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Old 01-23-2013, 02:33 AM   #1
tonten
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Dangling Modifier - I don't see it

I got a critique on the opening paragraph of my manuscript by some wonderful people and someone pointed out in one of my sentences that I have a dangling modifier:


They were walking down the street dressed in plain clothes with somewhere to go just like any other traveler.


Her exact words were, "You have a bit of a dangling modifier here--makes it sound like the clothes, not the soldiers, have somewhere to go."


For some reason, I'm not seeing it. I cannot in any way read it as the clothes have somewhere to go =(

Just wondering if anyone can assist me.



P.S.

I remember reading somewhere that if there is a double meaning in a sentence -

For example:

If either the "they" or the "clothes" can be read as the thing "with somewhere to go"

The reader would read it in the way that logically makes sense. (And it is fine to have a sentence here and there like that)

Last edited by tonten; 01-23-2013 at 03:28 AM.
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Old 01-23-2013, 03:02 AM   #2
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Actually, you have two.

One possible reading is:

"They were walking down the street WHICH WAS dressed in plain clothes, AND THE CLOTHES HAD somewhere to go just like any other traveler. "

The "dressed in plain clothes" phrase should refer back to the closest noun, which is "street."

Same for "with somewhere to go" -- it refers back to the closest prior noun, which is the clothes.

In both cases, a comma would have helped, but still left some ambiguity. It's not that a reader couldn't parse it eventually, but on a quick reading, there's an ambiguity. Never give the reader two possible interpretations of a sentence, because they might choose the wrong one, and then realize it at the end, and they'll blame you for their misinterpretation. As they should. It's your job to lead them down the correct path.

Don't be afraid to uses "and" or commas or breaking concepts into two sentences. Possible workaround is:

They were dressed in plain clothes and walking down the street like they had somewhere to go, just like any other traveler.

The last noun prior to the "just like ... " phrase is "they," which in turn relates back to the initial "they" (since there's just one street, and there's an implicit "they were" before "walking down the street," so it's not referring back to "clothes.").

Or, simpler still:

The cops were dressed in plain clothes. They walked down the street like any other traveler, as if they had somewhere to go.

I suppose there could be a confusion that the second sentence referred to the clothes walking, but it's less likely when there are two sentences, than when they're mashed up into one sentence.

Get the nouns and the descriptive phrases clearly tethered to each other.

ETA: You might spend some time at edittorrent.blogspot.com. They talk about dangling modifiers and participial phrases a lot, and have some excellent explanations. If it's a writing habit of yours, it's worth spending some time there to study up on it.
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Old 01-23-2013, 03:03 AM   #3
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There shouldn't really be a double meaning - the modification should generally be clear.

She's not wrong, really. It's like -

The girl found her doll playing under a tree in the backyard.

That reads as if the doll was playing under the tree. You know what it means, but that's not what it says, which is a problem. There's usually a fairly easy fix though.

In your sentence -

They were walking down the street dressed in plain clothes with somewhere to go just like any other traveler.

it's not so extreme as in my example. I think commas and a bit of excising would do you a world of good.

They were walking down the street, dressed in plain clothes, with somewhere to go just like any other traveler.

That's better but the 'with somewhere to go just like any other traveler' reads oddly to me no matter what. I'd cut 'with somewhere to go' and leave it as -


They were walking down the street, dressed in plain clothes, just like any other traveler.

Or reshuffle -


They were walking down the street as if they had somewhere to go, dressed in plain clothes, just like any other traveler.
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Old 01-23-2013, 03:24 AM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by tonten View Post
They were walking down the street dressed in plain clothes with somewhere to go just like any other traveler.
Your reader was only trying to help by spotting the misplaced modifiers. Try:

Dressed in plain clothes, they walked down the street like any other travelers with somewhere to go.

GinJones gives good advice to "never give the reader two possible interpretations of a sentence," as in I found a dollar walking home.
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Old 01-23-2013, 03:28 AM   #5
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Thank you. I love both your examples, ginjones and cornflake.

