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?

-30-

The Binge: 12 Lessons Learned

“The only book that shall ever be written is the one that flows up from the heart, forced out by the inward pressure. When such a work has gestated within a man, it is almost certain that it will be written. The man who is thus charged with a message will not be turned back by any blase’ consideration. His book will be, to him, not only imperitave, it will be inevitable.” ~ A.W. Tozer from “God’s Pursuit of Man.”

Over the long weekend, I reverted to a style that has served me well from college to the present.

I was never good at composing research papers over extended periods of time, never embraced studying a bit each day, and really never have been good at doing a “little bit” of anything. For most of the things I do, I have to go “all-in.” It’s why I stay away from casinos.

I’m a binger.

It goes agains the conventional writing style that most experts will offer. Most say the best way to begin writing is just that, begin writing … write something each day, even if it’s just a few hundred words. That’s good advice for beginning writers, I’ll grant you. It creates a habit, and habits are good things for writers.

But if you’ve moved to a point where you’re more serious in your work, the notion of bits of pieces of writing daily may no longer work.

It’s become apparent that if my first book has any chance of being released by Thanksgiving – I must binge.

Last weekend, Friday 3am through Sunday noon was a 57 hour writing session with very few breaks. It was productive, resulting in nearly 10,000 words of decent copy.

When you write for three days straight, you inevitably learn some lessons. Here are 12 I learned:

  1. Without moving your cell phone’s switch to the “off” position, it will continue to ring.
  2. A.W. Tozer is magnificent.
  3. Periodic naps help.
  4. Grape juice keeps you going.
  5. One moment, you think what you’ve written is brilliant. On second read, it can sound really stupid.
  6. Sometimes, just sometimes, volume trumps quality.
  7. There’s no substitute for a good chair.
  8. The environment in which you write can make a huge difference.
  9. If you have a random thought, put it on paper immediately.
  10. Sometimes, it’s more important to write randomly, than chronologically.
  11. It’s ok to take a short Facebook break now and then, but just a short one.
  12. It’s going to take at least three more binges to get this thing done.

—30—

How to Write a Great Book: Lessons from Ezekiel

For transparency’s sake I should mention two things.

First, I have lived in the magazine and newspaper publishing industry for quite a few years, but have yet to enter the world of book publishing, which I hope to claim this summer. I am not yet, a book author.

Second, this valuable lesson was shared with me in my first visit with an agent a few weeks ago, and it’s working for me. It is not, however, an original idea.

I had an idea for a book, one that I thought was quite good. Because of the true stories and the nature of the book’s focus I, of course, thought I had a best-seller on the way. When the agent shared this story with me, over a two-hour conversation, it changed my thinking and created a focus that has helped the words almost write themselves.

The story comes from Ezekiel 37, and you may know it as the story of the “dry bones.”

The context surrounds God‘s disappointment with His beloved Israel, its fall and His commands to Ezekiel to restore it to its former greatness. We can divide the story of Chapter 37 into three distinct parts that any writer may apply to the process of completing a great manuscript.

“The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; and it was full of bones. He caused me to pass among them round about, and behold there were very many on the surface of the valley; and lo, they were very dry. He said to me, “Son of Man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, You know.” Again He said to me,” prophesy over these bones and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.’ This says the Lord God to these bones, ‘Behold I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life. I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin and put breath in you that you may come alive; and you will know that I am the Lord.'”

Ezekiel knew full well that God wanted him to make this project fly. And his instruction, which was three-fold, applies to each of us as writers.

GATHER THE BONES:

Before we begin with anything, we must assemble a skeleton, a framework, a context that establishes a relational foundation for all that follows. To publish a great book, we must first break it down to the bones. We may have great things in mind, but we’re going to have to have something on which to hang them.

PUT THE FLESH ON THE BONES:

Now, let’s cover the bones in a relational way. Stories. That simple. How will what you write ring true with the reader so that he or she may say, “That’s me. I get that. I’ve been there, done that.” Watch the great public speakers who every so often through a presentation take a break to simply tell a story … and watch how the dynamics of the audience reaction changes. Because God created us to be relational, we love relationships and the understanding of relationships.

BREATHE LIFE INTO THE BONES:

Think of it in this way as it relates to the reader. So what does all this mean? What is the takeaway? What is the lesson here? What is it about this book that will cause the reader never, ever to look, or think about it the same way again?

Maybe like you, I always thought if I had a great story, or a great lesson, or some highly unusual circumstance, I could write it well enough to make a great book. I now realize I was wrong. Each element must come together, the bones, the flesh and the breath.

It makes sense to me, and I wanted to share it with those of you who share the same dream.

Observe.

Think.

Plan.

Write.

Pursue.

Execute – and be excellent.