Mangling Modern Writing

Today’s writing style includes effects that mimic how we speak and think in real life. The catch is that you need to know how to use these styles correctly. As excellent writer Dr. Richard Mabry says, “I don’t hold with always following the rules, but one needs to understand the reason for each one before breaking them. Sure, Picasso could put body parts anywhere he wanted, but I’d bet he knew where they belonged before he moved them.” Exactly! 😉

Let’s look at a few original “body parts” of writing that today’s authors often mangle in an attempt to be “modern.” In some cases, they shouldn’t be altered. Here are a few examples.


1) The incomplete sentence.

The original way of writing sentences was using a subject and a verb.

Example: The dog barked.
More descriptive example: The dog barked nonstop as the burglar scaled the fence.
Another way of writing it: As the burglar scaled the fence, the dog in the empty house barked nonstop.

Today’s writing allows writers to add incomplete sentences—a fragment—for effect.

Example: As the burglar scaled the fence, the dog in the empty house barked. And barked. And barked.
Another Example: As the burglar scaled the fence, the dog in the empty house barked. Charged at the window. Made a furious ruckus.

Those examples work fine. But these next two examples don’t work. (Can you figure out why?)

Example 1: When the neighbor came out and yelled, the burglar scrambled back over the fence. And down the alley. Disappearing into the darkness.

Example 2: When the neighbor came out and yelled, the burglar scrambled back over the fence. Then called 911. Ran after the thief.

The reason those examples don’t work is because each sentence fragment needs to point back to the original subject or verb.

In these examples, the subject/verb is “burglar scrambled.” So in Example 1, the actions that follow have to have the same verb tense as the original sentence. Add “burglar” in front of each phrase to make sure it’s correct.

Example 1 with correct verb tenses: When the neighbor came out and yelled, the burglar scrambled back over the fence. [The burglar] Ran down the alley. [The burglar] Disappeared into the darkness.

In Example 2, the fragments after the main sentence refer to the neighbor. Since the subject is still “burglar,” it causes confusion. Establish the new subject—the neighbor—so that the phrases following will refer to the correct subject.

Example 2 with new subject: When the neighbor came out and yelled, the burglar scrambled back over the fence. The neighbor called 911. Ran to the back of the yard. Chased after the thief.

(Notice how all the verb tenses match as well: neighbor called…ran…chased.)

One last note. Don’t overuse fragments. If you write more than three in a row or too many in one paragraph, it’s distracting and dilutes the writing.

Way too many phrases/incorrect verb tenses: As her car slid on the ice, Trina clutched the wheel, screaming. Her car twisted and slid over the side of the steep hill. Bouncing. Flipping. Rolling. Jolting. Crashing. Mangling itself around a tree. As the noise ceased, Trina whimpered and shook, knowing she would die. All alone. Trapped in a twisted mess. Blood and glass everywhere. Basically a freezing tomb. Where she’d never escape.

Whew! Writers need to use this technique correctly so it will read smoothly and have impact. Don’t guess. Learn the rules. Sentence fragments all have to point to back to the original subject/verb and be in the correct verb tenses. Use them sparingly.


2) One. Word. At. A. Time. For. Emphasis.

Whenever. I. See. This. Being. Used. I. Cringe. It’s not effective, it’s jolting. I have no idea why writers think that separating words with periods adds emphasis. It doesn’t. You shouldn’t use punctuation to create emphasis. You can use italics in rare cases (only one word). No exclamation points!!! Create emphasis by excellent writing.

Cringe-worthy example: “Don’t. Ever. Talk. That. Way. To. Me. Again.” The woman yelled at the little boy.
Another one: “Don’t. Ever. Talk that way to me again!” The woman yelled at the little boy.

Good example: “Don’t ever talk that way to me again.” The woman yelled at the little boy.
Great Writing: The red-faced woman jabbed her finger at the cowering boy. “Don’t ever talk that way to me again.”

In the last example, by giving us the visual first, we know already that she’s upset, and we are prepared to hear her furious words. It’s so much more effective than Putting. One. Word. After. Another. With. Periods. Give us such a gripping visual that we “hear” the tone already.


3) An unnamed person drops into the scene.

Example: Lisa and Gina were eating juicy burgers at their favorite restaurant.
Gina asked Lisa, “How is your job? Still terrible?”
The other woman took her time before speaking.

Who is the “other woman” in this scene? We only know Lisa and Gina are there—no other women are in the scene. Using “other woman” is awkward. Just use “Lisa.”

The original way of writing using people’s names is correct.

Example: Nancy said, “Oh, I love this resort! Can you believe we’ve been married twenty-six years?”
James smiled. “Well, now that our kids are gone, it does seem like time has flown by.”
His wife took a sip of her drink.

Is Nancy the wife of James? Or are Nancy and James talking to other people with them? It’s not clear. Just use “Nancy.”

Even if we can figure out who it is, use the names of the people in the scene. The only time you should use “the other person” is if it’s an unnamed person who appears on the scene.


4) Had had

Recently I saw a picture of a large coffee cup with these words on it:
“All the coffee she had had had had no effect.”
It’s grammatically correct (read it again), but it’s very difficult to read or grasp the meaning of.

I see a lot of “had had” in writing today. It’s often contracted as in “he’d had” or “she’d had”—but that’s still writing “he/she had had.” It may be grammatically correct (past perfect tense), but it’s not how we speak. For modern writing, just use simple past tense. If one “had” works, just use one.

Example: After being a vet for thirty years, he had had enough experience to know how to help the wounded fox.
Same thing: After being a vet for thirty years, he’d had enough experience to know how to help the wounded fox.
Written as we speak: After being a vet for thirty years, he had enough experience to know how to help the wounded fox.

What’s worse is that typically writers forget and alternate “had had” and only “had” which is inconsistent. Make sure you write consistently.

Example of mixing verb tenses: After being a vet for thirty years, he’d had enough experience to know how to help the wounded fox. He had his medical supplies in his storage room, so he looked for exactly what he needed. He had had to dig through several boxes to find a few things, but soon he had everything packed up.

Best: Just use “had” everywhere in the paragraph above.


Savvy Writer Tip:

Modern writing has developed new casual styles to mimic the way we speak and think in real life. However, they need to be executed correctly or the writing will sound amateur. Savvy writers keep up with modern stylistic effects and know exactly how to use them. 🙂

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