Blog Announcement

Hello, friends! On Wednesday, August 18, I will begin posting once per week, every Wednesday at the usual time. Thanks to all who have been following my blog. Just wanted to keep everyone updated on the changes. Coming soon, I’ll be sharing posts on plot structure. There’s more than one way to plot a story!

Cut the Clutter: Watch Out for Boxcars!

Sometimes, when I stop for a passing train, I’m reminded of prepositional phrases. For me, boxcars are a metaphor for them. As the cars rattle past, I imagine a long sentence coupled together with one prepositional phrase after another. Of course, we need to use them, but if we have too many strung together like boxcars our prose suffers. It sounds choppy, even mechanical and forced, and makes for uninteresting reading.

What is a prepositional phrase? It’s a phrase that begins with a preposition (a word that shows movement or direction) and ends with a noun or pronoun.

A few examples: on, in, into, onto, of, at, etc. More can be found online or in a good grammar book.

Let’s look at a sentence to see what I mean.

Julie sat at her desk beside a window and looked out it to see a swallow flapping in a nest in a tree beside a brook. (6 prepositional phrases/26 words)

  1. at her desk
  2. beside a window
  3. out it
  4. in a nest
  5. in a tree
  6. beside a brook

Revision:

Julie sat at her desk and looked out her window to see a swallow enjoying her treetop nest beside a brook. (3 prepositional phrases/21 words)

In this revision, after a little thought, I was able to reduce my prepositional phrases from six to three as well as make the sentence more concise by cutting out five words.

When to Keep Prepositional Phrases in Our Sentences

  1. When they’re necessary for sentence clarity.
  2. When we want to slow down our story’s pace

Rule of Thumb: Whenever we can revise to delete them, do so. Use them, but try to keep them to a minimum. Too many prepositional phrases strung together like boxcars on a train clutter our prose.

Try This Exercise

The sentence below has five prepositional phrases in italics. How many can you revise?  I’d love to see your revisions in the comments.

Doris knocked on the door before she stepped into the house with a basket full of flowers to give to her grandmother.

SEE ALSO: Edit Strings of Prepositional Phrases – Writing Commons

Cut the Clutter: Nouns and Verbs

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I own hundreds of draft horses. I keep them in my stables. They’re so strong they can do the work of two, three, or even more…adjectives and adverbs. See, my draft horses are concrete nouns and dynamic action verbs, and my stables are my dictionary and thesaurus. They come whenever I ask them to, and they make my sentences stronger, more visual, and more concise. If I choose them wisely, they’ll always pull their weight.

Let’s look at some examples.

SENTENCE: The little dog ran very fast across the street.

First Revision: The Chihuahua ran very fast across the street.

Things to Notice

  • I capitalized Chihuahua. Why? Because Chihuahua is a geographical region in Mexico.  When dog breeds have a geographical region as part of their breed designation, the breed is capitalized. On the other hand, a breed without a geographical region as part of their designation is not capitalized. An example of this would be border collie.
  • The world is full of little dogs, so the adjective little weakens the sentence. I solved thisissue by using a “drafthorse” noun—the concrete noun Chihuahua. Being this specific creates an image in readers’ minds and cuts the sentence down by one word.
  • Chihuahua, then, pulls the adjective’s weight.
Photo by Chait Goli on Pexels.com

Second Revision: The Chihuahua sprinted across the street.

Things to Notice

  • In the example sentence I used an adverb, very, to modify a general verb, ran.
  • To solve this issue and get rid of that tired old, overused and often unnecessary adverb, I used a strong, dynamic “draft horse” verb—sprinted.

By using strong concrete nouns and dynamic action verbs, then, we can cut the clutter of adjectives and adverbs. But are there times when we need to use these modifiers? Of course, though some writers may disagree. If they can help readers visualize the noun or verb, use them. Just be sure to get rid of those that aren’t needed.  

