On the Topic of Prepositional Phrases in Writing

A few months ago, a pastor/author I’d never heard of contacted me and asked if I’d consider reviewing a book he’d written before it hit the market.

The book’s topic about owning your Christian faith sounded interesting enough, so I said sure,Prepositional phrase and maybe he could reciprocate some time. No problem, he responded, and a virtual handshake deal was done.

A few days later the book arrived, and I carved out some time to give it a thorough read. Just into page two, this paragraph screamed:

“I have long been compelled to write this book because I have discovered solidarity with my fellow second-generation Christians as we search for authentic faith. Children of the church live in a paradox between the biblical knowledge in our heads and the wanderlust in our hearts. Ours is a misunderstood struggle, unknown to those who have been dramatically rescued from enslavement to the world, their faith still fresh.” emphasis mine.

Let’s bypass the passive voice, and save that for another post.

This man is a previously published author, represented by a fairly prominent agent.

Prepositional phraseI read the paragraph several times fighting for comprehension that never came. I read on, hopeful it was an anomaly, only to find it was just the beginning of a literary disaster – in my opinion – which is exactly what he’d requested.

I struggled with a response. Who was I, in particular, to judge this man’s work? I wanted to rip the text apart, and offer an honest reply that it was among the most convoluted things I’d read. My editor would have had a field day with it.

So with respect, realizing he was previously published, and represented by an agent of some regard, this is what I said:

“Dear XXX: Thank you for your contact and book review inquiry. Because I cannot give your book a favorable review, I’d prefer to pass this time. I believe your editor, and your agency have done you a serious injustice, allowing text into a book that’s not yet ready for publication. If you’d like to know my concerns more specifically, please feel free to contact me via email.”

The author did contact me, and I pointed to countless areas in his book where prepositional phrases were rampant. It’s not that prepositions are bad things. They’re just not the best of things, and overuse points to seriously amateur work.

Prepositional Phrase

Every writer does it. It’s a terrible trap, and one I work hard to avoid  (see there) – and it does take work. But to make our writing its best, we should avoid prepositional phrases like the plague.:)

It’s a subliminal thing. When a reader pours through copy permeated with prepositional phases, he/she may not know exactly what is bothering them, but they know something is bothering them. It may not be enough to compel them to toss your work aside, but it may well be distraction enough that they never get a clear picture of what you really mean.

Example:

Incorrect: The opinion of the manager.

Correct: The manager’s opinion.

Another example:

Incorrect: The obvious effect of such a range of reference is to assure the audience of the author’s range of learning and intellect.

Correct: The wide-ranging references in this talk assure the audience the author is intelligent and well-read.

See the difference?

Sentences and paragraphs with too many prepositional phrases, simply lose their point. It’s in there somewhere. The reader just can’t find it, and he can’t pull it from your brain, or what you meant.

Take a look at your own work and see how many prepositional phrases you can eliminate. Then go back and judge for yourself if your work’s not clearer, more concise and more to the point of what you want your reader to know.

What tips do you have for using, or not using prepositional phrases, or better writing in general?

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Pay it Forward: The E-mail I Thought About All Night

“Nobody ever has any success in life without the help of a friend.”

That’s what a successful businessman told me back in 2008 when I was on the brink of launching a publishing business from the ground up. I’d gone to solicit his advice, and his money, by way of advertising in a new publication.

He agreed to invest several thousand dollars in our publication, not necessarily because it helped him so much, but because he cared enough to pay something forward.

I’ve never forgotten that day.

***

husband wife relationships

This is Dana. My wife and #1 helpmate. There’s not another person in the world who’s given me so much of themselves.

I receive between 150 and 200 emails on any given day. Like most, I’m selective in what I read versus what gets “xd out” at first glance.

Late yesterday an email to my personal account carried a tagline “I value your opinion,” and almost certain it was spam, it was a good candidate for a quick delete.

I reluctantly clicked it anyway.

