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The comma is a necessary instrument in the writer’s toolbox. Commas can be quite helpful to indicate to a reader that you, the writer, are pausing in your sentence flow; but they can also, if you let them, stop the reader too often and, unnecessarily, as in this sentence. The word “comma” comes from the Greek word kómma, meaning, cut off piece. In the above sentence you can see how pieces were indeed cut off from the main part of the sentence: “the writer” and “if you let it” being examples. The comma is used in lists (1,2,3,….), for the separation of independent clauses (I used go swimming all the time, but now I get in the water only sometimes), and to hive off various things (parenthetical phrases) in the sentence which are not part of the main, or independent, clause. Parenthetical phrases are a fun way to use a comma, by giving information that is not essential to the sentence. But, while not essential they can, in my opinion, be fairly close to it.
Consider this example:
~The Roman Emperor Constantine, while on the road to Rome, had a vision.~
While the sentence doesn’t need “while on the road to Rome,” it sure fills out the context for the sentence and looks like very important information for the reader. So, while not essential, it looks pretty close to it. Of course there are other ways to make this sentence, even without commas, but the point here is to use them.
Another thing I like about commas is their use in a longer sentence where you get a few of those extra pieces thrown in, but the trick is making them flow so the reader continues tracking with you. Consider the following example:
~In all but a few cases, when making bread it is important to have a hot oven, up to 500 degrees, that is, if possible, to ensure that you get a proper rise.~
In this sentence, the author throws in three extra pieces, but the question is, do those extras throw the reader off and break up the flow between the words “oven” and “to ensure?” You can probably see that the writer is just at the edge of what a reader should be expected to stop and consider in the middle of the sentence, but throwing in one more would be inadvisable, such as:
~ In all but a few cases, when making bread it is important to have a hot oven, up to 500 degrees, that is, if possible, especially in light of the variability in oven temperature maximums, to ensure that you get a proper rise~
You can see how this seems strained, as if there was butter scraped over too much bread, as it were, and by the time we get to “to ensure,” we are only just able to connect it to the mother clause. But it is not that the sentence is too long; long sentences can be very effective if put together well. Consider this:
~Similar to scientists applying formula and technique to their matter in order to come up with physical laws, historians must engage in a critical analysis of the recorded actions of historical figures in order to suggest, not laws, but explanations of the probable motivations, whether internal or external, which best explain the actions of these people in light of other historical examples and the common experiences of human kind, including our own experience.
In this example, much longer than the previous one, there is much more detail, but because there are less extra pieces thrown in, non-essentials, as it were, we can follow and understand it more easily.
Use commas to throw in extra pieces to help the reader have a better understanding of context, but don’t throw in too many. Be kind to your readers, they are doing you the honor of reading your work, after all.
 See generally P.H. Nowell-Smith, Are Historical Events Unique?, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, vol. 57 (1956-1957): 107-160. Nowell-Smith makes a number of interesting observations germane to the question of historical events and entities, a few of which I will note here: “…despotism, the bourgeoisie and the Holy Roman Empire are all entities.” (140); “…historians use general words, and the use of such words presupposes the recognition of similarities. To talk of the Revolutions of 1688, 1789, and 1848 is already to recognize these events as similar in some respects.” [And yet for the historian who studies the Revolution of 1688, he recognizes there is no such thing as a typical revolution.] (117); “Explanation in history often takes the form, not of discovering the events with which a given event is causally connected in the regularity sense, but in expounding in detail in what the given event consisted.” (135).
The footnote is just a bonus for those interested, and to encourage the practice of citation in your own work. Always credit ideas you got from another person, unless what you are borrowing amounts to general knowledge: such as the fact that apples are a food horses like to eat. Who cares who wrote it first, it is general knowledge so don’t be afraid to use it. The trick is determining when a fact becomes so specific that it is no longer general knowledge. For instance, if I read somewhere that in a recent study it was found that horses preferred green apples, then I should cite that author and the study they cite for two reasons. The most important is that it is not general knowledge and you are taking specific information in the form of a claim about a fact from a source; the other less important reason is because if that information is something that interests the reader or the reader thinks it might be wrong for some reason, such as they have a horse that eats only red apples and spits the green ones out, they can then read it for themselves given your proper citation. So, in this post the comma was highlighted, next time I will talk about the semi-colon.