After having my first paragraph basically torn by a few people, I'm afraid the rest of my work may be plagued with similar problems.

In the past 5 years, I've reread and edited my manuscript 50+ times. I've even had 3 beta readers and they didn't catch any of these errors.

It just makes my confidence level go down =(
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Old 01-23-2013, 03:30 AM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by GinJones View Post
They were dressed in plain clothes and walking down the street like they had somewhere to go, just like any other traveler.
This would be my choice.

Even if the modifiers were correct in the original sentence, the sentence would still be awkward.
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Old 01-23-2013, 03:47 AM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Chase View Post
as in I found a dollar walking home.
Walking money, Chase. Love it.

@Tonten, on a basic level, the commas are just a big marker to say anything that follows, it relates back to the subject of the clause, not the prepositional phrase in this:

They were walking down the street, dressed in plain clothes, with somewhere to go just like any other traveler.

Otherwise you have:

They were walking down the street dressed in plain clothes with somewhere to go just like any other traveler.

But yes, a rewrite would do this sentence some good.
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Old 01-23-2013, 03:51 AM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by tonten View Post
Thank you. I love both your examples, ginjones and cornflake.

After having my first paragraph basically torn by a few people, I'm afraid the rest of my work may be plagued with similar problems.

In the past 5 years, I've reread and edited my manuscript 50+ times. I've even had 3 beta readers and they didn't catch any of these errors.

It just makes my confidence level go down =(
Couple things - first, it's hard to edit your own work. Even editors, who do a better job than most, have other editors read over their stuff. Reading it more often doesn't always help; it's common to not notice things you've done.

Ever lose something, look all over for it and not be able to find it, only to have someone else walk in and spot it immediately? Like that.

Second, what were the beta readers for? If they were regular people (not editors or people well-versed in grammar) who were just reading your work for fun or to see if the plot made sense or grabbed their attention, then it's not so surprising they didn't bring up issues like the one in the OP. Even if they were editors, there are differences between types of editing and why people read work. If someone is reading for plot holes, they may see but not feel they're meant to comment on line-by-line grammar issues.

Depends. If my friend gives me something to read, it usually comes with specific instruction, like 'just tell me if you see any problem with the logic of...' If that's the case, I try to refrain from commenting on any grammar tweaks I think it needs, etc.
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Old 01-23-2013, 04:42 AM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by cornflake View Post
Couple things - first, it's hard to edit your own work. Even editors, who do a better job than most, have other editors read over their stuff. Reading it more often doesn't always help; it's common to not notice things you've done.

Ever lose something, look all over for it and not be able to find it, only to have someone else walk in and spot it immediately? Like that.

Second, what were the beta readers for? If they were regular people (not editors or people well-versed in grammar) who were just reading your work for fun or to see if the plot made sense or grabbed their attention, then it's not so surprising they didn't bring up issues like the one in the OP. Even if they were editors, there are differences between types of editing and why people read work. If someone is reading for plot holes, they may see but not feel they're meant to comment on line-by-line grammar issues.

Depends. If my friend gives me something to read, it usually comes with specific instruction, like 'just tell me if you see any problem with the logic of...' If that's the case, I try to refrain from commenting on any grammar tweaks I think it needs, etc.
yeah, it's pretty hard to edit one's own work. I've spent 5 years doing and although I've improved, I'm still catching a tiny mistake here and there once in a while.

I was fairly confident that my manuscript was now ready to be submitted, but after a major error like that dangling modifier (And in the FIRST paragraph of the book of all things!), it's making me OCD wanting to comb through it again just looking for this particular type of error. (So far I've gone through chapter 1 and don't see any more dangling modifiers like that, but, I could be wrong)

I still do feel like this manuscript is ready. One of my friends also just tells me to submit the damn thing. He says that if I comb through it again, I will be going through it again next year. And the year after never submitting. There comes a point in time where I'm beating a dead horse. (But I do feel like the first 5 chapters should be COMPLETELY mistake free. Maybe I should just look over the first 5 chapters again)

My beta readers are regular people. One is well versed in grammar, but they are not professional editors by any sort. They read for plot holes and grammar. If you took a look at my earlier versions of my manuscripts, you would see red pen marks everywhere and hundreds of helpful comments. They spent months editing thoroughly and I really appreciate them.

