Quick Fix: Conjunctions

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had Schoolhouse Rock’s “Conjunction Junction” stuck in my head since third grade. People have a tendency to overlook conjunctions; like prepositions, they’re the boring (song exempt!) building blocks of our language. We usually don’t pay a lot of attention to them in writing and editing. But conjunctions help to make ideas flow smoothly. When conjunctions and prepositions are used incorrectly or oddly, they often alert me to an issue with the writing on a syntax level. I’m going to focus on just two conjunctions—”and” and “but”—in today’s post.

Please enjoy my simple examples I obviously put a lot of thought into!

“And” joins two related things

“And” appears everywhere in our writing. On a stylistic level, I love a repeated “and” to increase emotional intensity (“beautiful and lovely and smart” in lieu of “beautiful, lovely, and smart”) or the inverse with “and” eliminated (“beautiful, lovely, smart”). But “and” also serves an important function, especially when combining two independent clauses. Those clauses need to be related. For example: “She sat at her desk and the dog went to get some water.” This would be better separated into two sentences. They have two different subjects. Her sitting down at her desk doesn’t affect whether the dog goes to get water. Consider another example: “She sat at her desk and her eye caught the mirror.” This could be better rephrased as “She sat at her desk and caught her reflection in the mirror.” (Or whatever it is her eye caught.) There are lots of additional options to replace “and.” A semi-colon can be remarkably effective in connecting two phrases that don’t appear related on first glance. For the most part, “and” functions perfectly well and doesn’t necessarily need a second look. But if you do a search and spot an unusual number of them on the page, consider whether they’re working to their full potential.

“But” requires conflict

How many times did I begin a sentence in the last paragraph with “But?” I have no issue starting a sentence with a conjunction. It can be remarkably effective in creative, stylized writing—don’t quote me on formal writing! You should remember, though, that “but” must appear in opposition to something. For example: “she wanted to sit at her desk, but thought better of it.” This is particularly important when discussing competing ideas. They have to be in conflict with each other. “She loved him, but she found him spectacular.” These two things are not in conflict. Now, this is not a complex example of competing ideas. I see issues with this more commonly spread out over several sentences or a paragraph. When using “but,” make sure you’ve clearly identified the antagonist, as it were, earlier in the sentence (or in a close preceding sentence). Again, most people have a firm grasp on the use of “but,” but it never hurts to remain vigilant when editing!

If you have questions about pesky issues like these, please feel to suggest topics for this series in the comments below or on Twitter.

Quick Fix: An Editor’s Tips

After a long hiatus, I’m back to updating my blog and starting a new series: Quick Fix (thank you to The Huntswoman for the name).

In reviewing submissions and editing novels, I see the same small issues pop up again and again. We all have what I refer to as “writing tics.” In fact, I often end editorial letters to my authors with a summary of their most used. These range from overuse of “just” to POV issues signaled by italics to too many em-dashes. I myself am prone to too many parentheses; overladen, overwritten sentences; and repetition.

A large part of my job involves making good writing better. So how do you do that? Establish a voice, consistently apply POV, and eliminate redundancies, among other things.

Above all, good writing requires clarity.

The good news is, there are lots of quick and easy tricks to improve your writing. This series will provide a summary of what I look for as I read, along with issues that pop up consistently over the course of longer edits.

So let’s dive right in. 

Yes, No, Fix It So

“He nods his head ‘yes.'”

“She shakes her head ‘no.'”

Can you guess why I would flag these sentences?

The “yes” and “no” in these examples can and often should be eliminated. These are redundant. The “yes” and “no” are implicit in the action. You don’t nod your head “no” or shake your head “yes” in most cultures (I use “most” only because I don’t know what I don’t know; if this is a common practice in other cultures, please tell me!).

Peak/Peek/Pique 

An agent I work with posted something about this on Twitter the other day. Misuse of peak/peek/pique comes up all the time. I’m often guilty of it. I second-guess peak/peek all the time. But I’m most concerned when I come across a peak/peek used instead of pique. I don’t mind a letter mistake, but I do become concerned at usage that requires a different root and spelling.

All definitions (the most applicable ones) c/o Merriam-Webster:

Peak (noun)- 1. Promontory; 2. A sharp of pointed end.

(adjective) Being at or reaching maximum.

Peek (verb)- 1. To look furtively; 2. To take a brief look; glance

Pique (verb)- 1. to excite or arouse especially by a provocation, challenge, or rebuff; 2. to arouse anger or resentment in; irritate.

(noun) A transient feeling of wounded vanity; resentment

You see the difference? You reach the peak of a mountain or peak productivity. You peek around a corner. His comment piques your interest, which leaves your friend in a fit of pique.

In other words, you peek at the peak of a mountain, the height of which piques your curiosity.

We all make mistakes! I’m sure I’ve made a number here. We all could use an edit. Good writing contains mistakes; the best we can do is be smart about them. I hope Quick Fix will help you do just that.

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4 Quick Tips to Improve Your Writing

In my day job, I spend a lot of time getting into the nitty gritty of a writer’s prose. Here are habits I see all the time that can be easily avoided to strengthen your writing.

1.Prune adverbs

This is advice novice writers always hear. It’s sometimes mistaken for “use no adverbs,” which is not what this suggests. Take a look at your adverb usage and look for places where adverbs compensate for weak writing. For example, “she said softly” could become “she whispered” or “she murmured.” Make sure that the adverbs you use are necessary to your meaning. The same advice goes for adjectives.

2. Take a closer look at was + ing

The was + ing (was walking, was talking, was writing, etc.) can often be replaced with a past participle. Unless it’s vital to the understanding of a timeline, this should be rendered in past tense. Many ongoing and continuing actions can be understood in past tense. For example, “he was looking at her throughout the night” can become “he looked at her throughout the night” with little loss to the meaning.

3. Keep an eye out for stage directions

When writing, authors like to visualize a scene in their head, parsing it out step by step. But sometimes those steps aren’t eliminated in the revision stage. A reader rarely needs all the detail about a character that strides to the door, places her hand on the doorknob, turns the knob to the right, pushes open the door, steps into the room, swings the door back, and shuts the door. Use only what’s necessary for the story.

4. Make sure you know whose head you’re in

If you’re narrating in close third person, don’t slip into another tense or POV without reason. I see many authors writing in close third person switch into first person italics without considering the perspective. If we are in a character’s thoughts, we don’t need tags like “she thought.” In the same vein, “I heard someone knock at the door” is not as strong as “someone knocked at the door.”