Grace's Mosaic Moments

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Telltale signs of Amateur Writing

Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

I just saw a perfect example of bad editing, or perhaps just plain fuzzy thinking. AOL news headline: Clinton mocks Trump with 3 a.m. tirade online. 

Now if I, or you, didn't know better, doesn't that headline indicate that it was Hillary "tirading" at 3:00 a.m.? There HAD to be a better way to write that headline. (Maybe the writer was a Trump supporter?) In any event it makes an excellent example of how easy it is to say something we never intended to say. [For my foreign readers, it was Trump who embarrassed himself (again) with a tweet at 3:00 a.m., ranting against a former Miss Universe.]

Frankly, I'm coming around to the idea I've heard expressed by several commentators: Trump went into this as a lark, has enjoyed the ego trip, but doesn't really want to take on the burden of office. (Perhaps he's smart enough to understand how truly unready he is.) In any event - particularly when his own people say he was prepared for his debate with Hillary yet did not use the material he was given - I suspect not all his "blunders" are just Donald raving. He may actually be making an effort to shoot himself in the foot. (Not that he hasn't done that a lot of times before, but so close to the election . . .)

~ * ~

During the twenty-five years I lived in Venice, Florida, a delightful community on the Gulf Coast, there is one thing we all knew not to do: swim in fresh water. I was absolutely astounded when I moved to the Orlando area and discovered there were actually fresh-water beaches on many of the lakes. Everyone was so complacent that even Disney failed to warn its guests about the possibility of alligator attack, leading to the death of a toddler this past summer. Warning signs are finally going up everywhere. 

While in Venice, I frequently took guests on the tour boat at Myakka State Park where the lake is just crawling with alligators. But never have I seen anything to equal the video taken by a bicyclist on the Lake Apopka trail just this week. For a link to the video, click here.

~ * ~


More reminders of those little bitty things that show us
we're not as smart as we think we are.

This morning I got up and made coffee and then I drank it while I read the newspaper and then the doorbell rang and it was a special delivery telling me I won the Publishers' Clearing House Sweepstakes.

Wow! Is that exciting, or what?

1.  The sentence runs on and on, mixing the mundane with the thrill of a lifetime.

2.  The sentence is strongly sprinkled with the word "then," which has to be at the top of the list of words every author should avoid like the plague.

3.  The sentence is also liberally strewn with the word "and," which is probably the second most deadly word in an author's vocabulary.

4.  The marvel of winning a Sweepstakes is totally thrown away by being tacked on at the end of a run-on sentence. No suspense, no thrill. Just BLAH.

 Yes, of course "then" and "and" are necessary. Occasionally. (I admit to a real problem with "and." It's the word I most frequently delete when self-editing.)

Below is another version of the first paragraph, tossed off the top of my head, but surely better than the original.

This morning I got up, made coffee, and settled down to drink it while reading the newspaper. I was savoring the French Vanilla flavor and being depressed by the latest mass shooting when the doorbell rang. Didn't want to get up. Hadn't had enough coffee yet, and who comes by this early in the morning anyway? But—I heaved a sigh—it just might be important. 

I cracked open the door, and got the shock of my life. You won't believe! It was Publishers' Clearing House. I won!

Grace Note: Somehow one sentence became eight, and there was at least a little excitement. The main character was experiencing his day, not just sitting back and telling us about it. Yes, I used "and," but I did not run one sentence on and on and on until each clause detracted from the one that went before. I also managed to convey my meaning without using the dreaded "then."

I hasten to add, because some people take warnings so literally - yes, there are places where you can use "then," just as there are places where you can use "and" without creating a run-on sentence. But be SPARING. Make an effort to say what you want to say without using either one

More on "and"
"And" is a wonderful word - it comes in really handy at times. But if you're writing an action scene, forgetaboutit. "And" slows action to a crawl. Short, sharp sentences are what you need. Sentences uncluttered by additions or qualifications. The same is true of dramatic scenes. Do not bog them down by long, meandering sentences that become meaningless because they do not convey a sense of urgency, tension, or suspense. 

Less is More.
The above paragraphs lead up to this classic "rule" of self-editing. Yes, there are places where you can, and should, let the descriptive juices flow, but in general, clarity comes from using less words, not more. In the past I've spent a lot of time on the subject of ADDING color, description, explanations, motives, identifications, etc., but it is also vitally important to be able to spot the places where you need to delete. Sometimes an entire sentence, but most often just a word here and there. ("Very" is frequently a word we can do without.) Find better, more succinct ways to substitute for the "stream of consciousness" that flew off your fingers. It may be artistic, but does it make sense to 21st c. readers? 

Punctuation of those Pesky Conjunctions.*

In a compound sentence, tradition dictates a comma before the conjunction that joins the two clauses. Even the Chicago Manual of Style allows you leave it out, though grudgingly. I personally hate compound sentences without a comma in the middle. It is, however, considered Author's Choice these days.

In a sentence with only a compound verb, do NOT use a comma between the verbs unless you want a deliberate pause, the feeling of a switch to a different topic.

The ubiquitous "then." For some reason almost everyone continues to put a comma before "then." Why? Must be that our teachers dinned it into our heads and we can't let go. Even when it divides a compound verb. Guess this is a case where I say, "Don't do it" and go ahead and do it myself. Sigh.

Perhaps another reason not to use "then" in the first place!

*And, then, but, yet, so, etc. 

A few reminders that came up recently while editing.
1.  Time. Writing time can be tricky. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends the following:

    a.  "Time of day in even, half, and quarter hours are usually spelled out in text":   five o'clock, seven-thirty, quarter to four

    b. For more exact times, such as 5:22, and times when the number is emphasized (the train leaves at 2:00), use numerals.

    c. a.m. and p.m. are recommended, but AM and PM without periods is permissible (ideally in smaller type)   

2Single quotes are used only within double quotes. If you need quotes during narration, you must use the same double quotes you use for dialogue.

3Italics are used for Date & Location lines, the names of newspapers, books, and ships. Example:  The Orlando Sentinel, Disney Princess. They are not used for the names of companies, streets, or restaurants.

4May & might. "May" is present tense. "Might" is past tense. Since most books are written in past tense, "might" is the word you need to use. For some mysterious reason I am seeing more and more books written in past tense which suddenly switch to present, using "may" in place of "might." This error screams at me. I just don't understand how this trend happened. (And no, I didn't get this information out of my 60-year old Webster's Unabridged. My source is two dictionaries only a few years' old.) 

Please, folks, "might" is not a word out of the past. It's a PAST TENSE and needs to be used correctly. 

Speculation: authors reading books written in present tense are letting that style creep into their own works, even though they're writing in past tense?? 

~ * ~ 

Thanks for stopping by,

For Grace's website, listing all books as Blair Bancroft, click here.

For a brochure for Grace's editing service, Best Foot Forward, click here.  



  1. Ah, Grace. I normally avoid making snarky comments on other people's posts, but since this one is about editing, and because I am clearly procrastinating what I should be doing on this pre-hurricane day, I will ask if the following is now considered acceptable:

    "clarity comes from using less words, not more."

    It's one of those things that grates on me every time I see it, though alas I've occasionally been known to do it myself. Even in grocery stores I mentally bless the signs that say, "10 items or fewer."

    Stay safe!

  2. Ah, Linda, with Matthew bearing down, you are my laugh of the day. Yes, of course you're correct. But the editing expression is "Less is more" and sometimes we bend words to make more impact. Guess I should have put "less" in quotes. Thanks for the heads-up.