But then again, ever since I rewrote chapter one, 2 years back, I've only ever had one person take a look at it.


Quote:
Originally Posted by Fallen View Post
Walking money, Chase. Love it.

@Tonten, on a basic level, the commas are just a big marker to say anything that follows, it relates back to the subject of the clause, not the prepositional phrase in this:

They were walking down the street, dressed in plain clothes, with somewhere to go just like any other traveler.

Otherwise you have:

They were walking down the street dressed in plain clothes with somewhere to go just like any other traveler.

But yes, a rewrite would do this sentence some good.
After someone pointed out the dangling modifier, I was thinking of adding commas like that although I couldn't see the DM itself.

But you are correct, a rewrite would do this sentence some good. I agree with what alleycat quoted and posted and that ginjones' would be the best as well.

I know my reader was trying to help and I am really grateful for it. I just didn't know how to bring it up with her because I felt so embarrassed that I could not see the dangling modifier.

I'm gonna take a look at blog too you posted ginjones! Thanks!

Last edited by tonten; 01-23-2013 at 05:00 AM.
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Old 01-23-2013, 06:15 AM   #10
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1...If you have one dangling modifier like this that you can not see, changes are you have a whole lot more.

2...Never submit until you are 100% satisfied that the work is the best you can make it. Don't let others rush you. It's your baby after all and your name.

3...I got one manuscript I have reworked for 10 years, and I know the story is way better now than when I first started on it.

Good luck with this and don't give up hope.
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Old 01-23-2013, 06:25 AM   #11
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They were walking down | the street dressed in plain clothes | with somewhere to go just like any other traveler.

It's tricky, but when broken down into separate clauses, can you see it now?
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Old 01-23-2013, 09:58 AM   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Wilde_at_heart View Post
They were walking down | the street dressed in plain clothes | with somewhere to go just like any other traveler.

It's tricky, but when broken down into separate clauses, can you see it now?
I could see already after ginjone's and cornflake's explanation, but your example is a good way in separating the sentence to see it too.
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Old 01-23-2013, 11:31 AM   #13
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The simplest and almost always best rule is:

Place the modifier as close as possible to the thing being modified.

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Old 01-25-2013, 02:56 AM   #14
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Quote:
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The simplest and almost always best rule is:

Place the modifier as close as possible to the thing being modified.

caw
I can see, though, how tonten might have thought he was doing exactly that. Syntactically, we have to co-ordinated adverbials.

Examples, of obvious adverbials:
He was walking down the street very quickly.

He was walking down the street on Sunday.
Adverbials are fairly flexible in their position. When they come at the end of the sentence, they generally are part of the point you want to make.
On Sunday, he was walking down the street. (...and not doing anything else)

He was walking down the street on Sunday. (...and not on Saturday.)
Now adverbials can also involve information about the way someone does something.
He was walking down the street naked.
This doesn't cause an ambiguity, because an adjective that modifies a noun usually comes before the noun. You would expect:
He was walking down the naked street.
A very different sentence.

Things like that are confusing, because an adjective functions as an adverbial. You wouldn't say:
NO:He was walking down the street nakedly.
So here's the current example:
They were walking down the street
- dressed in plain clothes
- with somewhere to go
- just like any other traveller.
The ordering is deliberate, too: The implication is that the other travellers are also dressed in plain clothes and have somewhere to go. Rhetorically, we have two adverbials that give examples of the manner in which they are walking down the road, and one that summarises the point (as I read it: they're blending in).

The syntactic problem is that the adverbials look exactly like noun-modifiers:

"the street dressed in plain clothes", "plain clothes with somwehere to go".

Such sentences are fairly common, I think, and rarely cause confusion:

"I gave you the present with best intentions." etc.

