Keeping subject and verb together

Keeping subject and verb together

Writing tipsThe English language can be too flexible for its own good. Many structures are allowed in English, even if this obscures meaning to the point of incoherence. Clause upon clause can be inflicted on the reader, before they reach the crucial verb that explains everything. As a writing tutor, I advise students to identify the active verb in their labyrinthine sentences. Very often, this verb is miles away from its subject, to baffling effect. Here’s a short example:

BEFORE: The boy, feeling embarrassed because it was not a very cool thing to do,
gave his mother a hug.

Reducing the gap between the subject and the verb improves the clarity of the sentence:
AFTER: The boy gave his mother a hug, feeling embarrassed because it was not a very cool thing to do.

Why not check your own writing and try this for yourself?

Deborah Chancellor

31 May 2017

When the blank page is your friend

When the blank page is your friend

I’m always reading about the tyranny of the blank page, the terror of starting something new. But once you’ve got going, when you’re drafting, and especially when you’re editing, the blank page can be your friend. When I can’t see why a paragraph or a sentence isn’t working, I cut and paste it into a new document. There, in isolation, it looks different. I break paragraphs into sentences, listing them one under the other. I take sentences apart too, arranging phrases and clauses in the same way. Often I see repetitions I hadn’t noticed before or it might sound as if there’s repetition when some unintended alliteration is making the sentence clumsy. It’s a good opportunity to read my work aloud. Once I’ve rewritten and reordered the paragraph, I paste the new version back into my draft. Magic.

Cherise Saywell
17 May 2017

Zadie Smith and the semi-colon

Zadie Smith and the semi-colon

Writing tipsI was lucky enough to hear the novelist Zadie Smith speak at last year’s Cambridge Literary Festival. After discussing her novel, Swing Time, someone asked Smith if her decision to live in the United States had affected her writing. Interestingly, she reflected upon style not content, saying that she was now almost cured of her addiction to the semi-colon. A new kind of American directness had pervaded her writing, enabling her to get to the point far more efficiently. So, students and aspiring writers: do you find that your writing is littered with complex sentences, semi-colons and dashes? See if you can divide your over-long sentences so they are shorter and clearer. The over-use of the semi-colon may be the first thing to address in the quest to improve your style.

Deborah Chancellor
3 May 2017

Print it out!

Print it out!

Nowadays, students frequently submit their assignments online. They write and edit an essay on screen and send it off with the tap of a key. Printing it out seems unnecessary and it’s costly. But I’d advise you to print out your work just once — ideally when you feel it’s almost finished. Looking at the pages in black and white allows you to spot any repetition of sentences or phrases more easily than on a screen, and you’re more likely to notice awkward wording or typos too. Try it out. I can guarantee you’ll find errors you hadn’t noticed before — and I’ll bet there’s at least one mistake in that all-important introductory paragraph.

Cath Senker
22 March 2017

Re-ordering paragraphs

Re-ordering paragraphs

Writing tipsIt’s often difficult to look at your essay with an objective, critical eye. I use the following strategy when I need to examine the order of my paragraphs — here is what to do:

Print out a hard copy of the draft of your essay and number each paragraph. On a separate sheet of paper write a list: 1, 2, 3 etc., leaving a space between each one. Then write down next to each number what that paragraph is about, in one word or phrase if possible. Let your eye drift down the list. Did you intend, in paragraph 19, to return to the topic of paragraph 11? Did you aim to spend paragraphs 20–25 on one aspect of your argument, but only one paragraph on another aspect? If so, fine. If not, you can rearrange your paragraphs to improve the structure and flow of your essay.

Sarah LeFanu
22 February 2017

How to be your own editor

How to be your own editor

Image credit: Fran Tegg

I have a strange confession to make: I love editing. Before I was a writer, I was a children’s non-fiction book editor. I spent several years restructuring, rewriting and tidying up other people’s work.

When I started writing books myself, I wanted to incorporate my editorial skills. But it’s hard to edit your own work. How can you achieve a feeling of separation from your own writing and look at it objectively? I like to think of my first draft as a terrible manuscript sent in by an author; it’s down to me to knock it into publishable shape. The text goes through several versions, the process taking far longer than cobbling together the original draft. Gradually, I transform it from a scrambled mess into readable prose.

