grammatical, but it’s still a bad paragraph:

As she hit the ball, Jill ran for first base.  Running for first base, her foot turned under her, spraining her ankle and putting her on the bench for the rest of the season.

This is, as I said, (mostly) grammatical, in that a native speaker of English can read it and understand what’s going on at the softball game.  But it isn’t good.  It’s clunky, the ideas are in the wrong order, and there’s a dangling participle lurking in there as well.

(Also, entirely too many present participles, period.  Writers get told at some point in high school or thereabouts that they need to vary their sentence structures, and for some reason, the method that a lot of them latch on to is the introductory participial phrase.  People, I’m here to tell you – too many sentences starting with participial phrases is just as monotonous as a bunch of simple subject-verb-direct object sentences lined up in a row.)

But I digress.  Let’s fix that little paragraph, a bit at a time.

Sentence one:  As she hit the ball, Jill ran for first base.  This is bad because one, it takes two ideas of roughly the same weight and makes one of them subordinate to the other; and two, it puts the actions into the wrong order.  First Jill hits the ball; then she runs for first base.  So we can fix this sentence by changing it to:  Jill hit the ball and ran for first base.

Sentence two:  Running for first base, her foot turned under her, spraining her ankle and putting her on the bench for the rest of the season.  This sentence is also bad for a couple of reasons and not just one.  The biggie, of course, is the dangling participle right at the beginning:  Running for first base, her foot turned under her.  This is wrong because it isn’t the foot that’s running for first base, it’s Jill.  The first thing we do to fix this sentence, then, is to break that part off from the rest of the sentence and rewrite it:  While she was running, her foot turned under her.  (We also ditch the repetition of for first base, because the reader’s seen that already and we don’t need to have another iteration of it cluttering up the page.)

This leave us with spraining her ankle and putting her on the bench for the rest of the season.  There are a couple of different ways to fix this part, depending upon whether you think that the sprained ankle or the benching for the season is the more important idea, or whether you want to give the two ideas approximately equal weight.

You could throw the emphasis onto the sprained ankle:  She sprained her ankle, which put her on the bench for the rest of the season.

You could emphasize the fact that Jill has been put out of action:  Because she sprained her ankle, she was put on the bench for the rest of the season.

Or you could get fancy and use a semicolon to hook up two equivalent clauses, giving them both equal weight and letting the reader determine their relationship:  She sprained her ankle; the injury put her on the bench for the rest of the season.

I like that last one – but then, I generally like semicolons.  Let’s use it anyway, for maximum sentence variety.  That gives us a new, finished paragraph:

Jill hit the ball and ran for  first base.  While she was running, her foot turned under her.  She sprained her ankle; the injury put her on the bench for the rest of the season.

This still isn’t one of the world’s blue-ribbon paragraphs – but it’s better than the one we started with.

And the voice from the back of the lecture hall asks, “Do I have to think like that about all my paragraphs?”

Sadly, yes.  But not until the second or third draft.  Finish the story first, then work on making the sentences better.  Because pretty sentences will get you nowhere if you haven’t got a story for them to tell.

Goings-On in the North Country

We drove over to Bradford, Vermont, today, to special-order a couple of books from Star Cat Books –also, to take a look at the flood damage along the local roads, because we’ve had some lately.  When the first warm weather of spring is followed up by major rainfall, things up here can get . . . interesting.  (Hint:  a place called Roaring Brook Road has that name for a reason, and every few years you’re going to find out why.)

On the heels of the heavy rainfall and flooding came a return of the winter cold, covering the flooded roads with sheets of ice.  The floodwaters had receded from most of the main roads by this morning (for a few hours on Tuesday night, our town was all but cut off from the world), but the reeds and bushes along the sides of the road were topped with little umbrellas of thin ice marking the level the water had reached.

Looky Here!

It’s National Library Week!  And the Oxford University Press is making its on-line resources free this week in honor of the occasion!

(Username and password: libraryweek.  Access in the US and Canada only.)

As I Write This…

…I am moved to peevish comment.

People, don’t use “as” to string clauses together when you’re narrating action.  Save “as” for linking together actions which are simultaneous or nearly so, and are directly related – “He leaped aboard the train as it pulled away from the platform’’ or “As he wandered about the room, he absent-mindedly rearranged all the knick-knacks and framed photographs.”  That sort of thing.

Don’t use it for joining clauses which would be more appropriately connected with “and” or “then.

And remember, also, that “as” is a subordinating conjunction.  If you use it to join a clause to the main body of your sentence, the grammatical setup implies that the action of that clause is less important than the action of the main verb.  Don’t do something like that unless you really mean it.  (Which is a pretty good all-purpose piece of writing advice, in case you ever wanted one.)

In general, important actions deserve to star in their own independent clauses, rather than being supporting players in somebody else’s sentence.

Environmental Change

By which I mean, I have acquired a new desk chair and I have rearranged the layout of my desk.

The new chair was a necessity.  My previous desk chair gave me many years of loyal service, but over the past month or so it had developed a forward tilt and a sideways list, making it uncomfortable to sit in.

The new desk layout sprang primarily from a desire to have my monitor not be in a position where I had to crane my neck slightly upward to look at it.  That placement was a holdover from the days of CRT monitors, which were as long or longer from front to back as they were from side to side.  The lower side of my desk wasn’t built to hold an object of that size.  As for the rest of the desk – let’s just say that back in the year when we bought it, the ergonomics of computer use were far from well-understood.