Note that any other position for the adverbial sounds very different:
With best intentions, I gave you the present.

I, with best intentions, gave you the present.
The emphasis is now off.

What sort of ambiguities actually cause confusion, and under what circumstances is a very interesting topic, and I'm not sure how much the experts know about this.

I have some unsystematic theories: for example, I'd say that the ambiguity worsens if you turn the definite article into an indefinite one:
They were walking down a street dressed in plain clothes.
I can see two reasons why this is so: (1) Definite articles already imply a specific noun. Unless there's context to make you think otherwise(There were two streets. They were walking down the street dressed in plain clothes. The uniformed street seemed too stiff.), you won't worry about what sort of street. (2) "Walking down the street" is a common collocation - i.e. these are words that appear together so often that you're used to reading them as a unit. Changing the article lowers the likelihood that you perceive the noun phrase as a unit.

Similar things go on in cornflake's example:
The girl found her doll playing under a tree in the back yard.
That's a very good example of a dangling participle that causes confusion, or if not confusion unintentional humour. Cornflake says that your example isn't that extreme, and I agree. But figuring out the difference isn't as easy as it should be. Why are some examples more extreme than others?

Putting the modifier close to the item it modifies is a good idea, but sometimes it clashes with other goals, sometimes it results in odd sentences, and sometimes you think you've done exactly that (i.e. there are different syntactical interpretations, and you don't see the confusing one).

Personally, I think the sentence is grammatically fine, but I agree with Fallen that the least edit it needs are the commas. (Clarification of "grammatically fine": I don't consider commas part of grammar; they're part of orthography. Thus your sentence is grammatically fine, but not orthographically.)

Basically, I agree with just about everything is this thread. The reason I posted is that I sort of feel bad about you feeling embarrassed, since I think it's fairly understandable that you didn't spot the dangler. I have no opinion on whether the sentence needs editing (apart from Fallen's commas), since I don't like to judge stuff out of context.
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Old 01-26-2013, 05:48 PM   #15
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It would have slightly eased the confusion if you had ended with plural 'travellers' to connect with the opening 'They'.
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Old 01-27-2013, 01:36 PM   #16
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Quote:
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In the past 5 years, I've reread and edited my manuscript 50+ times. I've even had 3 beta readers and they didn't catch any of these errors.

It just makes my confidence level go down =(
Here's some advice for consideration: maybe you should trunk this novel and write your next one.

If you've been working on it for five years, you're almost certainly blind to it now. And it's probably taught you everything about writing that it's going to teach you.

In my experience, creative projects of any kind that stay in your active mindspace for too long are like grown kids who don't move out of the house. They hang around, raiding the fridge and taking all your energy. Then you don't start new projects.

They also encourage the belief that you only have one great work in you. I'm not convinced that that's true for most writers. I think that the more we write, the more we find that there is to write.

And trunking isn't trashing. If you write more books, you'll learn new techniques. You'll also get some distance on your current work. Then you can come back to this one with all that experience and a fresh perspective.

I know this is a little overly holistic advice for a thread on modifier placement. And it's only advice, not a command. Just consider it.
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  1. Matters of absolute importance should be capitalised.
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  3. Matters which the author not only considers insignificant, but wishes had never occurred, should have all words rendered in lower-case.
  4. If the writer looks upon history as a kind of fantastical territory, and wishes to assert either that it is wildly unlikely or highly distorted, all matters that can be considered nouns of any sort should be capitalised

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Old 01-27-2013, 01:43 PM   #17
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It would have slightly eased the confusion if you had ended with plural 'travellers' to connect with the opening 'They'.
That's what I was thinking, but commas too for a smoother reading.
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Old 01-27-2013, 07:10 PM   #18
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Thank you Dawnstorm for your post.

First of, I want to say I am really appreciative for your reply. I needed a couple of days to think over this entire thread before I could draw some more conclusions.

Your post really helped in making me feel less embarrassed. Although I do still have a sense doubt somewhere lingering in my psyche about my writing abilities, I do feel a bit better now.



