Constructing Stories presents the first installment of Maya’s series, “On Being a Professional Amateur.” Please let me know what you think!
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
Sample sentence: Pausing for a moment to look over at the commander he noted the slight of approval who said, “besides, to obtain Washington approval could take months and we can’t have civilians interfering in our politics.”
What’s wrong here? Lots. In the first clause there’s a comma missing after “commander,” a word missing after “slight” (“nod”, I’m assuming), and a misuse of the word “who.” The phrase as written says that the Slight (Nod) of Approval is “who” uttered the rest of the sentence.
In the dialogue that follows, “besides” is not capitalized and should be, “Washington” should be possessive (Washington’s) but isn’t, and the sentence is run-on.
A run-on sentence is one in which there are two independent clauses that aren't separated by a semi-colon. In simple terms it means that there are two separate things happening here—the acting character (He who is not named) looks at the commander, the commander nods (we think) and one of the two men delivers the line (though we don't know which one).
How did this happen? The writer has not bothered to craft his sentences. He has thrown them down and just left them where they lie. It is, to use a cooking metaphor, a bad job of plating. This sloppiness fails to communicate clearly 1) who’s pausing, 2) who's nodding, and 3) who’s talking.
If a reader is patient enough and determined enough, she might realize that the soldier paused to look over at the commander, who nodded and uttered the dialogue. But it’s our job as writers to write clearly enough that that level of patience and determination isn’t necessary.
The moral of the tale? Your reader should not have to use a pickaxe to dig gems of communication out of your prose. Reading should be less like mining and more like picking shells off a beach. Reading your prose over carefully aloud can help find problem areas.
Do you agree? Let Maya and I know what type of “sloppiness” bothers you. What do you struggle with personally? Share your thoughts!