Turns out the email was from a fellow blogger with whom I’d struck up a casual relationship a month ago. We’ll call him Tom.

Tom basically said he was looking for a writing mentor. Here’s an edited excerpt from his email:

***

“I’ve dabbled in writing for a long time. I’m at the point in my life that I’d like to get serious about it. I’ve been a “closet writer” for ages, not letting anyone see my work (including my wife) for fear of being judged, an inferiority complex and being laughed at.
I’m desperate at this point in my life to make something of myself. I would be indebted to you if you could look over my post and critique my writing. I understand your (sic) a busy person and have your own life to move forward with. And totally understand if your (sic) just to busy, or simply didn’t want to get involved.
I’ve looked at many other people and their writing on wordpress, but for some reason I keep gravitating back to your site for “pointers.” I’m sure some of it has to do with your journalism background being that I came from a newspaper background myself. I drove a newspaper truck for 22 years in Chicago. Not the same as a journalist by any stretch of the imagination. But a sense of connection just the same.
In short I’m looking for a mentor in writing and would be grateful if you would help me. I’m not sure yet how I can return the favor. I’m not very good at anything unless you needed driving directions in Chicago (I thought I needed to throw in some humor). All I ask is you think about it. And please don’t feel obligated or pressured to help. I’ll understand.
I’ve agonized for days about sending you this email. #1 I didn’t want to bother you. After all you don’t know me. #2 I’m not accustomed to asking anyone for help. It’s just something I don’t do.”
***
Tom’s right. I stay pretty busy. Overly busy. But I get what he’s saying.

mother son relationships

This is my mom. Her love and suppor have been unconditional for 46 years.

  • He’s apprehensive about writing what’s on his heart.
  • Transparency is scary.
  • He really wants to make something of himself.
  • He hates to ask anyone for help.
  • But help is precisely what he needs.
So Tom finds himself in a place to which I suspect we can all relate.
  • Have you ever desperately needed to share your heart, but bottled it all up for fear of rejection?
  • Have you found yourself in a moment when you searched your heart for your true life’s calling?
  • Are you simply too prideful or fearful to ask a friend for help?
best friends and men

This is my very best friend in the world. He helps me by making life fun, being there at a moment’s notice and defining loyalty.

Interestingly, Tom’s communicated with me at the very time when I’ve determined to say “no” to more things than I normally do.

By nature, I’m an over-extender, spread thin, and in the midst of trying to simplify life.

But I get it Tom. Been there, done that. To you, I say “yes.”
I’ll do whatever I can to help Tom. Too many people have helped me by way of pure grace. It’s true – what my helper said back in 2008 – is still true today.
“You never have any success in life without the help of a friend.”
Do you relate to Tom’s sentiments? I’m guessing so.
About transparency, fear of judgment, making something of yourself and asking for help… what would you tell Tom?
Seriously, what would you say to him?
I’d like to know. I bet he would too.
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Impossible Conclusions: Life in Shades of Grey

“Not all those who wander are lost.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

I’m gradually learning to embrace the fact that life’s greatest questions really have no conclusions.

Bradley Harris of Memphis, TN, is my editor, and, moreover, my greatest teacher. Once again, his editor’s notes have given me more than sound writing advice. They’ve given me a lesson in life.

Two weeks ago I sent Brad the final never-ending draft of my first non-fiction book. In the final chapter, I’d unknowingly drawn a conclusion I suppose my subconscious believed would give encouragement to the reader and set up a call to action for living a better life.

Puerto Cayo Manabi

Captured by Dana, me, wandering in thought, in Puerto Cayo, Manabi, Ecuador.

Brad’s notes challenged the conclusion, and the very notion the book required a tidy, happily-ever-after ending. And I knew immediately he was right.

And thank goodness for his profound advice; for without it, I might never have survived the last 24 hours – one of the most confounding days of my life.

