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Jul
28
Frank Ball

Simultaneous Modifiers

Learning from the Masters, Writing Well
0

Learning from the Masters

“Be sure the introductory phrase can be accomplished at the same time as the action in the rest of the sentence,” Kathy Ide says in Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors. She gives an example: “Hugging the postman, Delilah ripped open the box.” Delilah couldn’t open the box while hugging the postman.
  This is one mistake well-known authors sometimes make.

  Some great words from False Memory by Dean Koontz:

  Standing at a huge sheet of glass in the dark, basking in the incoming radiance, gazing at this urban sprawl that lay before him like the biggest playset in the world, he knew how God would feel, looking down on Creation, if there had been a god. The doctor was a player, not a believer.

  What we might see for an improved version:

  Standing at the floor-to-ceiling window, the doctor peered into the darkness and the urban sprawl of radiant lights. With its white and red streaks of traffic on the roads and the twinkle from the windows of tall office buildings, he had the perfect view of the biggest playset in the world. At that moment, he shared the feeling God would have when looking down on his creation—if there were a god. But then, he was just a player on this stage, not a believer.

  Some logic for making improvements:

  1. With the introductory participial phrase, we need to be sure the ongoing action of the phrase coincides in the place and duration of the action of the sentence. The introductory phrase in this paragraph works fine, since the doctor is standing for all the time he’s looking out the window, but it’s not equal in duration with his knowing. We can keep it as long as we change the main verb to to peering so they are the same in duration.
  2. “Basking in the incoming radiance” is something the doctor experienced as a part of the viewing and precedes the knowing, so it’s a small problem as well. We do better with showing what the basking looked like by describing the city’s night lights.
  3. “Gazing at this urban sprawl” is a third introductory participial phrase, which is concurrent with viewing, not with knowing.
  4. The “huge sheet of glass” is a floor-to-ceiling window, not a mirror or a room divider. So we do better to describe the window, not say it’s a sheet of glass.
  5. Three introductory phrases is too many. We might use two where necessary, but a single introductory phrase is best because we don’t want too much delay in seeing the picture that is made most relevant by the subject of the sentence.
  6. “Him” and “he” in the first sentence don’t require an antecedent because we know he’s the point-of-view character. In the last sentence, “he” was replaced by “doctor” to avoid confusion with the possible misassignment of God as the antecedent. If the pronoun was good at the beginning of the paragraph, ideally it should be good for the entire paragraph. We can tighten the focus by making “doctor” the subject in the first sentence instead of the pronoun.
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Jul
24
Frank Ball

Pasta Surprise

Weekend Fun
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Sometimes, lunch at the school cafeteria can be a complete surprise.

Where would spaghetti be without the sauce? Saclà Italia, a favorite sauce in Europe and beyond, served an amazing medley of opera classics.

Jul
21
Frank Ball

Begin and End Well

Learning from the Masters, Writing Well
2

Learning from the Masters

What sits between the beginning and end is the all-important middle. Let’s work to make the thoughts and actions flow more smoothly from start to finish.

  Some great words from False Memory by Dean Koontz:

  She started to laugh, choked on the laugh, sought refuge in the wine, realized none was left, and put down the empty glass in favor of the handgun.

  What we might see for an improved version:

  She started to laugh, choked on the laugh, and sought refuge in the wine. When none was left, she put down the empty glass in favor of the handgun.

  Some logic for making improvements:

  1. In common writing, we often say we started to do something when actually we’re saying we did it. Here’s an example: She started to look for her friend. That’s all she did, just start? This suggests she didn’t finish. Since she did look for her friend, we need to leave out started.
  2. When something is started but not finished, we need the word started, which is the condition we have in “she started to laugh.” She choked on the laugh, not finishing, so we want to keep the word.
  3. Readers are most comfortable with lists of three items, what we call the “rule of threes.” It may not be wrong to have more, but it’s often not the best choice. We have a rewarding triple with the laugh, choking, and seeking refuge, so we should stop there and begin a second sentence after that.
  4. Saying she realized none was left is what we call “filtering,” taking readers though an information step that’s obvious in her point of view. If we simply say “none was left,” we see directly what was realized, which is stronger because it moves us from observing her realize to experiencing the realization.
  5. The contrast of “empty glass in hand” with “gun in hand” is excellent. It shows the change in emotion in an unexpected way, yet it perfectly fits the situation. Is there a better choice of words? If we can’t think of one, then we leave it the way it is.
Jul
17
Frank Ball

Bottled Up

Weekend Fun
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The Bottle Boys, known as Flaskedrengene in their native Denmark, use instruments right out of the recycle bin.

Wherever they are playing, they will blow you away.