When to Use Adjectives and Adverbs

A Few Examples

While I drove to Dallas, two black crows flew past my car.

  Here, the adjective isn’t needed because all crows in the United States are black.

  • The black standard poodle darted across the street.

 This adjective is fine because not all standard poodles are black. The adjective helps create a clear image in readers’ minds.

  • She whispered softly to me…

 The adverb softly isn’t needed because all whispers are typically soft.

  • She whispered loudly to me.

 The adverb loudly as used here is fine because whispers are, by definition, soft. So loud isn’t a way people typically whisper. Sometimes, though, people do whisper louder than usual. Thus, the adverb enhances the sound. However, there are also possible synonyms, such as stage whisper or audible whisper. Either of these synonyms would work as well.

When reviewing a manuscript, pay close attention to the adjectives and adverbs. Can they be deleted through the use of stronger nouns and verbs? If you cannot find stronger nouns and verbs to replace them, keep the modifiers. If you can find stronger nouns and verbs to replace them, get rid of the modifiers.  

Cut the Clutter: Redundancies

Through careful examination of our first drafts, we writers must keep alert for redundancies. Redundancies are words that serve no useful purpose toward sentence clarity. They can be repetitive or just hangers on like wedding cans on a bride and groom’s getaway car. They clutter our prose and can bore/irritate our readers. Whenever we spot them, delete them to strengthen our sentences.

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EXAMPLES OF REDUNDANCIES

Jane pedaled all the way to town on her bicycle.

If Jane pedaled to town, then all the way is understood, and thus it’s redundant.

Both Joe and Bill will go fishing tomorrow.

The word both isn’t needed because it’s understood.

So, as you revise, ask yourself this: Does each sentence I wrote need every word I used? Can I get rid of some words or phrases without affecting my sentences’ meanings? If you have such words or phrases, get rid of them. Here are a few to watch out for, though the list of redundant words is huge. 

  • Add up

Let me add up the price and I’ll give you the cost of the groceries.           

(Why is up needed for greater sentence clarity? I cannot think of a reason.)

  • Ask a question

  I want to ask everyone a question about that tractor.

  (What else does a person ask besides a question?)

  • Actually

Actually, it’s true the dog bit my sister.

(It’s either true or not true, so actually isn’t needed.)

  • Follow after

  Jim follows after Joe in the lineup.

(If Jim follows, then after is understood.)

  • Past experience

Past experience proved to John that he couldn’t dance.

(If experience proved something to John, then past is understood.)

  • Very old

My grandfather lived to be a very old man.

(This word very, in numerous cases, isn’t needed. Either my grandfather was old or he wasn’t, no very about it.)

Two Internet Sites

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Many internet sites have lists of redundant words. Here’s two of them.

Redundant-Words.pdf (simplystatedbusiness.com).

Redundancies 101: 400+ Redundant Words to Avoid in Writing (kathysteinemann.com)

Tautology and Pleonasm

Tautology

        Definition: Needlessly repeating what’s already been said.

He is his own worst enemy.

He is his worst enemy.

She is my personal assistant.

She is my assistant.

He gave a brief glance at the newspaper.

He glanced at the newspaper.

Pleonasm

Definition: Words in a sentence that don’t contribute to its meaning.

Based on the fact that I grew up on the coast, hurricanes don’t frighten me.

Because I grew up on the coast, hurricanes don’t frighten me.

In my opinion, I think my high school team won’t have a good season this year.

I think my high school won’t have a good season this year.

Watch out for redundancies in your revisions. They often sneak up on writers, especially in first drafts

Cut the Clutter: Introduction

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I’m a surgeon. Not a medical surgeon, but a verbal surgeon. All serious writers should have verbal surgeon beside their names, for just as medical surgeons cut into patients’ bodies, so verbal surgeons dig deep into sentences, cutting out words, adding words, and many other things to make their writing strong and healthy.