“The yearning to know What cannot be known, to comprehend the Incomprehensible, to touch and taste the Unapproachable, arises from the image of God in the nature of man.” ~ A.W. Tozier

My days are painfully predictable. I get out of bed around 3 a.m., write, drink coffee, research, go to work and come home exhausted to hit the bed around 7 p.m. Yesterday’s schedule was typical. It was just greyer than most.

After a 4 a.m. blog post, I scanned my WordPress reader, something I almost never do. When I randomly stopped by Holly Michael’s blog I found she’d nominated me for an undeserved award, and said some very kind things about my work. You may view Holly’s inspirational site here: http://wp.me/1Gxnc

Anyone else would have been thrilled, but it set into motion an entire day of questioning the priorities in my life. And that really doesn’t take much for a 46-year-old guy who’s well into mid-life crisis

So the day begins at 3 a.m. wondering about the possibility of “life’s calling” as a writer.

Next up, around 4:30 a.m. I get a blog post notification from www.laspalmasecuador.com – a pictorial update of a home we’re building in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador. The progress is amazing. Dana and I love everything about Puerto Cayo – particularly the business potential, and the opportunities to build a meaningful missional community there. Something very grey from 5,000 miles away is screaming to me, but with a grey, clouded clarity. You may view yesterday’s post about that news here: http://wp.me/p2bjEC-yA

By 4:30 a.m., it’s already an emotional morning. My wife says she’ll pray for me throughout the day. My best friend, knowing my confounding situation, sends me a note that says “go with your gut.” What he doesn’t know is that my gut’s the very thing that scares the daylight out of me.

I finish the routine and make the 10-minute drive to work, and think of my dad who passed away in February. I wish I could speak to him, but he’s not here. And I cry most of the way to work.

Tuesday 8-5 is spent preparing for the next day’s business trip to Thayer, MO. I’ll embark on that trip about 4 hours from now. The thinking time on the road will be precious, and for that I’m grateful.

Five o’clock and I’m waiting in line at Domino’s Pizza. My mind races through the events of the day, and all the writing projects on the schedule. There’s a manuscript to complete, then two more books to finish the trilogy. Then, I predictably wonder what comes after that?

Brad’s notes immediately come to mind: Why draw a conclusion? The most important things don’t require a black and white answer.

This side of heaven, the most important questions in life are inconclusive.

So now, another project stands on the sideline. I’ve purchased the domain: www.theimpossibleconclusion.com

What I’ll do with it stands in the shadow of greyness for now.

You may view posts on my secondary blog at: http://wp.me/2tJ80

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Writing for Boris

At the outset of writing my first book, I decided to take an unconventional approach to drafting the manuscript.

Before the first keystroke was typed, I sold an editor on the book’s topic and was fortunate he agreed to edit my work in progress, rather than as a finished draft. The benefit was learning how to correct my mistakes early on rather than repeating them endlessly through a 40,000-word body of work.

Bradley Harris of Memphis, TN, is my teacher, mentor, counselor, advocate, nemesis and friend. Before meeting Brad, I thought I was a good writer. That’s what I thought, anyway.

Early on, Brad’s typewritten editor’s notes introduced me to a fictional reader. Brad called him Boris. Occasionally, Brad gives me an account of Boris’s reaction to my work.

I can picture Boris this way…

Boris is a multi-faceted reader. He’s a Christian-atheist-agnostic – a citizen of the world, skeptical, cynical with a short attention span. He’s intellectual, not easily impressed, and frequently puts my book aside for a scotch rocks. Sometimes, he’ll come back to the book. Other times, he’ll toss it aside.

The point is, Boris is every reader.

By our very nature, our upbringing, our limited life experiences, and the culture in which we live, as writers we have shortcomings, blind sides and a plethora of limitations.

I’m a 46-year-old Christian, who’s lived his entire life in the South with limited exposure to the vastness of the world. The very nature of who I am intuitively causes me to write for people who are well – just like me. Boris helps me break outside the mold.

