300 Days of Better Writing

August 28, 2012

Use his and her to avoid subject-pronoun number errors.

Consider this sentence:

“Each person must write their own autobiography.”

Do you see the problem here? “Each” refers to one person, but “their” refers to more than one person.

Some writers intentionally make this common mistake to avoid the correct his (which sounds sexist) or the cumbersome his and her. Most make this mistake unconsciously. Consider this incorrect sentence:

“Any professional writer will edit their own documents.”

This has the same problem as the first example. If the subject is singular, our preference is to use his and her or its similar expressions: he and she, his and hers, him and her, etc.

While these phrases are correct, they can make sentences sound redundant. Consider this sentence.

“Each team member took his or her uniform to his or her mother to clean for him or her.”

The better option is to find the antecedent for the pronoun and make it plural. In this way, we revise the previous example as,

“The team members took their uniforms to their mothers to clean for them.”

If the antecedent of the pronoun needs to remain singular, use the correct version of his or her.

This is the strategy for day 23 in 300 Days of Better Writing, available at Hostile Editing in PDF, Kindle, and paperback formats.

For a sample of 300 Days of Better Writing and other books by Precise Edit, download the free ebook.

October 28, 2011

Guidelines for 1-Sentence Paragraphs

Many writers struggle with paragraph length. Is it long enough? Is it too short? How many sentences in a paragraph? Can a paragraph be just one sentence? Here are four “days” of advice about paragraph length from 300 Days of Better Writing, with an emphasis on the one-sentence paragraph.

Day 88: A one-sentence paragraph should present a complete idea.

Paragraphs can be written many ways. In nonfiction documents, a paragraph may first establish context, provide supporting details, and conclude with an impact statement that leads to the next idea.

In fiction or narrative documents, for another example, a paragraph may show a single action or provide a character’s immediate response to an experience. Some writers use long paragraphs to fully explore an idea, while others may prefer short, terse paragraphs.

In all cases, however, the purpose of a paragraph is to present one idea to the reader. The complexity of the idea and the reader’s need for explanation determine paragraph length. A careful writer will balance the reader’s need with his or her style preferences.

This brings us to a question I have been asked occasionally. How many sentences should be in a paragraph? The answer I give is based on the “one idea per paragraph” concept: at least one.

If the preceding paragraphs have provided sufficient information for the reader to understand the idea, and if the connections between the ideas are clear, and if the value and implications of the idea will be obvious to the reader, one sentence may be sufficient. 

Day 161: Use a 1-sentence paragraph to emphasize a critical idea.

Every paragraph discusses one and only one idea. In most cases, a paragraph will have 3 to 7 sentences. However, you can use a 1-sentence paragraph that satisfies the requirements for an effective paragraph. If the reader already understands the context, and if the idea is self-explanatory and does not require discussion, your paragraph may only need the final impact statement.

The 1-sentence paragraph only contains an impact statement.

Unlike paragraphs with multiple sentences, a one-sentence paragraph places heavy emphasis on the idea. It is a high-impact tool for telling the reader, “This is very important.”

Few ideas require this level of emphasis. Used sparingly, one-sentence paragraphs can be very effective for pointing out critical ideas or keeping the reader mentally focused on the content.

On the other hand, a document with too many one-sentence paragraphs loses this effect. The writer who uses too many, or uses them too close together, is telling the reader that many of the ideas are very important. As a result, he or she loses the ability to point out specific ideas as being the most important.


May 26, 2011

Solving 2 Common Parallelism Problems

The case in which I see the most parallelism problems is when the writer is trying to describe simultaneous actions. As stated in 300 Days of Better Writing, Day 82: Use parallel grammatical constructions when describing simultaneous actions.

Using parallel grammatical constructions means describing actions in the same way so that any words referring to all the actions make grammatical sense. Simultaneous actions are actions that occur at the same time.

This is quickly becoming more complicated than it needs to, so let’s look at an example. Consider this sentence.


In this example, the teacher is doing two actions: (1) being helpful and (2) providing directions. The words that relate to both actions are “A good teacher.” (A good teacher should be helpful; a good teacher provides clear directions.)

The problem is that “should be helpful” is not written in the same manner as “provides clear directions.” As such, one of these (or both) needs to change.

Three possible revisions are as follows.

“A good teacher SHOULD BE helpful and SHOULD PROVIDE clear directions.”

“A good teacher should BE helpful and PROVIDE clear directions.” (This is the same as the first revision. The word “should” is implied for the second action.)

“A good teacher IS helpful and PROVIDES clear directions.”

 In summary, find the actions that are occurring simultaneously and make sure that they are written the same way grammatically.

These are a form of “two-part” sentences, which must be grammatically / structurally parallel, as noted on Day 189: 2-part sentences need to be parallel.

In general, a two-part sentence has two phrases or clauses that depend on each other to provide the complete information. Consider this two-part sentence.

“The hybrid engine runs smoothly and burns fuel efficiently.”

The first part is “runs smoothly.” The second part is “burns fuel efficiently.” They are parallel, which means they use the same grammatical structure. (This is similar to the example above from Day 82.) Now consider this faulty 2-part sentence.

“Students learn more WHEN THEY PARTICIPATE than BY LISTENING to the teacher.”

The first part is “when they participate.” The second part is “by listening to the teacher.” (If we leave off the second part, the sentence will be incomplete because of the word “more.”)

These two parts are not parallel; they do not have the same grammatical structure. Either both parts need to have the “when they [verb]” structure or they need to have the “by [-ing verb]” structure.

When we make the two parts parallel, we get the following sentences.

“Students learn more WHEN THEY PARTICIPATE than WHEN THEY LISTEN to the teacher.”

“Students learn more BY PARTICIPATING than BY LISTENING to the teacher.”

300 Days of Better Writing also discusses two more common parallelism problems and, of course, how to solve them.

These are the strategies for days 82 and 125 in 300 Days of Better Writing, available at Hostile Editing in PDF, Kindle, and paperback formats.

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November 30, 2010

How to Start a Paragraph

Once you have determined the one idea for the paragraph, you need to write about that idea in a way that the reader will understand

  1. what the idea is, and
  2. how that idea connects to the document as a whole.

You do this by establishing context.

Context is information that tells the reader why you are writing about the idea, the situation in which the idea is relevant, or how the new idea connects to the idea you discussed in the previous paragraph.

Take a look at the first paragraph above (“Once you have determined . . .”). Although that paragraph is short, it begins by establishing the context. It provides information about the person for whom the idea is relevant (you), when the idea is relevant (once you have determined the one idea for the paragraph), and the situation in which the idea is relevant (paragraph writing).

Context may or may not address the same issues that the sample paragraph addresses (i.e., who, what, when). Context does, however, provide the reader with sufficient information to understand how or why the idea is relevant.

Examine your paragraphs and ask yourself, “Have I provided the context for the idea of the paragraph? Will the reader know what topic will be discussed in this paragraph?”

This is the strategy for day 69 in 300 Days of Better Writing, now available at Hostile Editing in PDF, Kindle, and paperback formats.

For a sample of 300 Days of Better Writing and other books by Precise Edit, download the free ebook.

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