The Naked Writer: Misplaced Modifiers

Boy do I see these quite a bit—even in advertisements in print. OK, I was reading a cat story last night—one of those where you have to click forever. (I’m a sucker.) Then I came to: “Rescued at last, BenBen’s life was about to change forever.” Ah, here’s an example of a misplaced modifier I can use for that blog piece!

“Rescued at last, BenBen’s life was about to change forever.”

The cat’s life wasn’t rescued. The cat was rescued.

That’s a misplaced modifier, also sometimes known as a “dangling participle.”

“Rescued” is a verb turned into an adjective, so we call it a participle or a modifier—either term will do. Often a participle is thought of as a verb turned into an adjective with an “ing,” but not all participles are formed with an “ing.”

“Rescuing the cat, John took BenBen to the vet.” (That’s not the greatest sentence ever, but it’s an appropriate use of the participle “rescuing.”)

Yes, I do see these goofs all the time. And they’re slippery. I will sometimes write a misplaced modifier myself, only to come back later and catch the bad boy.

How to avoid these somewhat elusive mistakes? Like everything else in writing, we have to bring such goofs to our attention. We have to proofread carefully. Does the modifier in this case explain what we know it is intended to clarify?

We can fix a misplaced modifier in one of two ways. We can place the modified element in with the participle:

“With BenBen rescued at last, his life was about to change forever.” The modifier now appropriately modifies BenBen.

Or, we can change the second part of the sentence to move the modified element into place.

“Rescued at last, BenBen knew his life was about to change forever.” The appropriate noun is again modified. I just don’t, personally, want to imply that the cat knows his life is about to change. Well, he might suspect it.
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Any questions?

Send a comment here if you want to inquire about an edit, or take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University. Hurry, as Writing the Mystery is up next—the third edition of my award winning instructional of the same name should be out right about now. Or download The Naked Writer at Amazon. I have fiction available for download on Smashwords and at Amazon as well, including a YA for girls (The Heroine’s Journey) and an upper middle grade fantasy with a boy protagonist (Strings). These two novels are available in paperback. Or for some post-apocalyptic fun—Question Woman and Howling Sky is in ebook and paperback and audio formats.

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The Naked Writer: Misplaced Modifiers

The Naked Writer: I Wonder?

I Wonder?

I wonder, I wa wa wonder…

I’ll be brief. Here’s a mistake I see frequently, much to my surprise:

Why is Jane moving to Ireland, Jack wondered?

The fact that Jack wondered is a statement, however, and the question is “Why is Jane moving to Ireland?”

Therefore the punctuation goes like this:

Why is Jane moving to Ireland? Jack wondered.

Now that can be read in two ways as one declaratory sentence, or as two sentences. His wondering can be, as a separate sentence, a sort of an aside to the question.

Can we tell the writer’s intent by the punctuation? Not really. Does that matter? Not much.

But if that bothers you, you can say either:

Why is Jane moving to Ireland, Jack wondered.

Or:

Jack wondered why Jane was moving to Ireland.

Does either of those express your intention better?

At any rate, don’t write: Jack wondered? Because he did wonder, so that’s a statement.

And just after I wrote this, I received an assignment from a student with this line:

Why did Michael have to go to such lengths, he thought?

That was a new one on me. But here’s the correction.

Why did Michael have to go to such lengths? he thought. Well, hmm, Or how about “he wondered.”

You can now return to your prior programming.

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Send a comment here if you want to inquire about an edit, or take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University–12 Weeks to a First Draft coming soon. Or download The Naked Writer at Amazon. I have fiction available for download on Smashwords and at Amazon as well, including a YA for girls (The Heroine’s Journey) and an upper middle grade fantasy with a boy protagonist (Strings). The last two novels are available in paperback as well.

The Naked Writer: I Wonder?

The Naked Writer: Level of Capacity

We’re all different and have different abilities. Some of us were born with pencils clutched in our fingers and were writing hundred-word novels by the age of five. Others of us may have been a little slower—yet have a yearning in our souls to create with the written word. Does level of capacity count? Should someone quit before fighting the good fight to make it into print, guided by the dictum “quit while you’re ahead”?

Of course not.

Just as our writing levels vary, so do the reading skills of those out there who might buy a book or two. I’ve heard authors praised to the skies who demonstrate very little writing competence—and these writers may actually be extremely successful. They are touching a group of readers with their words, even if those words aren’t what would do it for the more sophisticated among us.

