Style Improvement

A Quick Comment

Recently, I’ve been reading more self-published books than traditionally published ones. Trying to scope out the market, see what everyone else is up to, stuff like that. Also it’s a cost-effective way to get a good story sometimes, if I can weed through the bad ones. I know the pitfalls of self-publishing as well as the next guy, and the lack of a professional editor is one of them.

That’s not to say that everything out there is bad, just that much of it could use work. I don’t want to start a habit of talking grammar all the time, but there are a few things I’ve noticed while reading independent novels (even ones with perfect spelling, punctuation, etc.) that irk the shit out of me. (NOTE: I may be the only person who is bothered by these things. But I doubt it.)

The one I’m going to mention today isn’t really a grammar mishap at all–it’s more along the lines of a style slip-up, and it’s something that every writer (including myself) is most likely guilty of. The magic words of the day are: Participle and Appositive. I’ve seen participle and appositive phrases used to the point of abuse lately in many of the indie books that I’ve read. Mostly, I think, because they’re grammatically correct–even useful, sometimes.

I’ll do a small recap on their definitions here. I’m sure most of you have heard of these, but it may have been quite some time before you’ve actually gone over what they are. Don’t worry. I plan to keep it simple.

Participle

A participle, in layman’s terms, is a word you’d normally use as a verb which you are using as an adjective. (They usually end in -ed or -ing.)

Example–

Verb: burn

Participle: A burning branch fell to the ground.

Burning modifies the noun branch, but doesn’t act as the verb. The verb here is fell.

So far, so good? All right. Here are a few examples of participle phrases.

Wandering around, Charlie saw several people he recognized.

Heading straight to the back of the line, she hoped to avoid confrontation.

Note that there is nothing technically grammatically unsound about the participle phrase (although it can often lead to dangling modifiers if you don’t watch your step). Its use can add necessary variety to a writer’s style, and I can think of several instances in which they are the right choice. There is definitely a time and a place for it. However, that time is not ALWAYS and that place is not EVERY PARAGRAPH. Reading too many sentences loaded with these can become tiresome for the reader and mess with the flow of a story. And flow, as we all know, is very important.

Appositive

The appositive, in layman’s terms, is a noun or pronoun used to explain another noun or pronoun.

Example–In this sentence:

My friend Charlie was there.

The appositive is friend, which further explains Charlie.

Cool? Okay. Like participles, appositives often come in phrases. Often, the appositive will be modified as well in its phrase. Here are a few examples of appositive phrases.

The train, an old steam engine, was rusted to the tracks.

A competent neurosurgeon, Adam was the ideal candidate to perform the operation.

See where I’m going with this? There’s nothing technically wrong with the appositive phrase either, and they are also useful in the right situation. However, like the participle phrase, it can be tiresome when used in excess. Many times, it’s just easier to state the two nouns separately, or figure out a way to leave one out if possible. As any editor will tell you, sometimes less is more.

Wrap Up

–Watch out for participle phrases that come after your speech tags. They’re the most annoying and the easiest to fix. They look like this:

“Don’t forget about the soup,” Mary said, turning back to the television.

This is much better said:

“Don’t forget about the soup,” Mary said. She turned back to the television.

It may not seem like much on its own, but after five thousand of these in a row, your reader will be sick of them. You should avoid overuse of participle phrases so you can use them when they truly enhance the clarity of your scene. Like I said, the ones after the speech tags are the easiest to clean up.

–Watch out for appositive phrases that might sound better as two separate sentences (or at least two completely independent clauses).

I like to think of participle phrases and appositive phrases as drops of water. One drop of water on your forehead once in a while can be cool and refreshing. Thousands of drops of water on your forehead is the recipe for Chinese water torture.

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6 responses to “Style Improvement

  1. Well said. I struggle with these a lot. Most writers do, really, but that’s the type of stuff beta readers, a good editor, and a sound knowledge of style and grammar can fix. Still, I’m happy you pointed this out. I’m editing my WIP, and I know of a few spots that need cleaning up now. Haha.

    • I agree that knowledge of this kind of thing is power, and that betas are extremely valuable. It saddens me when I see books that even make it past all that with their works riddled with these.

      I’m excited to read your WiP, btw. =D

    • Hey! Thanks for the comment! I’m glad some usefulness can be gleaned from this. I like to try to be helpful, but sometimes I feel like I ramble on.

      Glad you stopped by. =D

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