On Writing: Clean Up Your Mess

One of the biggest problems writers have is editing their work. It’s difficult to see awkward phrases, sentences, even paragraphs since we know what we want to say and so believe we have said it, though readers might have difficulty trying to figure it out. The best way to find such ambiguities is to ask someone to read your book (someone other than me, that is) and have them mark any passages that make them pause or that jerk them out of the fictive dream.

cleanOther edits, though, are less subjective, and writers should be able to find and correct the errors themselves. The most common non-subjective problem I see in even the most polished works are wrongly used participial phrases that end in ing. According to The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, “a participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.”

The example in the book is: Walking down the road, he saw a woman accompanied by two children. Who is walking? He is, of course, since he is the subject of the sentence, and the ing phrase always refers to the subject. If the woman is walking, you have to rephrase the sentence: He saw a woman, accompanied by two children, walking down the road. You, I’m sure, would never have to worry about who is walking because you’d never use such an ambiguous sentence in the first place!

The other examples of wrong participial phrases Strunk and White give are humorous and show why it’s important to follow the rule:

Being in dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house cheap.
Wondering irresolutely what to do next, the clock struck twelve.
As a mother of five, with another on the way, the ironing board was always up.

In case you don’t know how to rephrase the above sentences to make them grammatical and remove the silliness (the first sentence, for example, says that you were able to buy the house cheap because you were in a dilapidated condition), here are my quick efforts:

Because of the dilapidated condition of the house, I was able to buy the place cheap.
As I wondered what to do next, the clock struck twelve.
A mother of five, with another on the way, I was never able to put the ironing board away.

Another ing problem comes from simultaneous actions, when an author has a character do something that’s physically impossible. For example: Pulling out of the driveway, he drove down the street. He cannot be pulling out of the driveway at the same time he is driving down the street. He pulled out of the driveway, then drove down the street.

Such sentence structures do slip into our writing, no matter how careful we are. It’s up to us to clean up the mess and make it easy for readers to stay riveted in our stories. (This is primarily a post about “ing”s, which is good since I seem to be reverting to clichés. That, I know, is something you never do.)

Authors often shrug off the necessity for self-editing because either they believe they have the right to write however they please, or they leave the work to their editors, but the truth is, it is up to authors to get their manuscripts as clean and clear as possible before self-publishing or submitting their book to an editor. As someone who has edited one heck of a lot of manuscripts, I can tell you that having to point out the same error page after page after page gets tiresome.

So, do what you were taught as a child — clean up your own mess.

See also:
Grammar Guide for Self-Editing
Self-Editing — The List From Hell
The Editor’s Blog — A Remarkable Resource for All Writers


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

9 Responses to “On Writing: Clean Up Your Mess”

  1. diannegray Says:

    It’s difficult to edit your own work and having someone on hand who knows what they’re doing is an asset. Great post 😉

  2. rami ungar the writer Says:

    That’s one a lot of people forget. Thanks for the reminder, Pat.

  3. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    I do have an old copy of Strunk and White. Regardless, even after going over my work a couple of times a good editor will usually find something to question.

    Then most good editors and publishers have their own style and prefer a new book to fit in with whatever else they have going.

    There can also be differences in the use of English between countries. For example an Australian might say I am going bush. To someone living in America this may not make much sense. Bush in this context to an Australian means bush land or forest area. To an American it may mean simply a single plant not large enough to be a tree.

  4. Carol Wuenschell Says:

    Excellent post, Pat. I see both of those types of errors in the manuscripts I read and they drive me crazy – not when I see an occasional one, but when they are frequent. Definitely you should clean them up if you spot them in your own writing, but anyone who is serious about being a writer should also work on avoiding making them in the first place. You may not be able to avoid them entirely –nobody is perfect, after all– but they should be rare in anything you show to even a beta-reader. (Sorry for the sermon. Editor here.)

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      You’re right. Such mistakes should not be made in the first place by any serious writer. I have a hunch that a lot of writers don’t know how to avoid starting every sentence with he, she, or a name, and so add a participial phrase to change things, and don’t pay attention to the proper grammar.

  5. Gina Hiatt Says:

    AMEN to the “wrongly used participial phrases that end in ing.” Thank you for reminding me what that is called. For some reason, I’ve been noticing this mistake everywhere, including in the newspaper, on TV news, and of course in general conversation or online. Luckily, I hope, this will not be one of those incorrect uses of grammar that become the norm. Its usage creates sentences that are confusing or that just don’t make sense!

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      It’s one of those grammar rules that few people seem to understand, and yet it’s very simple, especially if you call then “ing phrases” instead of “participial phrases”, but when used wrongly, participial phrases are confusing. I’m to the point now that when I edit a book and find it littered with such phrases, I refuse to continue until they clean up the mess.

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