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21 April 2008 @ 11:12 am
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.)

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The Good, The Bad and The Lana: smilie priyankathelana on April 21st, 2008 06:32 pm (UTC)
So... any chance you would be okay with submitting this to metafandom?
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 21st, 2008 08:58 pm (UTC)
Please. It could be ignored, or could wind up with a lot of people complaining about grammar nits. ;) But go ahead. It's a useful multi-fandom and writing discussion, I hope. :D

Edited at 2008-04-22 04:45 pm (UTC)
jeyhawkjeyhawk on April 21st, 2008 07:01 pm (UTC)
Thanks, honey. :0)

Very interesting examples and you make a whole lot of sense. I do struggle with the commas and I'm way too fond of writing run on sentences.

Since I now face the daunting task of editing my massive bigbang, I find that I look around more and more for advice of different kinds. Be it on plot, narrative, or simply grammar.

PS. For some reason I also lose my grasp of the English language when writing comments to you. You intimidate me. :0P
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 21st, 2008 09:21 pm (UTC)
Very interesting examples and you make a whole lot of sense.
I hoped the examples would really help. The first one, which was a sentence from an actual book, was just awful. It offered the chance to show how correctly punctuating it would help a little bit, but that various means of entirely modifying it would help SO much more. A couple of the other examples came from our comment discussion on the last installment. :)

Be it on plot, narrative, or simply grammar.
With a work of that size, the "plot" aspect (and how well it comes across) seems like the thing to tackle first-- perhaps with a separate beta. It may work exactly as is, or a little tweaking might finalize it, but in the process you'll have a better idea of what you want the narrative to be, and then the grammar is the final polish.

Your English is already far better than many native speakers, so you are farther along than most!

You intimidate me. :0P
:0 I think it's the nature of these essays-- I spent far too much time rewriting parts of this one late into this morning, because any discussion on writing had better itself demonstrate good clear writing.

And then there's the issue of presenting examples without using actual fanfic examples or identifying the RL author who spawned the dreadful sentence that was the talking point of this essay. The more you talk around something, the greater the challenge in still making your presentation clear. ;)
hilaryundersea on April 22nd, 2008 07:14 pm (UTC)
via metafandom
Reading out loud never fails to reveal some mistakes that you never would have noticed otherwise. Sometimes when you don't read something aloud, you skim and miss things, but when you take the time to actually speak the words, you have to focus on every single one, as well as how they're put together. It's easier to hear something sound awkward rather than see it that way sometimes.

I enjoyed reading this; thanks for sharing it with metafandom.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 22nd, 2008 07:28 pm (UTC)
Re: via metafandom
Reading out loud never fails to reveal some mistakes that you never would have noticed otherwise. Sometimes when you don't read something aloud, you skim and miss things, but when you take the time to actually speak the words, you have to focus on every single one, as well as how they're put together.

I've tried to make this point with my daughter as well, on her school assigments: "Read what you actually wrote, not what you think it should say." Because without that, all of the missing words or wrong words get automatically re-supplied and the actual written version is still wrong!

It's easier to hear something sound awkward rather than see it that way sometimes.
When I read my own stories/posts after some time has passed (usually more than a day or two), I hear the words in my head. This is how some of those remaining awkward sentences get straightened out, because repeat-reading in succession produces familiarity and then you stop noticing what you've actually said.

Thanks for reading and commenting!
amonitrateamonitrate on April 22nd, 2008 07:41 pm (UTC)
here via metafandom - great post.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 22nd, 2008 08:15 pm (UTC)
Thank you. If it helps at least one person see any of these techniques more clearly, it will definitely have been worth it. :)
(Deleted comment)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 22nd, 2008 11:24 pm (UTC)
Other than blogging and perhaps work, most people do so little true writing anymore. Once you leave school, there are no essays to be written (or persuasive arguments to draft), and most of us use email rather than writing out correspondence by hand. Our conventions of writing have changed from "What a hilarious story" to "LOL!"

I hope this does help you-- that was the whole motivation for spending a late night writing this. Thanks for letting me know. :)
(Deleted comment)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 22nd, 2008 11:36 pm (UTC)
One of the hardest things is the slow death of certain conventions. For instance, see the comma in the beginning of this sentence? That's exactly the kind of useage people seem more and more to be forgetting.