Although I enjoy editing, my students seem to hate it. In a workshop entitled ‘How can I improve my grade?’ I asked the group of undergraduates and postgraduates from various disciplines to write on a sticky note how they felt about editing their essays. Apart from one participant, who joyously wrote ‘eager’, the rest expressed such sentiments as ‘anxious’, ‘stressed’, ‘fed up’ and ‘prefer to avoid it’.

The trick to making the editing process less fearful is to break it down into manageable chunks. You can’t simply read your essay passively, hoping that mistakes will leap out at you. I advise dividing the work into two main stages and drawing up a checklist of tasks so you focus on one at a time.

First, examine what you are saying. Are you answering the question? Is your structure clear? Make sure your argument flows through the essay and that you have a good topic sentence at the start of each paragraph to make your point. Then review how you are expressing yourself: divide any over-long sentences and cut unnecessary words and phrases. Ensure your grammar and punctuation are correct, that you have used terms consistently, and check your spelling. Finally, make sure your assignment is laid out in the correct format, with accurate referencing.

What’s the clincher to persuade you this lengthy process is worth the effort? Every editorial task you carry out will help you to improve your grade. Good writing is all in the editing. It’s as true for students as it is for academics and professional writers.

1 February 2017
Cut the waffle

Cut the waffle

Writing tips‘Less is more.’ This is what I say to my PhD students, most of whom don’t have English as their first language. In academic English, short sentences and paragraphs are often clearer, more readable and more effective than long ones. When you edit your writing, read it aloud, either to yourself or to an interested friend, and be ruthless about cutting waffle — those parts that use lots of words but do not say anything important or interesting. To quote from George Orwell in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946): ‘A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?’ All writers would be wise to heed Orwell’s words today.

Miranda Miller
11 January 2017

Rambling: best left for the outdoors

Rambling: best left for the outdoors

Writing tipsWriters shouldn’t ramble. Yet it’s such an easy mistake to make that many writers don’t realise they’re doing it. But your reader will. And soon they’ll feel the constricting effect of your sentences slowly wrapping round them. Bit by bit, your words will weigh the reader down, make them stumble and, eventually, rob them of the will to go on.

How do you know if you’re rambling? Read your work aloud! Struggling for breath and still no full stop in sight? How many words are in your sentences? More than thirty? You’re rambling.

To see how it works, replace the first five full stops in this piece with commas. What do you get? A 59-word sentence that’s like trudging across a muddy field. Instead, follow the one-point-per-sentence rule. Find the place in your sentence where your first point has been fully made and insert a full stop. If needed, use a suitable connective – such as ‘and’, ‘but’ or ‘nevertheless’ – to continue with what you were saying. This makes your writing easy to read.

Chris Simms
14 December 2016

Read your work aloud

Read your work aloud

Writing tipsRhythm and flow and sense can all be put to the test when you read your work aloud, because the ear is so sensitive to dissonance. And because reading aloud is strangely alienating (work you’ve written doesn’t sound like your own), you judge it differently, listening for flow and movement, and how engaging it is. The exercise also catches faulty punctuation: when your tongue trips, so does the mind. Reading aloud helps you to check that your voice is coming through clearly in an appropriate tone and you find that you can easily detect any clanging notes of falseness. The tool is simple, but it’s invaluable.

Marina Benjamin
16 November 2016

Getting ‘distance’ from your writing

Getting ‘distance’ from your writing

Writing tipsTo assess your own writing, it’s vital to get a bit of distance so you can look at it dispassionately. When you’re at the (almost) final stage of drafting, print out the day’s work at the end of your writing session. Set the page(s) aside and have a fresh look at them the following day. Looking at a printout makes it much easier to assess what you’ve written, and to spot errors, typos and repetition. As well as distance from your writing, you need distance from your research so that you can consider whether any particular piece of research merits a place in your work. This is why I advise against continuing to research once you have started writing. Articles that you’ve only just read will loom larger in your mind than ones digested days or weeks before. Being too close to either your writing or your research can cloud your judgement, skew your argument or even wreck it entirely — the last thing you want when you have a deadline.

Jen Green
5 October 2016