The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors (halfshellvenus) wrote,
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors

On Writing: Punctuation and Sentence Construction

I promised further installments on the topic of writing awhile back. Today's entry is on sentence structure and punctuation.

I mentioned about a month back that I'm reading aloud to my son one of the stories I loved as child. When I discovered this book over thirty years ago, I read it repeatedly, captivated by the tantalizing way the story unfolded its mystery. I never noticed how jarring some of the mechanics of the writing itself were. In many ways, this book became the final straw in actually posting some of troublesome parts of writing I've been thinking about over the last two years.

One of the reasons for the obviousness of the problems I'm seeing now (in this book and so many others) is precisely the fact that I'm reading it out loud. You may have heard the advice to read your own writing out loud, to help find missing words and vague or awkward phrasing. There is a reason this advice is so often given!

The sentence below is one I stumbled over, giving it the wrong inflection when I read it out loud. Because my son was half-asleep the first night, the following evening I backed up half a page and re-read… only to make the exact same mistake with this sentence again!

She had a mass of coiled-up hair, and two silver darts pierced the coil, Nina saw as the woman turned her head to look up at the picture.

My first reaction the second time through was, "Wait a minute—your right to use an 'as' construction expired half a sentence ago."

Now, try this slight change in punctuation on for size:

She had a mass of coiled-up hair and two silver darts pierced the coil, Nina saw, as the woman turned her head to look up at the picture.

Simply removing an unneeded comma after 'coiled-up hair' and adding the necessary comma after 'Nina saw' prepares the reader for the possibility that the sentence may change direction (as, in fact, it does).

This would be even easier to read with a slightly different phrasing:

She had a mass of coiled-up hair pierced by two silver darts, Nina saw, as the woman turned her head to look up at the picture.

However, there is a larger issue worth discussing here, and that is the problem of pulling a sentence in too many different directions. The sentence above tries to draw our attention to the woman's appearance and her actions and to Nina's observation of both. Two of those three things would be plenty!

This is a problem I've seen several times in fanfiction. While it is painful to encounter this in an occasional sentence, if it's a regular part of the author's style then that is someone whose stories I won't read.

Important Rule: Don't make readers battle through your sentences to figure out what you're trying to say.

For instance, do not "inside-out" your sentences. Here is something written as a joke for a class back in college:

He was someone whom I, when I was in the war, had known.

Simplified version (one of so many possibilities): I knew him from my time in the war.

This problem often arises when the author is trying to refer back to the past inside of a sentence set in the present. For instance,

It all fell on Harold's shoulders now, dealing with Bobby, worse than when their mother had died back when Bobby was only four, nearly a baby then and so terrified and lost he didn't speak for a year, and Harold knew this would only be worse.

I couldn't make that quite as painful as some of the sentences I've read, because you can probably still figure out what's going on and who's doing what the first time through. But I think it makes the point: rather than putting the reader through whiplash with a sentence like that, the better method is to break it up into two or more sentences. For simplicity, it's easiest to present your event from the past, and then refer to it in the following sentence(s). For instance,

Their mother had died when Bobby was four, and Bobby was so terrified and lost afterward that he didn't speak for a year. Harold knew this would be worse. The weight of it would fall on him, even though Bobby was all grown up now. It would still be Harold's burden to bear.

Now, you could argue that there's an urgency in the first example (a narrative desperation) that's missing from the second (which has a more 'weary' tone instead). But (as in most actual fanfic examples I've read), if the reader can't figure out what you're saying, the tone is lost anyway. You have to find a middle ground between clarity and narrative effect. If readers are forced to parse through your passage more than once, they likely will just quit on you. That's probably not what you want!

As I showed earlier, punctuation can be key in helping the reader interpret your prose correctly the first time through. Consider the following phrase:

The thing is Dean's been through this before.

The sentence runs on forward with the implication of The thing is Dean's. Dean's what exactly? That's the kind of noun I'd like to know more about! But what the sentence meant to say was,

The thing is, Dean's been through this before.

That single comma after the opening phrase makes all the difference. Commas are for separating clauses in sentences, but can also be used where the reader would pause if reading the sentence out loud (that is, pause because the meaning or inflection of the sentence is changing, and not simply because the reader is running out of air). Remember our original topic? Here's another example of punctuating the opening phrase:

As Dean rambled on Sam's attention wandered back to yesterday.

Dean rambled on Sam's what now? If you read that exactly as it's written, there's a certain naughty overtone to it. What it should say instead is,

As Dean rambled on, Sam's attention wandered back to yesterday.

Again, the comma makes all the difference.

Other books I've read out loud run into a similar problem with lists that go on too long. Sometimes it's due to unusual punctuation, such as:

There were A, B, C and D and E, and by the way F was once very fond of G, H, I…

Ouch. Which part was the list in that sentence? In the actual book, the continuation of it showed that all of it was part of the same list. But did you read it that way the first time through? I didn't.

Other times, it's because the list is a single overloaded sentence. One passage in "The Incredible Journey" is a list describing various scenic aspects of an area as seen from many different perspectives. This list is a one-sentence paragraph that goes on for nearly four vertical inches in a paperback book. Just when you think it's over, a new clause describing something else arrives! This is where it's useful to use the following technique instead:

The trees were the dark green of forgotten forests, blah-blah-blah. At their base was a scatter of leaves in yellow, orange, and scarlet, drifting and piling up against the large grainy boulders that lay without pattern. To the east, blah-blah-blah…

There is no need for the descriptive passage to be a one-sentence list, and it is nearly unreadable in its original form. Separate sentences, even the simple convention of The western side was... or First there were the… can be used without detracting from the narrative goal.

Now let us return to the original, thorny sentence with which this discussion began:

She had a mass of coiled-up hair, and two silver darts pierced the coil, Nina saw as the woman turned her head to look up at the picture.

I've demonstrated the re-punctuated example (which helped only slightly), and the rewritten example (which was much better but could still be improved). If we apply the technique of breaking up the sentence into two parts, this might result:

As the woman turned her head to look up at the picture, Nina noticed her hair. It was a coiled-up mass pierced by two silver darts.

But better still, as I hinted at earlier, is to reduce what the sentence is trying to do. The point-of-view throughout the story is Nina's, even when she's not mentioned directly. So why must she intrude into this particular sentence at all?

The woman turned her head to look up at the picture, revealing an elaborate mass of coiled-up hair pierced by two silver darts.

This final example has all of the same detail without the awkward phrasing used to reference the main character's point-of-view.

To summarize, read and re-read what you've written— out loud if necessary. Read what you actually wrote, not what you intended to write. If you let the words sit for a day or two between readings, you will get much the same effect.

The more practice you acquire at weeding out your own awkward phrases and constructions, the easier it will become for you to spot them during the process of writing. It is better for you to find and revise them than for your readers to stumble over them in your final product.


Additional information: In the comments below, readers have also mentioned Nisus Writer (a word-processing application with a word-to-voice feature) and open-source screenreader code for various platforms (more on that here.)

Tags: writing
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