I do understand the desire to rid a sentence of UNnecessary commas, because even grammatically correct start-stop-start-stop-start-stop can still be annoying. But if the writing loses clarity (or starts to imply something else entirely!) then it's worth revisiting with a more critical eye.

Good luck with your venture. I hope this post made some of those conventions clearer for you. :)
screaming cardiac frenzy of berserk despair: chaos theory (credit fluidic_icons)acchikocchi on April 22nd, 2008 10:15 pm (UTC)
Here from metafandom, as well. What a helpful post -- I hope many people read it. *g* (And a question -- is the book mention by any chance "The Court of the Stone Children," by Eleanor Cameron?)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 22nd, 2008 11:41 pm (UTC)
(And a question -- is the book mention by any chance "The Court of the Stone Children," by Eleanor Cameron?)
Yes it is. :) I didn't want to identify it, because although I love the story I now find myself getting peeved with certain parts of it in the "reading out loud" process with my son. There's an entire rant due later on clearly identifying POVs, ALSO largely inspired by the style in that novel. Specifically, it is the mixing of 3rd-person narrative with first-person internal monologue, without clear punctuation to draw the distinction. Gah! I hate embarrassing myself in front of an eight-year-old by reading something the wrong way.

Given some problems in a fanfic I'm betaing, and a fairly horrid novel I recently finished, the POV discussion will be worth undertaking as well. :)
(no subject) - acchikocchi on April 22nd, 2008 11:44 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on April 23rd, 2008 12:01 am (UTC) (Expand)
The Mezzaninedeird1 on April 22nd, 2008 10:22 pm (UTC)
(here from metafandom)

Wonderful post!

*rushes off and adds to mems*
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 22nd, 2008 11:42 pm (UTC)
Ooh, thank you! *is totally thrilled now with the staying up until 2am to finish the main draft of the post* :)
The Elf ½elfwreck on April 22nd, 2008 11:16 pm (UTC)
The problem with "read it aloud" as advice, is that many people read their own words with the pauses they want, regardless of what punctuation they've included. (Or left out.)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 22nd, 2008 11:44 pm (UTC)
Yes-- this is why it's important to read what's actually written instead of what you meant to write. I have that discussion with my daughter as well, when her homework has missing words right and left that she hasn't noticed.

The goal here is to at least improve the writing process if possible, and also to cut out some of the preliminary work for the beta-reader.

But as you say, there are always some people who defeat any well-intended system. :)
(no subject) - zvi_likes_tv on April 25th, 2008 01:23 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on April 25th, 2008 04:30 pm (UTC) (Expand)
The Mistlethrush: Books - Little Girl Readinggairid on April 23rd, 2008 12:12 am (UTC)
Here via metafandom * *waves*

It took me a while to figure out that shorter sentences between longer descriptive sentences act as perfectly servicable bridges. When I first started writing I was so eager to get certain scenes out of my head and onto paper (or the computer screen, as it were) that I paid far less attention to grammar and structure than I should have. I have since re-written a lot of those older works!

I fell upon the read-it-out-loud trick quite by accident when I began reading one of my own stories aloud to my partner; it was a major eye-opener! It goes a long way, but a good beta with a working knowledge of the all-important comma is pure gold.

Great post!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 23rd, 2008 03:37 am (UTC)
It took me a while to figure out that shorter sentences between longer descriptive sentences act as perfectly servicable bridges.
Yes, me too. :) There's almost no sentence that's too long if you punctuate it correctly! In theory. ;) Some of the examples I used above show that idea NOT to be quite so true when you're on the reading end of the business.

it was a major eye-opener!
I think anything that makes you go, "Wait a minute. WHAT was I trying to say here?" is a useful tool. The "reading your work out loud" one works fairly well, and for some people (like me) can be replicated by giving the writing a little "space." Which is to say... letting your brain forget what you meant so that you can see what you actually said.