We cannot mark any level of writing power as a cut-off grade below which work will never be accepted or enjoyed. That’s snobbish, and ridiculous thinking. The work may have to be edited for obvious flaws but something about what’s conveyed might resonate with fans if the story or novel is allowed to reach them.

Sometimes, in fact, agents and editors may see a piece of writing as being too highbrow or esoteric to work for the markets they’re addressing. I myself have always written pieces to include exotic and well-researched backgrounds, niche characters and situations, and historic or ethnic specificities. Then I’ve sometimes come to see that while my story was nixed, the pieces accepted relied more on simple plots than on believable settings and atmospheres. So the desire for a level of expression honestly varies, and a more refined level of storytelling might not fit the bill.

Thus those writing at a simpler ranking can’t be excluded from the fraternity of writers. My old friend Steve Solomita who has enjoyed some mystery-writing success (https://www.goodreads.com/author/list/322592.Stephen_Solomita) once said to me in complete sincerity, “We’re all workers in the vineyard.”

Jerry B. Jenkins, one of the authors of the fantastically successful Left Behind series, was very straightforward in a writing advice book of his, stating that he’s no genius. But he expressed confidence that you don’t need to be brilliant in order to simply write.

Now let me add that all those with a yearning to write are welcome on board with whatever level of underlying competence. The drive, the passion, having something to say, makes up for a lot.
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You don’t need to be a writing great to join a Writer’s Digest class I teach. Coming up is 12 Weeks to a First Draft and a mystery writing class. And/or download my The Naked Writer for your Kindle at Amazon. Need editing? Send a comment here and I’ll send back a private reply.

The Naked Writer: Level of Capacity

The Naked Writer: What’s the Problem?

I’ve pointed out in this blog thus far how students struggle with many very basic concepts of writing—from semicolon use to how to punctuate dialogue. What’s the real problem here? Maybe by looking into the root cause of all these glitches, we can arrive at a solution.

I’m pretty sure the problem lies in lack of education, which we can attribute in part to the students themselves, but surely as well to their teachers. I went to a pretty good high school in a middle-class community, and I can attest to the fact that I didn’t learn punctuation or specific nuances of writing in our common language.

The one good thing we were taught was the method of diagramming sentences. This also explains parts of speech to the learner. I can imagine when I say to a student that a word is used as an adverb in such and such a spot and not an adjective, a blank look will cross the person’s face. But how else to clarify?

At any rate then, somewhere in my 20s I began to work as an editor, and I did some writing. Too bad I, as well, really had missed a few building blocks of the trade. Not that I had a big problem because no one at my first job or second or third mentioned a thing about my writing weaknesses, and when I got to the fourth, the little errors pointed out were on the whole oddball. Only when I was hired someplace with a sharp copy editor and proofreading by fellow writers did I realize several additional problems… And only when I taught a class in punctuation did I understand I was missing out on a number of rules.

So my education had been incomplete all the way up—from grammar school through obtaining a bachelor’s degree and starting graduate school. And I was a good student who earned excellent grades.

I therefore think much of the problem my writing students have comes from an educational gap, not alone to be credited to their personal lackadaisical attitudes while in school. Then, recently, when I marked up a first submission from one student at Writer’s Digest University, she told me in surprise that no one had critiqued her punctuation during graduate school, where she had studied writing and had received a Master of Fine Arts degree. I’ve seen worse punctuation, for sure, but her punctuation was certainly not all that perfect.

What’s the Solution?

The solution to ignorance that comes by way of a lack of proper education is most definitely education. Luckily, we don’t have to return to K through 12 or even the university. We can educate ourselves, and will do so if we’re serious about writing as a career or even serious about writing a business memo with confidence.

How to study? Although some schoolwork might be beneficial, the problem often is that students enter classes in the mechanics of writing feeling at sea and so they remain throughout the course, grasping for some little hints along the way. That’s why I really think a well-motivated pupil can do a lot better book in hand. Yes, I recommend my own The Naked Writer in Kindle format (or my chapbook, Punctuation, which you can find at Smashwords). In both these works, the various points of punctuation, at least, are explained systematically and can be taken into the novice’s knowledge base step by step. The writing apprentice can read a segment once, then twice. When writing, the newbie might try to recall the rule that applies to this particular question—and the rule can be read over again—then again. And so on and so on.