One of the cardinal rules of clear, clean writing is “cut the clutter.” This means taking out unnecessary words, redundancies, and similar things that clutter our prose. Once they’re trashed, sentences become clear and easier to read. They’ll be more concise. This is the mark of a professional, after all. A professional writer’s prose isn’t cluttered.

Cluttered writing can be irritating. Many years ago, when I was a young, budding writer taking college-level English classes, one of my professors gave us students handouts to take home. He’d written about authors and literature he wouldn’t have time to cover in class. I’d learned how important it was to write concisely, without clutter, so when I saw his work…Ugh! An English professor, of all people! Oh, I tried reading what he’d written, but I grew so frustrated wading through his verbosity that I tossed his handouts in a waste basket.

So, if we don’t want a frustrated reader to toss our work away…write concisely! Concise writing doesn’t mean lots of short sentences, though many beginning writers have a mistaken notion that it is. Concise writing means making every word count toward clarity. Effective, clear writing is concise and uses various sentence structures and lengths.

More on “cutting the clutter” in the next post.

They Didn’t Go On The Trail of Tears

A Brief Background

When explorers roamed the southeastern region of North America in the 1500s, they encountered five indigenous tribes more culturally advanced than others. Collectively, they were called the Civilized Tribes. Four resided in Alabama: the Chickasaws, Choctaws, Cherokees, and Creeks (aka Muscogees) while the fifth tribe—the Seminoles— lived in Florida. Of the four in Alabama, the Creek Confederacy dominated.

One indigenous band still resides in my state. In fact, they have a reservation not far from where I live. But didn’t President Andrew Jackson send all the state’s tribes to Oklahoma after the Indian Removal Act of 1830?  Yes, he did. Well, almost. We’ll get into that later.

The tribal band that avoided the Removal Act are the Poarch Creeks. More about them later.

Creek Towns

The Creeks lived in permanent towns, either in cabins with clay floors and thatched roofs or in wigwams.  Each town had a square in the middle of four surrounding sheds, long and low, which served as government buildings and housing for its warriors. Inside them, tribal issues were debated and discussed, and decisions made.

As one walked off the square and past these large sheds, he/she would come upon the residential district—cabins scattered about and clustered together according to families. Some houses were built along rivers and creeks.

Creek Winter Home, Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson, Wetumpka, AL. Photo by the author.

By the eighteenth century, the Creek Confederacy had grown to fifty towns with a population close to 20,000 people.

Creek Summer Home, Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson, Wetumpka, AL. Photo by the author.

The Creek War (1813-1814)

Without going into detail because it’s beyond the scope of this post, war broke out in Alabama Country in 1813. The United States was already engaged in a second war against Great Britain. But this war was fought against a band of warrior Creeks called the Red Sticks, so-named because their war clubs were red. These Creeks were prophets and mystics who claimed supernatural powers.

Why did this war begin? Several factors contributed.

  1. Settlers were pouring into the Alabama country, then part of the Mississippi Territory. This caused friction between the white men and some of the tribes.
  2. A civil war between the tribes was starting between those who supported the white man and his culture and those who wanted to keep their ancient culture and traditions.
  3. A Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, was an ally of the British. They sent him down from Canada to rouse the tribes in the southeast to attack settlers on the frontier. A great orator and persuader, twenty-nine Creek towns rallied to his call to eliminate the white man from their land. Five Creek towns remained peaceful, however, as did most of the Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees.
Tecumseh, drawn about 1808 and based on a sketch.. He’s around 45 years old in this picture. Credit: Wikipedia.org.

Before he went back to Canada, Tecumseh gave a prophecy: “When I return home and stamp my foot, a comet will appear in the sky and the earth will shake.” Well, both things came to pass, for British scientists in Canada had told him about the comet. As for the earth shaking, a minor earthquake did occur where these Red Stick Creeks were, but it was just a coincidence. .