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We all write history. Whatever we write about in the realm of non-fiction is something from the past, or it may be our take on past events. In fact, there is no way those events could be anything else but past events; even if we are writing about our feelings, those feelings have to happen before we can write about them. Fiction writers also write about history, because everything they create is based on what they have experienced and learned in their own past. The fact that they are going beyond the bounds of reality in their imagined worlds does not prevent their own past experiences from setting the guideposts for what they portray happening in their stories. Why is this important? Well, as a historian myself, I have had many opportunities to learn about the limitations a historian faces when trying to explain a past event: quality of sources, personal inclinations, etc. So, if it is true that all writers engage with history, then I think some consideration of the things to watch out for when you are writing history may assist you to be “clearer” in your own writing.
One of the trickiest things about being a writer is being able to write without your personal preferences getting in the way of your subject matter. To write about a subject without any personal bias is impossible, it is what is referred to as “writing objectively”, but you can be clearer in your writing style and avoid writing subjectively — that is, writing purely from your own perspective. The first step is to simply acknowledge that you have this bias and make some effort to reign it in. Admitting you have biases that will make your written work less clear, unless the point of your work is to explain to the reader what your biases are, is the first step to writing in a more convincing way. Consider the observation of historian John Lukacs on two other historians, Alexis de Tocqueville and Jacob Burckhardt [and do not worry about the German words he throws in, historians have a tendency to throw in German, French, or Latin terms; it’s just one of “those things”.]:
It is perhaps significant that the limits of objectivity were recognized by Tocqueville and Burckhardt better than by Ranke: unlike the latter, the aristocrat Tocqueville and the patrician Burckhardt admitted and knew many of their personal inclinations and their existing prejudices: and it is perhaps precisely for this reason that they succeeded in overcoming them on occasion. “I began my study of the old régime full of prejudices against the clergy,” Tocqueville wrote, “I ended it full of respect.” (How few of our professional intellectuals would dare to admit such a thing nowadays, let alone put it in a book!) Burckhardt in one of his lectures made a beautiful distinction between Vorliebe and Parteilichkeit, a personal tendency of being attracted to, and affected by, certain places, peoples, cultures, as distinct from mere partisanship; the former was good and proper, the latter wrong. The person of the historian is to determine his work, Burckhardt said. “We are not objective.” “Personal participation is unavoidable.”
Historical Consciousness (Transaction:2003): 235.
For clarity’s sake, Vorliebe means ‘preference’ or ‘liking something’, whereas Parteilichkeit means ‘partiality’ or ‘bias’. This relates to the general tack of this blog, clear writing, and here the eminent historian is not being clear to the average English reader. The question he had to answer is whether, given the fact the average reader will not understand the German terms, he still wanted to use them anyway? Clearly, he did. In your own writings you will also have to consider the use of technical language, for lack of a better term, and where and when you are willing to use it. But for now, let’s quickly consider what Lukacs observed about writing objectively. That is the important bit!
We take it as a given that we participate in what we write, a la Burckhardt. But here we are presented with two trajectories of participation in writing: one where we are “attracted to, and affected by, certain places, peoples, cultures,” and another where we are partial to a cause or person, or have biases that guide our writing. These historians agree that — I paraphrase and translate — a healthy interest and respect for a subject is a good thing, while writing out of our biases is a bad thing.
Their observations are good ones. Happy writing.
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Colons are cool: they are used to help the writer convey more detail or emphasis on what they have introduced in the first part of their sentence, an independent clause. The colon is one of the most underused instruments in a writer’s toolbox, but I encourage you to consider using it more regularly. Use it between connected independent clauses or before a list, whenever the situation calls for it. The two most common uses are (1) using it after the first part of a sentence, which is technically a complete sentence on its own, to precede more detail or emphasis on what you introduced to the reader in the first part. (2) The second most common use is related to the first, only in this case your details come in the form of a list. Two quick examples:
(1) The boy had a small dog: a miniature Great Dane.