The learning needn’t be rushed, glossed over, or jumbled. A bit of patience can be applied, and slowly, but surely, the writer learns and gains much self-reliance.

Other than that, the hopeful novelist can pay for a line edit. Let me know in comments with your email address if you’re interested in an edit. (I won’t post your edress for the entire world to see.)
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Take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University. Download The Naked Writer at Amazon, or to see writing style judiciously applied, read in print or in ebook format Question Woman and Howling Sky. Adults will enjoy my YA fantasy, The Heroine’s Journey, as will young adults. My middle grade fantasy, Strings, is also fun for all. Everything’s on Amazon along with some other ebooks there and on Smashwords.

The Naked Writer: What’s the Problem?

The Naked Writer: Continuing Quotes

I realize I keep saying something like, “Oh, wow, my students do this thing and I’m completely shocked…” And I was going to start this piece the same way. What the heck is going on in schools? Why don’t they teach students how to handle a continuing quote? Educators, get on the stick.

A continuing quote occurs when the writer wants to break a paragraph but let the speaker—the character speaking or person being interviewed or written about—continue talking in a direct quote with no intervening material.

Here’s what I see a lot of:

“A listing in our publication is better than an ad in a newspaper, sir. If you place a listing in this directory, the people in your area will be able to access it day after day, week after week, during the entire year.

A hundred-and-fifty-nine dollars total for a listing, but only $239 total for the listing and a one-inch ad. Wouldn’t you like to see your fine restaurant listed? People would call for takeout as well.”

This is wrong because each paragraph in the continuing quote has to start with quote marks. Here’s the revision:

“A listing in our publication is better than an ad in a newspaper, sir. If you place a listing in this directory, the people in your area will be able to access it day after day, week after week, during the entire year.

“A hundred-and-fifty-nine dollars total for a listing, but only $239 total for the listing and a one-inch ad. Wouldn’t you like to see your fine restaurant listed? People would call for takeout as well.”

As you see the second paragraph now starts with a quote mark. Now the format is correct.

However, in my opinion, continuing quotes should be kept to a minimum and avoided altogether when possible because they may confuse the reader. That’s right, though the reader’s confusion may last only a split second, why cause even a momentary hesitation in the experience of enjoying your writing?

Here’s how I actually wrote the above:

“A listing in our publication is better than an ad in a newspaper, sir. If you place a listing in this directory, the people in your area will be able to access it day after day, week after week, during the entire year.” Bonnie wasn’t sure if the man understood what she had told him, although he looked as if he might have.

“A hundred-and-fifty-nine dollars total for a listing, but only $239 total for the listing and a one-inch ad, like this.” She stabbed at the copy of the current directory to show him the size of the ad.

“Wouldn’t you like to see your fine restaurant listed? People would call for takeout as well.”

This is the type of format that I believe is easier to follow as well as livelier and more entertaining.

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Send a comment here if you want to inquire about an edit—or take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University. Download The Naked Writer at Amazon, or read in print or in ebook format Question Woman and Howling Sky. Adults will enjoy my YA fantasy, The Heroine’s Journey, as will young adults. My middle grade fantasy, Strings, is fun for all, too. Everything’s on Amazon.

The Naked Writer: Continuing Quotes

Dialogue—How Much

The word “dialogue” implies that I’m going to talk about fiction in this essay, but the actuality is that in writing journalistic articles, we also quote people’s speech. So what I say below may well apply to nonfiction writing. (I was a business journalist for many years.)

Dialogue.

How much dialogue should be included?

Word from the experts and sometimes me as well is that we should have plenty of dialogue from our characters (or interviewees). And “plenty” is a good amount. But the problem I see quite a lot is that writers will use dialogue in exclusion of narration. Speech, speech, speech. And that’s how all the information is presented. And the format can be both boring and really emotionless. Dialogue or constant quotes may miss out on nuance or humanity. I so want authors to vary their means of presentation.

“Wah wah wah,” said Charlie Brown. “Wah wah wah.”

What’s another format that should be toggled with the direct quote dialogue approach?

“Wah wah wah,” said Charlie Brown. The boy turned red with frustration and looked Patty right in the eye. He repeated himself. Then he told her that this time he was going to kick that football straight in the guts.

And for the news story?