…and this way…

Today, with many lessons learned, I’d submit most Christian writers’ significant limitation is that they are, in fact, Christian. We see the world through our profound belief for what’s right, good and pure. And that’s all well and good but…

What good is a “Christian” book that appeals to Christians only? People just like us?

Is not the world our mission field?

The best Christian book may just be the one that appeals to a Buddhist, a Hindu or an atheist. Is my love so strong for my own beliefs that it should be shared only with others who think just like me? What purpose would that serve for the greater good?

Boris is every reader. Today, not a single sentence is written without consideration to Boris’s reaction. If my words turn him off and he never picks up the book again, I’ve lost him. The better approach is to push him just far enough to think. Right to the edge of his comfort zone so that he might put the book in his lap for a moment, ponder, and return for more intrigue.

It’s a fine line, and a slippery slope.

Each of us as Christian writers have a certain set of values – a belief system. It’s not our job to impose our beliefs on others.

It is our job to maintain our integrity, speak truth in love and push all readers, both Christians and non-Christians to the edge of their comfort zone. To raise questions in their own mind, and go beyond our work to seek out their own truth.

The Christian life is not designed to make us comfortable. It’s a life of never-ending questions, discomfort and the realization of this truth:

The most dangerous of us all is the one who believes he grasps God‘s truth, gets it fully, and is completely comfortable in his own faith.

…and especially this way.

Thank goodness Boris came into my life. I’m a better writer because he reads.

For related posts on writing and editing please see: How to Write Copy that Kills: Part 5: Pursue @ http://wp.me/p2bjEC-nX This post includes links to a series of writing-related topics.

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How to Kill Blogger’s Block: Just Live Your Life, Man.

Over time, I’ve seen a number of bloggers, authors, etc., talk about their challenges with writer’s block.

It’s a rare thing for me, but I have experienced it. From my desk, the bigger challenge is finding the time to write all there is to say.

Lately, it’s been a huge challenge. Not the block, but the block of time I need.

And the challenge has manifested itself from the simple approach of not caring too much about it and just living my life.

When I quit caring and just live, the writing possibilities become almost endless.

The life experience really is the writer’s palette (that sounds way more sophisticated than I really am) and living life well allows us to paint some beautiful pictures.

Living my life a couple of years ago during a bucket-list check in Yellowstone National Park, Montana.

Just recently…

Finding it hard to put things in words?

Writer’s block got you pinned to the mat?

Go live your life, man. Go live your life.

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How to Write Copy That Kills: Part 4: Write

(Bloggers Note: This is the fourth in a series of six posts: How to Write Copy That Kills. Today’s post is the fourth element: Writing.)

***

I recall the first personal meeting with my editor last February. We met for breakfast in Memphis. What I expected to be an hourlong meeting lasted four and a half hours. The waitress thought we were waiting for lunch.

At the time, I’d yet to put a single word on paper. Light Wins was only an idea. It was a fairly well-organized idea in my mind, yet it was just an idea.

Bradley Harris is not easily impressed. We took our seats and he said, “What have you got?”

So I went through the background, concepts, and the book’s “meat” if you will. And I shared the peripheral possibilities, marketing opportunities etc., etc.

As we bounced back and forth, more ideas developed, and I could see in his eyes he knew we were on to something. Brad was actually a little excited.

Then he said something I’ll never forget.

“May I be blatantly direct with you, Steve?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.

“This is all wonderful, but you don’t have **** until you have text. I need text, and I need a lot of it.”

And I took a deep breath.

The long road started there. You don’t have **** until you have text.

***

The headline on this post is admittedly misleading. I can tell you how to observe, think, plan, pursue and execute, but I can’t tell you how to write killer copy any more than I can tell you how to travel to the moon.

At best, I can share with you a few things that work for me:

  • First, you must have text. Just write. Whatever your preferred style, whatever time of day or whatever place you prefer, just get there and write. Short spurts, long binges. It doesn’t matter. Just write. No excuses.

