In my last blog post on clutter, I covered one-half of my first-level editing checklist.
Here’s the next four that top my list of hindrances to energetic, original — and correct — writing that create clutter and miscommunication in written works.
Dangling modifier. It’s a given that every sentence I come upon with an introductory phrase, I am looking for a dangling modifier. The introductory phrase dangles when it does not modify the subject of the main clause:
Delicious with every bite, use these croutons on all your favorite salads.
This is a classic construction for a dangling modifier because the subject of the sentence, “you” (so, “you use”) is implicit not explicit. The sentence says that the subject “you” is delicious. Could be! But we can assume from the context that is not the intention of the writer. An edit is necessary, and there are lots of choices. How would you fix this sentence? Type a fix in the comment box below.
Unclear pronoun association. Pronouns are fabulous. They allow us to vary the way we write, especially in profiles, where we continually need to use a person’s name. A pronoun can help avoid sounding like a “Dick and Jane” primer, repeating a given name in every sentence. Instead, we get to use “he” and “she” for variation.
“It” as a pronoun, though, needs special attention, to ensure it parallels to a clearly defined noun in the previous sentence. In spoken English, we liberally use “it” without much challenge, but the precision of writing requires defter handling. For example:
I know I haven’t interviewed someone from the Bicyclists of America in a long time, but I’m inquiring about a source to talk to for a story about the first paved-surface, transcontinental bicycle trip. It is about how America had grown its transportation system so much by the 1950s that this kind of trip became possible.
In the second sentence, the “it” floats unattached to a clear antecedent, defined as the noun that denotes, and precedes, the pronoun. Does “it” refer to “story,” “trip” or “source”? The many prepositional phrases create some confusion. As a fix, we can better associate “story” to “it” through a structural edit, reduce the prepositional phrases, or we can turn “it” in the second sentence into a defined noun (e.g., “the article”) to eliminate any reader confusion.
I think. This item is specific to first-person pieces, but as more bloggers write from the “I” perspective, “I think” has risen to the top of my checklist. Basically, if written in the first person, especially in opinion or perspective pieces, all of the text is the opinion of the writer, and readers know so. Thus, “I think” mostly is redundant, unless a sentence specifically warrants the extra emphasis.
Subject-Verb agreement. Here’s another common writing problem where prepositional or other phrases separating the subject and the verb can dim their connection and lead to agreement errors:
Your copy of the binder with the new lawsuits from the opposing firms are lying on the table.
Here, “copy” is so far away from its verb that it’s easy to miss that “copy” is a singular noun needing a singular form “is.” As an editing habit, clearing away all intervening phrases and clauses that interrupt the subject-verb connection (“Your copy is lying”) helps to quickly identify the appropriate form.