“Wah wah wah,” said Charles Brown, independent candidate for the council seat left open last July by the death of 17-year council member Irene Patty. Brown in speaking to reporters after the debate noted that he was against continuing free lunches for public school children. “Free lunches may fill their stomachs, but leave them with empty souls.”

Another thing to watch for in writing dialogue is the ever-present danger of talking heads, also known as my turn, your turn. Dialogue without connective tissue is frankly boring.

“Wah wah wah,” said Charlie.

“Haw haw haw,” said Peppermint Patti.

“Wah wah.”

“Haw haw.”

Generally the talking heads includes some speaking without tags, leaving readers are on their own as to who has spoken, though sometimes little clues are given. But no adding the characters’ or subjects’ expressions, their movement in the room, or deductions about their attitudes.

However, going without tags can be a nice variation so long as who is speaking is clearly indicated by the words themselves or by an action taken before or after the spoken words.

“I can’t be pregnant. I’m taking birth control pills.” We can guess the speaker’s gender, so this must be Patti saying this and not Charlie.

“I hit him and hit him and hit him.” The accused murderer is undoubtedly the speaker here.

Charlie took another sip of the drink that had been set in front of him. “Wah wah.”

Charlie has spoken—and that’s why we include the action in the paragraph with his speech and not in the paragraph “belonging” to the other guy.

Dialogue is good and needed in fiction just as quotes are in an article. And while you’re allowed to be a little bit boring in a run-of-the mill news report (though not in a feature), fiction has to do a better job than being average. Dialogue is essential in fiction, but not all information can be delivered in dialogue. And who is speaking must always be clear.

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Send a comment here if you want to inquire about an edit or take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University. Download The Naked Writer at Amazon, or read in print or in ebook format Question Woman and Howling Sky.

Dialogue—How Much

The Naked Writer: One Word or Two?

A mistake students and clients make that surprises me a lot is the failure to know (or research) which words should be put together as a single word—or which supposedly single word is actually two words. Why should this amaze me? Because the dictionary is right here online and/or a simple search engine search can (most often) make the usage clear.

But I guess, to take a step back, what really catches me off guard is that the student or client doesn’t suspect that the two words might be taken as one or that the single word might possibly be broken in two.

Sometimes, yes, I know the answer. We write “online” and not “on line.” We write “ashcan” and not “ash can.” These are completely logical. How about wastepaper? Well, I just wrote it and spellcheck liked it, so I know I can leave it that way. On the other hand, it doesn’t like the word “spellcheck.” So let me go look that up. I do so by first performing a search. Universally, what I come up with for search results are spell check (one spell-check). Okay, I’ll concede. I’ll use two words. But the reader will never know I had the use wrong to begin with.

So the process goes. I look up everything if I’m at all likely to make a mistake. I don’t want to make a mistake. I want to have the right usage. So, my question is why my students and clients don’t look up the word or words. That’s part of the job of being a writer. And if I forget which the correct use is and come across the word again and again? You know what? I look it up every time. Because I can and I don’t even have to pick up a physical dictionary. Though if I think the physical dictionary has an older word I know is proper usage, I’ll pick it up and thumb my way to the page where the word should be.

And here’s the OneLook Dictionary if that will help: https://onelook.com/ . Yes, they spell that as one word: OneLook.

Oh, no, I just stumbled across this in a client’s manuscript: Hood winking… Means, I suppose, a winking hood.

Here are some I’ve seen recently:
bar tender
heart beat
home town
gate keeper
back pack
treachcoats
half way
under-lying

And much, much more. Please remember, I don’t know all the answers, but I look up everything I’m suspicious of and also if the spell checker flags the word and I think I’m right. Sometimes I am.
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Have you downloaded my Kindle stylebook, The Naked Writer? Have you taken a class with me at Writer’s Digest University? https://www.writersonlineworkshops.com/ I always have classes coming up and I know I can help you become a better writer. I have a 12-week novel workshop starting 12/7 and an 11/30 Fundamentals of Fiction. Or read a novel or two of mine, such as Question Woman & Howling Sky: https://www.amazon.com/Question-Woman-Howling-Sky-Hayden-ebook/dp/B019PUAVLI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1511548622&sr=8-1&keywords=Question+Woman+%26+Howling+Sky . Post a comment if you want to contact me here.

The Naked Writer: One Word or Two?