  • Get objective opinions. Pay someone if you have to. Your friends’ opinions are no good. They’ll tell you what you want to hear. Toss something out there. Test and tease a nugget here and there in your blog. Zero comments may mean you have some tweaking to do. Let’s be honest. If you have zero comments, you may want to think about living in a van down by the river.
  • Get into character. I’m a different person when I write. Nobody knows that person but me. Whoever you are when you write, be that person. Put on your writing clothes, your hat, special glasses, sip hot tea, whatever you have to do to be your inner writer, become that person at the moment you sit before the keyboard and let nobody take you away from who you are at the moment.
  • If you’re a binge writer, go on a media fast before the binge. The world will distract you. It will raise your blood pressure. A few days prior, pretend newspapers, magazines, television and internet news posts don’t exist. Clear your mind. I’ve been able to do this to the point where I can literally think when I sleep. When the stars line up, my subconscious can write copy when I’m in certain stages of sleep. You may not believe that, but it’s true. And that makes for some exciting times when I take my first cup of coffee to the keyboard in the early-morning hours.
  • Don’t push yourself into a pattern. This is the anti-thesis of what many will tell you. You may be going along well on a focused chapter, then have another idea that kills. Stop, and write what just came to your mind. Stay there for hours if you must, then come back. Ideas have a way of vanishing if they aren’t written down. I regularly take 15-minute breaks just to get up and walk around, but continue to think. Inevitably I come up with two to three ideas, then I can go back to the keyboard and keep the momentum going.
  • Gauge your gut. When I write something that’s killer good, I literally tingle – and honestly, I’m not impressed with my work most of the time. But once in a while a phrase goes on paper and I’m forced to take a breath. I’m my own worst critic, so if it moves me, it will probably move a reader. Check your gut.
  • Think about Boris. Boris is the fictional character my editor uses to let me know how a reader is reacting. Boris is conservative, grumpy, overweight and set in his own ways.

When Boris grumbles, I’m losing him. If he gets up to pour a scotch rocks and comes back to read more, I’ve got him. Think about YOUR Boris.

  • Stop trying to be perfect. The copy will not be perfect on first draft. It may have grammatical issues, and may not have the perfect flow. It doesn’t matter right now. Get the ideas down. Move on. Perfect later. Injure it first, then kill it.
  • Come back later with a scalpel. Days ago you used a rusty dagger to cut out a rough form. Give yourself time, then come back with a scalpel to make your precision cuts and additions. This may be the hardest part of the entire process.
  • Reward yourself at whatever intervals you choose. Maybe at 10,000 words you go out for a steak. Do something you love for yourself. I don’t set specific intervals for rewards, but I know instinctively when I should reward myself. Walk away and go party, whatever that means to you.

Just remember, you don’t have **** until you have text.

For the previous posts in this series see:

OBSERVE @ http://wp.me/p2bjEC-kf

THINK @ http://wp.me/p2bjEC-kE

PLAN @ http://wp.me/p2bjEC-m2

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Celebrating Blogging and 10 Reasons I Just Do It

Countries where I’ve had hits since the inception of http://www.stevenwwatkins just four months ago. I love looking at this and thinking about the vastness of the world, but just how close we can really be.

“Writing is a socially accepted form of schizophrenia.” ~ E.L. Doctorow

Yesterday was a milestone of sorts at www.stevenwwatkins.com

As my primary blog established back in February of this year the total hits surpassed 5,000 with readers in 39 countries across the world.

Honestly, it’s a little embarrassing to put that number out there as a milestone. I read of bloggers who get 10’s of thousands of visits a month. I long to know your secret. Oh, how I long to be Freshly Pressed at www.wordpress.com. Maybe one day…

A graphic list of the countries where I’ve been “hit.” This is something I track every day.

Five thousand is a small number for the all-star bloggers across www.wordpress.com but nevertheless I counted it as a personal achievement.