You said,
Quote:
"The syntactic problem is that the adverbials look exactly like noun-modifiers. Such sentences are fairly common, I think, and rarely cause confusion. What sort of ambiguities actually cause confusion, and under what circumstances is a very interesting topic, and I'm not sure how much the experts know about this."

"Personally, I think the sentence is grammatically fine, but I agree with Fallen that the least edit it needs are the commas."


I agree with everything you've said. If I had my way, I would personally keep this sentence. My reasoning for keeping it, is, since it's grammatically correct, and the chance of confusion is low/up for grabs, the time I've wasted on this one sentence could have been time better put working on something else.


But the thing is, I do not have my way. I would keep it if it was somewhere else in the book. Since I am not an established writer, do not have an editor, and this is my first novel, I believe the first couple of chapters should be perfect/completely error free for submission.


Out of all the examples given (I've also tried rewriting this sentence myself), I do believe GinJone's is still the best.

"They were dressed in plain clothes and walking down the street like they had somewhere to go, just like any other traveler."


Thank you again GinJones and Dawnstorm and everyone for your insights, discussion, and in helping me with this matter.

Side note:
I hope everyone does not think I'm a bad writer for wanting to keep a sentence like this. Before someone spotted this mistake, I knew what a dangling modifier was, but to more extremes like cornflake's example. I mean, I've had 3 beta readers read this manuscript and they never caught the mistake. I would assume the confusion for this sentence is low.

Now that I've seen the problem in this sentence, (I've also been doing more in depth reading/study/reviewing misplaced, dangling, and other types of mistaken modifiers), I am confident I can spot sentences with similar mistakes. I will keep an open mind for future works/edits.
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Old 01-27-2013, 07:18 PM   #19
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Here's some advice for consideration: maybe you should trunk this novel and write your next one.

If you've been working on it for five years, you're almost certainly blind to it now. And it's probably taught you everything about writing that it's going to teach you.

And trunking isn't trashing. If you write more books, you'll learn new techniques. You'll also get some distance on your current work. Then you can come back to this one with all that experience and a fresh perspective.
Originally I planned this book as a six book series, but as of late, I've been thinking of working on a totally new project instead of writing the 2nd book.

I do agree trunking isn't trashing. I still do believe I have written a publishable manuscript to the best and edited it to the best of my abilities.

There dose come a time where I've beaten a dead horse. I will never know until I try it out for some submissions. The next step is just the query (which took me a year to learn/write)

(I haven't posted the new version up yet, but I would like to say thank you to everyone that has helped me in AW! If it wasn't for all the critiques and advice, I don't think I would have gotten to where I am today with my writing)

If this novel does flunk, I can come back to it in the future when I've written something that actually gets published.
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Old 01-27-2013, 11:29 PM   #20
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If I had my way, I would personally keep this sentence. My reasoning for keeping it, is, since it's grammatically correct, and the chance of confusion is low/up for grabs, the time I've wasted on this one sentence could have been time better put working on something else.
So why did you waste time on it? It takes about three seconds to make better. Once the problem was pointed out, you knew it bothered somebody, and probably would bother others. You came here with the question precisely for that reason, did you not?

This is certainly not the most egregious or confusing of danglers I've seen, but it is a poorly constructed sentence, extremely simple to make clearer. Several suggestions have been made here which work better. Plus, you've learned (I hope) some ways of recognizing these wordage problems, and will (I hope) be more alert to them in further writing.

The trick to any self-editing is to step away from what you know you mean, and see how clearly that meaning is being communicated to a reader by what you write. Sometimes, especially in initial drafts, those two things don't always coincide.

My favorite way of ferreting out wordage clumsinesses like your example is to READ ALOUD, and not overly fast. Pretend you're Dennis Haysbert in an All-State Insurance commercial. When I do that, and stumble on some piece of prose, I take it as a sign that something could be improved, and look at it through that lens.

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Old 01-28-2013, 07:00 PM   #21
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So why did you waste time on it?
I sincerely apologize for using the word waste to everyone and myself. I made a mistake on word choice. I was in a hurry to leave work before the meter on my car expired. After I posted my reply, I was thinking back that I should not have used the word wasted. I was posting in a rush.

