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.

On Keeping a Quote Book

Maybe it’s just my milieu, but just about everyone I know has read Joan Didion’s iconic essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” I keep many notebooks, which means they all have a different purpose, all spend much of their lives half-filled, and all fight for space in my (very heavy) purse or my (very crowded) shelves.

But of all of these, my quote book is my favorite.

It started as a Word document on my computer nearly a decade ago, a collection of lines I loved from the books I read for English class. The first entry came from The Sorrows of Young Werther. Later, full passages from Sense and Sensibility, The Virgin Suicides, and The History of Love. Movie quotes began to sneak their way onto the (figurative) page. I tucked these phrases away like a squirrel with an acorn, storing them for when I needed them most.

But as I added and reviewed and reread my Word document over and over again, it began to feel like I hadn’t taken all the care these words deserved. And so I started a quote book, painstakingly copying the lines I had collected over the years into a somewhat standard notebook I owned. I used colored pens, a different color for each source, my cursive loopy.

I am both careful and impulsive with my entries. I have added lines from movies, musicals, articles, even Tumblr I cannot get out of my head. I have included every phrase I’ve highlighted from a particular book read on my Kindle, even if I can’t remember why I called it out in the first place. There are months where I make a dozen entries; there are many months where I make none.

But I always feel better after copying those words down. Some of the quotes have begun to feel like old friends.

Sometimes, my quote book feels like an extension of my diary, an odd charting of my moods and ages, my successes and disappointments. Reading over some of my favorite passages take me right back to where I first read them; I recall my emotional response to them as much as the words themselves.

There’s a line from Almost Famous (which, conveniently I copied into my quote book):

“I always tell the girls never take it seriously, if you never take it seriously you never get hurt, if you never get hurt you always have fun, and if you ever get lonely just go to the record store and visit your friends.”

I feel that way about my quote book.

Reading is, in my ways, a radical act of empathy. For a successful reading experience, you have to step outside your self and connect with someone else. Writing, too, requires the same effort. You never know what could resonate.

On a Kindle, you can see the phrases people highlight most often, which is sometimes fascinating and sometimes annoying. In either case, the underlining draws your attention. In a few cases, I wonder why anyone would mark that portion. Other times, I’m grateful other readers have pointed out a beautiful line I might have otherwise missed. It feels like cheating, like I am just going along with public opinion.

Mostly, though, I love that my quote book feels sometimes like a scrapbook of my life, all these past version of me accumulating into a whole. The lines I loved 10 years ago aren’t necessarily the lines I love now. I can see myself change, see myself grow, within these pages. I make sense of the world in words, and sometimes the only way I can work through a problem is by repeating the words of someone else. These lines are like a magnifying mirror, something that reflects your image in a way you might not have seen it before.

There’s something beautiful about having a physical manifestation of the things you loved, the people you were, the ideas to bolster you as you move on to other things. I have lines I can recite from memory and lines I can’t remember copying. Every so often, I’ll reread a book and find new phrases that knock me out. So I’ll grab my pen and write them down in the same color as the original.

I’m a big believer in everyone having a quote book. Not just because I am a person who loves to remember, not just because I have an odd fascination with the subject of permanence, but because I believe that words provide comfort, and I like to see how that translates and transforms as the years go by. I may not be sixteen any more, but I can flip to the front of my quote book and remember exactly what that feels like.

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.”