Thanks for reading!
obsession called while you were out: writingflyingcarpet on April 23rd, 2008 02:47 am (UTC)
Thanks for this -- it's really interesting. I haven't read my own writing out loud since I started writing sexy stories, but maybe I'll try again. ;)

In grade school I was taught to insert a comma when a reader would pause while reading aloud, and I blame that teacher for my present-day comma disease. I stick them in everywhere, to my betas' eternal dismay. I'm glad you listed it as an "also" to the main rule... I think that's advice to be used very sparingly!
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 23rd, 2008 03:46 am (UTC)
In grade school I was taught to insert a comma when a reader would pause while reading aloud, and I blame that teacher for my present-day comma disease.
:D I know what your teacher probably meant by that, but didn't actually say. What a huge mistake that is- laying down a rule which has a simplicity you think children can remember, without realizing that their thinking is TOO simple to know how to apply it the right way.

What might be a better way of thinking about that rule is this instead: if while reading aloud you would pause because the idea or inflection is changing, that is probably a good place for a comma.

"Opening phrases," e.g. such as, in this case, once, the thing is, etc., have commas after them because the inflection/meaning changes. For instance, (look! there's one now!) you're likely going to expand on that opening phrase or otherwise explain it. The comma sets it aside from what is to follow (the expansion or explanation).

Which is wholly different from "that's a lot of words and I'd be running out of air about now."

I remember receiving the same advice from teachers as you did, but eventually figured out that it wasn't intended quite literally. NOT that they ever clarified that. Perhaps they didn't have the words to explain it themselves, or at least not to younger children. So much of teaching is translating to the audience, or perhaps should be. :)
Clair de Lune: ecriture2clair_de_lune on April 23rd, 2008 06:16 am (UTC)
Thanks for this, it's a very interesting essay. It clarifies a few things for me, which will be handy!
* adds to mems*
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 23rd, 2008 08:29 pm (UTC)
I hope it helps! There are so many tricky areas to deal with when you're writing in a language other than your native one. Anything that makes that easier has to be good. :)
moonmip on April 24th, 2008 03:34 am (UTC)
This is great. I disagree on a couple of points you make about commas, but that's a matter of writing style and I certainly have no intention of telling you that you are wrong.

Can I link this to a writing resources post I am making on my lj? This has valuable information that I'm sure plenty of people would like to see.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 24th, 2008 04:23 am (UTC)
I disagree on a couple of points you make about commas, but that's a matter of writing style and I certainly have no intention of telling you that you are wrong.
Some of this may also be from a decidedly American perspective, on my part. The use (or lack) of commas tends to vary between American and British English, I've noticed.

I usually don't mind more commas rather than fewer, so long as the sentence is clear. If there are tons and tons of commas, though, it may indicate that the sentence is overloaded with subclauses. This is why re-reading is so helpful: does the sentence make sense in the way the author intended, or is it instead too muddy to interpret?

Please, feel free to link to it. I'm hoping to add some additional discussions in subsequent posts, on things like POV and dialogue-formatting. :)
(no subject) - moonmip on April 24th, 2008 05:02 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on April 24th, 2008 06:11 am (UTC) (Expand)
Dash O'Pepperpfeffermuse on April 24th, 2008 02:45 pm (UTC)
Via Metafandom
Excellent article.

I think part of the problem some folks encounter even when reading aloud is that they were never taught to read with the proper inflection; hence, they still have punctuation issues. In my elementary school, we were always taught cadence -- the voice rises with a question, becomes louder with an exclamative, softens with an inner thought, etc.

Nisus Writer has a text to voice feature that allows you to hear what you've written, making it a lot easier to pick up on mistakes.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 24th, 2008 09:05 pm (UTC)
Re: Via Metafandom
In my elementary school, we were always taught cadence -- the voice rises with a question, becomes louder with an exclamative, softens with an inner thought, etc.
I would have thought this was something kids picked up by osmosis, but you never know. When my daughter was a beginning reader, everything sounded like a long run-on sentence with strange pauses (when she ran out of breath). But after a couple of years, she began to read with inflection. My son might have always read with inflection, but he's more of an "aural" child than my daughter.

But if it isn't learned by osmosis, then I can see that it might not be learned at all! I think my teachers mentioned it in passing, but they didn't specifically dwell on it.

Thanks for recommending that software link-- I think that could be very helpful for some people. :)
zvi LikesTVzvi_likes_tv on April 25th, 2008 01:37 pm (UTC)
Great post.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphorshalfshellvenus on April 25th, 2008 04:31 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much. :)