Also, the damned thing is so sturdy I probably couldn’t break it if I whaled away at it with a sledge hammer for a week.

More from the Department of Interesting Stuff

Here . . . have an article from the LA Times about a pair of stolen paintings – a Gauguin and a Cezanne – that turned out to have spent the last 44 years hanging in the kitchen of a retired Sicilian auto worker “who was unaware of their value” (he apparently picked them up at an auction for the equivalent of $30.)

It’s an interesting tidbit of news, and I’m only inclined to take issue with one statement in it.  The Sicilian auto worker in question may have been unaware of the paintings’ monetary worth, but – considering that he kept them in his home while he was working in Turin, and went to the trouble of taking them with him and hanging them up in his kitchen when he retired to Sicily – he was clearly aware of their value.  They were pictures he saw, and bought, and kept where he could see them every day, and it was all about him and the paintings, and nothing to do with who might have painted them or how much a collector might say they would bring at auction.

There are some critics out there, I am sure, who would assert that Sicilian Auto Guy wasn’t loving the pictures enough, or in the right way – because there are critics out there who say the same sort of thing about works of literature.  But I say that those critics are guilty of snobbery and intellectual arrogance – and I ought to know intellectual arrogance when I see it, because it’s my own second-favorite besetting sin.

(My very favorite is Wrath.  But after several decades of hard work, I’ve managed to tamp it down it to “at least I mostly behave myself in public” levels.)

Plot Device Obsolescence, Part the Next

We’ve already talked about how new tech can make old plot devices unworkable (with cell phones being the primary example.)  But there are other plots and plot developments that time and social change have rendered, if not dead forever, at least unusable for the foreseeable future.

Consider, for example, the persistent suitor.  Used to be, you could play this one for comedy, as in the Warner Brothers Pepé Le Pew cartoons, or play it straight, as in the long courtship of Anne Shirley by Gilbert Blythe in the Anne of Green Gables series, or in the equally extended courtship of Harriet Vane by the titular hero of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries.

These days, not so much.  No matter how good the writer or how well-presented the material, a goodly portion of the readership is going to take one look at the relationship dynamic and go, “Ugh! Stalker!” and lay your book aside, possibly by throwing it against the nearest wall.

And what if your presentation of the relationship is well-written, firmly based both in character development and in historical and regional context, and unquestionably believable?  In that case, a certain proportion of your readership will call you out for knowingly perpetuating a harmful stereotype by making it look good.

Really, there’s no way to win on this one.

As usual, I’m not saying “Don’t ever go there.”  What you decide to write is your call, and nobody else’s.  But I am saying, “If your muse is telling you that’s where you absolutely have to go, then do it with your eyes wide open to the consequences . . . and be sure you do it well.”

Today’s Peeve

I thought for sure I’d mentioned this one before, but a quick search informs me that in fact, I haven’t:

People, be aware that you don’t “fire” arrows.  “Fire” is a term from gunpowder tech, and the days when the person in charge of making a bullet or other projectile come out of the business end of the weapon had to apply literal flame to the powder at the other end.

The proper verb for arrows is “loose” – as in, the arrow is set free from the drawn bowstring.

“Shoot” also works. The verb goes back to Anglo-Saxon scēotan, meaning “to shoot” (it was also applied to the action of throwing a spear, but mostly to bows and arrows – sceotend, literally “shooter”, usually referred to an archer.)  When firearms came along, the old verb carried over to the newest entry in the category of “weapons that work by propelling something through the air towards a target.”

But talking about “firing” arrows will lose you credibility points with every medieval-weaponry geek and archery purist out there – and there are more of them out there than you’d think.

Today’s Bit of Amusement

Found elseweb: The Cowboy Hávamál, or, Old Norse wisdom translated into Wise Old Cowpoke.  A couple of brief samples:

You’re a goddamned fool
if you think you’ll live forever
just because you won’t fight.
Say nobody ever kills you -
old age is no peach, either.


Don’t think you’re the goddamned smartest,
or the toughest, or the best at anything,
and don’t let folks think you are, either.
Otherwise you’ll find out the hard way
that someone is always better.

It’s one of the Three Faces of the Action Hero, which are like the Three Faces of the Triple Goddess, only different: The Kid, the Gunslinger, and the Wise Old Cowpoke. They can be seen all in one movie in the first Star Wars film, with Luke and Han and Obi-Wan (aka Old Ben) Kenobi, or serially over time in the television and film career of Clint Eastwood.

Peeve of the Day

‘Tis a great day for the peevish . . . grey and clammy and chilly from dawn until dusk.

Perhaps it is the general greyness of the weather that moves me to say the following:

Gentle writer, if you’ve described a character as wearing “a colorful t-shirt”, pray employ your eraser or your delete key, as appropriate, and instead tell the reader what color that t-shirt actually is.

A “colorful” t-shirt is just a vaguely-tinted smudge in the reader’s mental vision.  A red t-shirt, now, or a black t-shirt, or a red-green-yellow-and-purple tie-dyed t-shirt . . . all of those different t-shirts don’t just make specific images in the reader’s head, they also carry information about the person wearing them, and a lot of other cultural data as well.  (We’ve got the vintage hippie, and the emo kid, and the guy who – depending upon his t-shirt’s hastily-glimpsed logo  – is a fan of either the Communist International or the University of Arkansas Razorbacks.  All that, from a t-shirt.)

Specificity is your friend.

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