Reapply the Rules of Grammar

As with proposal writing, narration writing must be grammatical. Common problems include the following:

• Dangling and misplaced modifiers. Three sheets to the wind, the police officers stared up at Rodney as he stood on the window ledge. It's Rodney who's drunk, not the police officers. The line should read Three sheets to the wind, Rodney stood on the window ledge as police officers stared up at him. But what if you're writing to picture? What if you see the police officers first, and then Rodney? You reveal the information as you see it. The officers stared up at Rodney, teetering on a ledge, three sheets to the wind.

• Dangling participles. This is when you start a sentence with a verb and go to another verb without inserting a subject. Having been recently fired, getting a job was a priority for him.

Instead, try: Having been recently fired, he made getting a job a priority. Or, He'd recently been fired, so getting a job was a priority.

• Confusing use of pronouns. When she was just six, her beloved horse, Yum Yum, died. Was the horse six, or was it the "she" that we're talking about? A simple solution is something like, Jennifer was just six when her beloved horse, Yum Yum, died.

• Lack of parallel form. Avoid statements such as Four men in Texas, three in Ohio, and one in San Francisco. That's two states and a city. Either three cities or three states should be used to make the construction parallel. In this case, since there's the possibility of having to list eight cities in total, I'd say, Four men in Texas, three in Ohio, and one in California. Here's another example of bad form: He liked running, fishing, and to build model airplanes. Try this instead: He liked running, fishing, and building model airplanes.

• Incorrect use of fewer and less. Fewer is for things that can be counted, like students: There were fewer students this year than last. Less is for quantities and measures that can't be counted: There's less support for the new tax law.

• Inexact use of words. Since—It can be a measure of time: Since the 1980s; or it can indicate cause: Since no one bothered to show up, the meeting was canceled.) As and like—In general, as refers to a similarity: She dances as if moved by the wind. Like refers to similarities between nouns: He hopes to pass regulations here like those already being enforced in Cleveland. Finally, and and but—While both are used as conjunctions, and is for clauses with similar weight or similar meaning: The students staged a local sit-in on Saturday, and on Monday they attended a city-wide rally. But is used when you want to imply a difference in emphasis or a contrast: The students staged a local sit-in on Saturday, but on Monday they attended a city-wide rally. The implication is that the rally has greater weight in your story.

• Non sequiturs. These are statements or phrases that follow each other but don't have any logical connection. Investigators call on a team of forensic scientists to establish the victim's time of death and bring his killer to justice. There's no indication here of a link between knowing the cause of death and bringing the killer to justice.

The list of common mistakes goes on. Some excellent style books are available, including The Elements of Style, a classic by William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White; The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, edited by Norm Goldstein, and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, by Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly. In addition, there are likely to be people on your staff who are good at grammar, know all the rules by heart, and actually enjoy diagramming sentences. Ask one of them to review your narration before you lock it.

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