The mystical Red Sticks preached war and prophesied to their people. In February of 1813, war broke out. The Creek War was a small war within the context of the larger War of 1812. It ended with a surrender to General Andrew Jackson in 1814, after his decisive victory at Horseshoe Bend. An interesting bit of trivia regarding this battle: two famous figures in the future Texas Revolution fought with Jackson here. Their names? Sam Houston, who was wounded in the battle, and Davy Crockett. On August 9, 1814, Creek chiefs signed a treaty at Fort Jackson (in present-day Wetumpka), ending the war and ceding 20 million acres of land.

The Poarch Creeks

In 1830, Congress passed the Relocation Act. This forced the Creeks and other Civilized Tribes, except the Cherokees, to leave their native land for a new territory that would one day become the state of Oklahoma. The Cherokees began getting forced out of Alabama in 1838, after Congress passed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835. All of these tribes suffered horribly, and many members perished, along the 1,000 + miles they walked. It is aptly called the Trail of Tears and it’s one of American history’s saddest episodes.

Along Alabama’s Tensaw River, however, north of Mobile, a band of Creeks loyal to the white man were allowed to remain. These had worked as traders and scouts. However, they were eventually forced to move further north. They eventually called themselves the Poarch Creeks, named for their reservation in Poarch, Alabama. They’ve lived in that state for over 200 years.

For more interesting information and history of the Poarch Creeks, visit their website at History – Poarch Band of Creek Indians (pci-nsn.gov)

Bibliography

History – Poarch Band of Creek Indians (pci-nsn.gov), The Poarch Creek Indians, 2005-2021

National Trail of Tears Association, “Trail of Tears Association Alabama Chapter,” Muscle Shoals, Alabama, alabamatota.com/history/

Holland, James W. Victory at the Horseshoe: Andrew Jackson and the Creek War. Tuscaloosa, AL:Eastern National with The University of Alabama Press and Horseshoe Bend National Military Park, 2004.

McMillan, Malcolm C. The Land Called Alabama, Austin, Texas: Steck-Vaughn Company, 1968

Riegel, Robert E. and Athearn, Robert G. America Moves West, Hinsdake, Illinois: The Dryden Press, Inc., 1971.

Anna Sewell, a Late Bloomer

Many famous authors had literary success late in life. Today, we’ll take a brief look at one of them–Anna Sewell.

Anna only wrote one book, but wow! It’s still in print, has been made into movies, translated into other languages, and inspired similar stories. Its title? Black Beauty, a horse story told from the horse’s point of view. And a true classic.

Black Beauty cover, First Edition, 1877

Anna grew up in Victorian England. When she was fourteen-years-old, she fell and broke her ankles on her way home from school. This led to a decline in her health. Meanwhile, her father struggled to earn his family a living and moved the family from one place to another. Her mother wrote Christian books for children which Anna proofread and edited.

Anna’s health eventually declined to the point where she could no longer walk, so to get around, she moved about town in carriages. This created in her a love for the horses who drew her and her vehicles up and down busy streets. She witnessed firsthand how people abused her beloved animals, and thus was born her beautiful tale, Black Beauty.

By 1871, her health had deteriorated to the point where she couldn’t leave her room, so she picked up pen and paper and began writing her story. She was fifty-one years old. After a while, she quit writing for a spell then resumed in 1876 even though she was suffering severe pain. When it was finished, her literary mother found a publisher for her. In November 1877, Anna experienced the joy of seeing her words in print. She died five months later. We can’t say with certainty what caused her death—most likely either hepatitis or phthisis.

Other Links:

Atlas, Nava. “Anna Sewell” Anna Sewell, Author of Black Beauty | LiteraryLadiesGuide

Anna Sewell (Author of Black Beauty) (goodreads.com)

QUICK TIP: Are You Listening?