So much so that I launched a second blog allowing more specific focus on another project adventure in which I’m currently engaged … and you can view the new blog here at http://wp.me/P2tJ80-2

www.stevenwwatkins has evolved into a simple, relatively unfocused blog that allows me to share opinions and ideas and thoughts about any number of topics on any given day.

It got me thinking on a basic level about the reasons why blogging is an important piece of my life’s puzzle and a cornerstone of my life every day.

So without paper handy, a used napkin worked just fine, and I jotted down the Top 10 Reasons I Blog. Oftentimes asking certain questions of myself helps me better understand who I am … and I suppose that notion’s at the heart of why I’m a blogger.

10 Reasons I Blog:

1. TIME: There’s no schedule to my sleep pattern. Consistently I go to bed around 8:30 p.m., watch a little “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and then fall off. But waking is a different story. It may be 2 a.m. It may be 6 a.m. There’s only so much CMT, HGTV and Discovery Channel a guy can watch. Because my best thinking comes early in the morning, it’s a good time to think and write and simply fill the void of time.

2. EGO: If you’re a reader, I’ll admit this up front. I have an ego. If you’re a blogger, please go ahead and acknowledge you have an ego too. YOU KNOW YOU DO!!! It’s a thrill to post your work and put it out there for the world to see. www.wordpress.com puts us out there, literally all over the world. When I go to my stats page and see that someone in Gibraltar or Tunisia or Morocco has read my blog, well, it’s the cheapest, most natural and legal high I can get.

3. TRANSPARENCY: It’s something that doesn’t come naturally to us all. Personally, I’m transparent to a fault. (I just told you I have an ego, right?) And the blogosphere is a great place to be transparent regardless of your extraverted or introverted personality. Saying certain things on a keyboard is oftentimes easier than saying them in a more personal or intimate situation.

4. RELATIONSHIPS: I’m moving upwards to a hundred followers now and I follow almost equally as many. Blogging has been a great tool to help develop relationships here at home and across the world. I once thought the art of writing was a dying art, and perhaps it is to some degree, but there are some absolutely brilliant and wonderful writers and thinkers out there in the B-Sphere. God designed us for relationships, and I’ve encountered some good ones at WordPress.

5. I’M OPINIONATED: …interestingly about some of the most controversial topics. I love writing about religion and politics. Those topics have probably generated the highest number of hits on my blog. When you have a certain type personality and that personality is highly opinionated, you really need somewhere to put it out there. The B-Sphere is a great place to do just that.

6. TO MAKE YOU THINK: There’s something about causing people to stop and think. If you’ve had a profound experience with something such as death, divorce, charity or loss or success of any kind, there’s a great reward in sharing that with others, so at some point they may stop for a brief moment and consider a change of heart in their thinking. For me, the highest reward is a blog comment that tells me my post caused them to do just that, and take action to do something differently and work to be better.

7. TO HONE MY WRITING SKILLS: That’s a given, right. On average, I blog 4-5 times weekly. I’m not caught up in the notion as some are, that I have something important to say every day. Blogging is great practice for other means of writing or similar communication. Simply said, blogging makes me a better writer.

8. TESTING AND MEASURING: Some of my posts are designed as tests. When I have an idea for a significant writing project, I’ll often test the notion in the B-Sphere. It’s a cheap method for testing, there’s feedback at your fingertips and it’s a great way to see that even what you view as a brilliant idea – well it can fall flat on its face in the marketplace.

9. BOOK PROMOTION AND IDEA GATHERING: I’m now about 5 months into writing my first book manuscript and many of my posts tease concepts of the book so I can get a reaction. For most of you this is a no-brainer, but a blog is essential to your social media platform in promoting and selling books.

10. TO SIMPLY LEARN: While I follow a hundred or so bloggers, there are a handful I always read. With the right approach everyone in the blogging world makes everyone else better at what they do. It’s win-win.