There was no time wasted. It was time well learned and I have learned a lot coming out of this thread.

What I meant to say was along the lines of a quote I remember reading before. It was a published author who once said it. I don't remember it exactly but context was something like:

"Some people spend years editing/rewriting a book to get it perfect. Just get it to as close as polished as it can be, because in that amount of time spent editing a book, I could have written five more."

That's just how I felt after encountering this sentence.

While I agree with his quote, I haven't put it to practice because I believe since this is my first book, I can learn a lot from the editing phase and am willing (and have) to spend 3 years on it to better my craft.

And my writing definitely has improved from it.



You don't need to hope blacbird. I have learned from this thread the ways of recognizing these wordage problems and for sure I will be alert to them in future novel writings.

I also totally agree with your suggestion of reading one's book outloud and would recommend anyone in the editing phase to do it. I've read my own book outloud twice and have had a text to speech program read it out to me a couple of times as well. I've caught a lot of errors this way. Well, except for this sentence, which to me, sounded fine (and still does).

Last edited by tonten; 01-28-2013 at 07:07 PM.
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Old 01-29-2013, 03:38 AM   #22
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Couple things - first, it's hard to edit your own work. Even editors, who do a better job than most, have other editors read over their stuff. Reading it more often doesn't always help; it's common to not notice things you've done.
Amen to that. I usually finish it up and then set it aside for at least a couple of weeks (for a short) and months if it's novel length. You know you've left it long enough when some of what you've written surprises you.

The problem, if you review your writing too soon, is you know what you meant to say and you read your meaning into it whether it's there or not. For me it's the little words like 'the' that are hardly noticed that get me in trouble. God help the writer who has learned to speed read.
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Old 01-29-2013, 07:52 AM   #23
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God help the writer who has learned to speed read.
This. Great point. Which gets me back into the recommendation to read stuff aloud.

I teach introductory university-level English composition, and one of the things I always do is have students read portions of first drafts aloud, precisely for the reason I cited earlier: it helps to catch clumsy writing better than anything else I can think of.

I always have to slow them down when they first do this. Everybody wants to race through the stuff. That doesn't work. Any good orator knows this (think Barack Obama). You need to read in a cadence similar to what you'd hear in an audiobook. Or what you hear from good narrators of TV documentary programs (Peter Thomas, Stacy Keach, Peter Coyote are among the best).

Speed-editing is like trying to roast a turkey in ten minutes at a really high temperature.

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Old 01-29-2013, 11:01 AM   #24
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Thank you. I love both your examples, ginjones and cornflake.

After having my first paragraph basically torn by a few people, I'm afraid the rest of my work may be plagued with similar problems.

In the past 5 years, I've reread and edited my manuscript 50+ times. I've even had 3 beta readers and they didn't catch any of these errors.

It just makes my confidence level go down =(
Don't feel bad about missing stuff. Everyone has issues like this. You know what you mean, and you've read and reread it so many times you're not really "seeing" it with unbiased eyes.

I've been finding (and having pointed out to me) missing quotation marks, of all things. I think it's because I do a lot of cropping of dialog on edits, and I'm terrible at drag and paste, and terrible at seeing the little stinkers too.

I find, or have pointed out to me, plenty of other mistakes too.
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Old 01-29-2013, 10:49 PM   #25
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Don't feel bad about missing stuff. Everyone has issues like this. You know what you mean, and you've read and reread it so many times you're not really "seeing" it with unbiased eyes.

I've been finding (and having pointed out to me) missing quotation marks, of all things. I think it's because I do a lot of cropping of dialog on edits, and I'm terrible at drag and paste, and terrible at seeing the little stinkers too.

I find, or have pointed out to me, plenty of other mistakes too.
Me, too. "Edit artifacts" are a plague, as I re-read what I want to be there, not what's actually there. I think most of us tend to have the most trouble with our own stuff.
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