You can see how the first part of the sentence is a sentence all its own. The second part gives the reader an important detail about the first part of the sentence.
(2) The boy had a Great Dane with unique features: it was only twenty inches tall, had long ears, a dark brown coat, and appeared to smile at you.
Here again, important details, but in a list.
Remember, what comes after the colon in the second part of the sentence must be connected to the first part, it must give a detail or details about what you presented to the reader in the first part. You can also see here above, I used a colon after the words “Two quick examples.” This is standard practice for many writers, and you can see how this usage follows the general requirement for a colon that what follows it is connected to what comes before it. Like all punctuation ought to, the colon helps the reader in terms of sentence flow. It’s all about flow when it comes to reading, and colons can help you create a pause that will signal the reader to do the same.
A few words about flow. Sentence flow is the rhythm the reader senses when reading your writing, and you want it to move like the current of a deep and strong river. Sometimes that can be slow moving, or you can get into a whitewater flow, but both are effective tactics pursuant to your specific context. With a writer like Charles Dickens, the flow is fairly slow, but in his best works it keeps you moving with interest: Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, for instance. Dickens’s flow is slower, as well, because he uses a great deal of colorful adjectives, and very insightful names for his characters, using onomatopoeia: in Greek, this word means ‘making names’. While technically it refers to the imitation of a sound, it can also, I think, point to a word with another meaning which we are more familiar with. Think of the lawyer in Great Expectations, Jaggers. His name sounds like “daggers”, and in our minds we are pulled towards that and Dickens, I suggest, knew this very well. Many of his characters’ names are created in this way. But there is the rub, having really interesting names, lots of description, and his famous long sentences, slows the reader down. But good for him, we still love his writing.
The important thing to remember is that flow is real for readers, and it either helps them or hinders them based on its quality level. I have previously given you some ideas as to what will help you create better flow, in a previous post, found here. In this current post I have been referring to flow in sentences, but there is flow in the narrative/plot overall, flow between paragraphs and chapters, and flow in character development. These are a few of the more important instances of flow.
Editors can help us in the process of writing better. They tend to convert writing from unclear to clearer. There is no clear, remember that. Perfect writings do not exist. Like one of my professors once told me, you can always go back to a piece of writing and make changes, no matter how far along in the process of writing you are; even if you have published a work, there will always be changes you could have made. So if clear writing is actually non-existent, then clearer writing is the goal that every writer should aim for. In an important sense, to be clearer is clear enough. I think there are three simple ways you can, generally, make your own writing clearer.
- The Second Set of Eyes principle – Having someone else read your written work, anyone who can read basically, can help you immeasurably, and here is why. All people read in rhythms and cadence with various levels of comprehension. So, have the people you have read your writing highlight those areas that they trip up on in their natural reading rhythm, and have them indicate at what point they paused. Then, go back and read those passages again to see if a change is warranted. The fact is, you are your own worst critic at times, and this is one of those times. Think about it, if there is an error with your sentence flow, and you “should” have caught it, you would have, but you didn’t. Having more than one person read your work is also a good idea, but as indicated above, no written work is perfect, so leave perfection behind and merely aim to write in as clear a way as possible
- Time heals all “words” – The second practice is connected to the first, but the person reading it again is you. I suggest you take some time in between readings. Oftentimes, once a piece of writing is complete, if you leave a day or two, or even longer if you have time, in between the time you wrote it and when you read it again, you will find things you want to change to make your writing clearer.
- Connecting your dots – The third practice is to make sure your writing is connected. This applies to sentences, paragraphs, and body. Think of your work as a chain which pulls your idea/thesis closer to the person reading it as they go through it. It is important that none of the links in this chain fail. A sentence ought to be connected to the one that preceded it, a paragraph to the one before, and this applies to chapters as well.
These are a few ways to get you on the path to writing more clearly.
If you have any questions about what I have written here, send me a message — happy to make the meaning clearer. You can find my contact info here.
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