May 08, 2008

Sloppiness - On Being a Professional Amateur

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!


J Sherer said...

I have found that reading out loud is essential to the process of eliminating sloppiness. When you hear yourself reading it helps you define how your writing should flow. I've written sentences that weren't sloppy, but then when reading them aloud I thought, "You know what, something isn't write." After shifting a few words around it because a much better sentence.

Also, running your work by someone else is also a great idea. Sometimes you assume there's enough emotion or action, but when someone else reads it they don't get the same feeling.

Excellent post, Maya!

Sherer said...

How intimidating! Please dont read my blog. haha just kidding. I like it when concepts are clear and easy to understand. There is nothing worse than a writer trying to be "fancy" with his or her use of english and making the document difficult to understand.

Anonymous said...

As an editor, this kind of sloppiness drives me crazy. But then again, if people didn't write that way, I suppose I wouldn't have a job. Look out! I'm armed with my pickaxe! :-)

Allison said...

I just have to say... amen! Knowing how to write a clean, clear sentence is essential to writing. I cringe when I come across sentences like this, because it tells me the writer didn't care to really read or proof their work well. Sometimes we need to remember to slow down, even when writing an email or letter, so we can help our audience understand what we're trying to say.