Good writing comes down to two totally different factors: solid prose and “it.” The latter is that special something that brings stories to life, infuses vibrancy into characters and themes, and just basically makes stories work. But an author who has been blessed with all the “it” in the world still won’t make it if he isn’t also able to convey the essence of his genius in well-ordered, properly structured sentences and paragraphs.
Creating correct sentences is a technical process that offers set guidelines for getting the structure right. Within those guidelines, we have the opportunity to flex our creative muscles in all kinds of unique ways (and even to occasionally burst the bounds of those guidelines if we have good reason for doing so). But in discovering how and where to flex in order to tap our prose potential without inappropriately bursting those bounds, we should first learn to spot the most prevalent sentence slips-ups and know when to eliminate them from our stories. Following are ten.
1. Participle phrases.
What is it? The participle phrase is a verb phrase used as a modifier.
Example: Grabbing her pet flying monkey, Jana jumped onto its back.
What’s wrong with it? The participle phrase indicates two actions happening simultaneously. Unless both actions really are occurring at the same time, this indicates a false sequence of events, destroys the linearity of cause and effect, and robs the punch from both actions.
How to fix it: Usually, all you have to do is rework the sentence with the events properly ordered: “Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey and jumped onto its back.”
What is it? The run-on is a sentence that joins two or more independent clauses without an appropriate use of punctuation or conjunctions.
Example: Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey, she jumped onto its back.
What’s wrong with it? The run-on can occasionally be used for poetic effect or to indicate a flurry of activity. But usually it just looks like sloppy writing. It creates a choppy, breathless tone that can contribute to reader confusion.
How to fix it: Either divide the clauses into proper sentences or add the appropriate punctuation: “Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey. She jumped onto its back.” —or— “Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey, then she jumped onto its back.”
What is it? The fragment is a phrase that lacks either a subject or a predicate, thus preventing it from being a complete sentence.
Example: Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey. Jumped onto its back.
What’s wrong with it? Fragments offer only half a thought. Although they are often used to good effect in creating tone or emphasis (since people often do speak and think in fragments), they will create confusion when the missing half, whether it’s the subject or the predicate, isn’t clear.
How to fix it: Either tack the fragment onto one of its surrounding sentences or create a new sentence by adding the missing half: “Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey and jumped onto its back.” —or— “Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey. She jumped onto its back.”
4. “As” phrases.
What is it? “As” is a conjunction that indicates two events happening concurrently.
Example: As Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey, she jumped onto its back.
What’s wrong with it? Like the participle phrase, the “as” phrase goes astray when it indicates a simultaneity that isn’t accurate.
How to fix it: Rewrite the sentence to reflect proper linearity and cause and effect: “Jana grabbed her flying monkey, then jumped onto its back.”
5. Unclear antecedents.
What is it? An antecedent is the noun to which a related pronoun is referring.
Example: When she grabbed Isabella, her pet flying monkey, she poked her in the eye.
What’s wrong with it? Whenever we use a pronoun, we must be certain readers will understand to whom the pronoun is referring. In our example sentence, we can’t be quite
certain who’s poking whose eyes.
How to fix it: Either re-order the sentence so the correct antecedent precedes its pronoun, or eschew the pronouns and just name names: “When Jana grabbed Isabella, her pet flying monkey, the monkey poked Jana in the eye.”
6. Lack of variation.
What is it? Sentence structures need to be varied within each paragraph in order to present a pleasing rhythm.
Example: Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey Isabella. She jumped onto Isabella’s back. Isabella poked her in the eye.
What’s wrong with it?
The lack of variation is particularly evident when multiple short sentences are strung together, since it presents a choppy style that quickly becomes monotonous.
How to fix it: Mix up the sentence structure to include a variety of simple, complex, and compound sentences: “Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey, Isabella. But when she jumped
on Isabella’s back, the monkey poked her in the eye.”
7. Lack of parallelism.
What is it? Parallelism balances similar words or phrases by uniformly structuring them.
Example: Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey, whooped, then onto its back she jumped.
What’s wrong with it? A lack of parallelism creates a clunky sentence that can cause confusion, since the verb forms often get mixed up.
How to fix it: Make sure all words or phrases in a list are presented in the same way: “Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey, whooped, and jumped onto its back.”
What is it? A nominalization is an unnecessary distortion of a verb form into a noun or adjective.
Example: The attempt to learn how to ride monkeys of the flying variation should be approached only by those who have mastered the act of balancing.
What’s wrong with it? Nominalizations clutter up sentences by weakening otherwise strong verbs.
How to fix it: Trim unnecessary phrases and allow your verbs to do their job: “Only those who have masterful balance should attempt to learn to ride flying monkeys.”
9. Flabby sentences.
What is it? Flab in a sentence is caused by the inclusion of unnecessary words.
Example: With great nervousness, Jana took a step toward her flying monkey and sighed out a breath.
What’s wrong with it? Words must always have a reason for their presence in a sentence. If they aren’t contributing to either clarity or a deliberate linguistic effect, they don’t
belong. Never use two words where one will do.
How to fix it: Where possible, replace phrases with single words: “Nervously, Jana stepped toward her flying monkey and sighed.”
10. Subject/verb confusion.
What is it? Every sentence is founded upon two parts: the subject and the predicate (verb phrase). To work, both must agree in tense and plurality.
Example: Jana grabs her flying monkey, but the monkey weren’t happy.
What’s wrong with it? Confusion in tense or plurality between subject and verb murders sentence clarity and makes the author look incompetent, at best.
How to fix it: Always double-check that your verbs agree with their corresponding subjects and the overall tense of your story: “Jana grabbed her flying monkey, but the monkey wasn’t happy.”
If you can learn to recognize and correct these sentence slip-ups, you’ll be that much closer to perfect prose—which will allow you to focus that much more of your attention on the “it” factor that will send your stories from blah to beautiful.
Tell me your opinion: What sentence slip-up do you struggle with most?
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