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Are you listening to the words you write? If your computer has a voice recorder, or if you have another type of recorder, try reading your manuscript aloud into it. Reading aloud helps writers spot mistakes they missed through silent reading. By playing back their words and listening closely, writers hear their prose’s rhythm and pace, spot poorly written dialogue, wordiness, and other stylistic errors. Some versions of Microsoft Word have a Read Aloud feature which I find helpful. If your version has this feature, click onto it and let the computer read it back to you while you follow along with a hard copy of your manuscript. You’ll be surprised at the things you’ll spot that need fixing.

Four Traits of a Good Beta Reader

Over thirty years ago, when I began my writing career, my literary passion drove me to learn everything I could about writing as fast as possible. One of the many ways I learned was through beta readers. Though I now have numerous bylines, and several books I’ve either written or contributed to, I still use them. All serious writers do.

Beta readers are critical to our writing careers. Why? Because when we’re caught up in our work, objectivity takes a backseat. True, we can put our work aside for a few days then read it with fresh eyes, and we should. We’ll spot things we missed. Good beta readers, however, will help us produce an even more polished work.

What Is a Beta Reader?

Good beta readers are those who read our work seeking such things as holes in our story’s plot, weak story openings and endings, awkward phrasing, narrative inconsistencies, storylines that aren’t believable, poor characterization, poorly written dialogue, and similar things.

My Rule for Beta Readers

Notice that little adjective I used—good. Not all beta readers are the same. From my earliest writing days, I’ve followed one rule: If all a reader does is give me a pat on the back and says my work is good, I never let that person see another manuscript.

Though I never tell beta readers this because I don’t want to hurt their feelings if things don’t work out, I’ve always been strict about it. Pats on the back without constructive critiques don’t help us improve. No matter how advanced we are, we always have room to get better.

Fortunately, as time has passed, I’ve developed friendships with good beta readers. Unlike my early years, I no longer have to “test drive” them. Nowadays, I rarely have to implement my rule.

Traits of a Good Beta Reader

  • Honest Feedback. Good beta readers aren’t afraid to give honest feedback. If they don’t like what we’ve written, they’ll tell us and then they’ll say why. However, they’ll word their opinion in such a way that it doesn’t kill a writer’s dream. Not only will they point out a work’s weaknesses, though. They’ll also point out its strengths. In other words, they’ll offer valid feedback and sound  advice.
  • Knowledgeable. Good beta readers are serious writers themselves who are knowledgeable about the craft.
  • Readers. Good beta readers are serious readers. That is, they read critically. They understand why they like certain books, why they don’t, and can give solid reasons for it. This person may not necessarily be a writer, but he/she         knows what makes good literature.
  • Understands Our Genre. Good beta readers understand our genre. Because different genres have different rules, they must first  understand our genre so they don’t offer bad advice. I could advise someone on historical fiction, for example, because that’s my specialty. On the other hand, any advice I might offer on a romance novel would be questionable. I’ve not read that many romance novels, though I have read a few.

Beta Readers To Avoid

  • Family. Family members are usually reluctant to offer their honest input for fear of hurting our feelings or ruining a relationship. But if a family member does meet the above-mentioned criteria, I believe that person would be fine.
  • Friends Who Aren’t Writers. They don’t meet the criteria.
  • Token Readers. These people read a manuscript, or perhaps just scan it, then they make a comment or two on a page and leave it at that. Writers need in- depth beta readers, not the token variety.
  • Attaboy Readers. These people just give us a pat on the back. “Attaboy. Good job,” they say. No one’s writing is perfect. We don’t need praise. We do need constructive criticism if we want to improve.

Some Final Advice

  • If we can find more than one good beta reader, our finished manuscript will be all the better.
  • If two or more beta readers make the same comment about our work, we’d be wise to heed their advice and revise accordingly.
  • Always thank your beta readers. Because they sacrificed some of their time to help, a little gratitude goes a long way

And thank you for visiting today.

Ernest Hemingway Quote: On Writing

Ernest Hemingway at Work

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ectasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer” (Old Newsman Writes, from Esquire (December 1934)