On Being a Professional Amateur #1

To be an amateur in the original sense of the word simply means to do something for love, though our culture has added the rider, “not for pay.” An amateur writer, then, is generally taken to mean one who’s not paid for her efforts.

“Amateur” has also come to mean someone who lacks polish, skill and craft. Synonyms for “amateurish” include: unprofessional, sloppy, inept, slipshod, clumsy, crude. That doesn’t sound good.

To me, being a truly amateur writer—a lover of writing—means you love your craft enough to have a professional attitude toward it, a desire to do it with the highest level of skill you can. So, how do you make your craft reflect true amateurism and not the other kind? By weeding out the signs of amateurism and cultivating craft.

In this series of short workshop-style blogs, I’d like to offer some ideas on how to spot the “weeds” of amateurism in your writing. 

Ahem, class! Let us begin…

Topic 1: Sloppiness

Sample sentence #1: Pausing for a moment to look over at the commander he noted the slight of approval who said, “besides, to obtain Washington approval could take months and we can’t have civilians interfering in our politics.”

What’s wrong with this “sentence?”

Lots. In the first clause there’s a comma missing after commander, a word missing after slight (nod, I’m assuming), and a misuse of the word who. The phrase as written says that the Slight Nod of Approval is “who” uttered the rest of the sentence.

In the dialogue that follows, besides is not capitalized and should be, Washington should be possessive (Washington’s) but isn’t, and the sentence is run-on.

What is a run-on sentence?

A run-on sentence is one in which there are two independent clauses that aren’t separated by a semi-colon. In simple terms it means that there are two separate things happening here—the acting character (He who is not named) looks at the commander, the commander nods (we think) and one of the two men delivers the line (though we don’t know which one).

How did this happen?

The writer has neglected to craft his sentences. He has thrown them down and just left them where they lie. It is, to use a cooking metaphor, a bad job of plating. Through sloppiness the sentence fails to communicate clearly

1)    who’s pausing,

2)    who’s nodding, and

3)    whose saying the line of dialogue.

If a reader is patient enough and determined enough, she might realize that the soldier paused to look over at the commander, who nodded and uttered the dialogue. But it’s our job as writers to write clearly enough that that level of patience and determination isn’t necessary. 

All writers have moments of heedlessness or haste in which they pepper the page with words that don’t always happen in the right order. In fact, this often happens to me as I rush to get an idea out before going back to pick over the right words to use.

What’s the solution?

The solution is to read your prose over carefully—aloud if necessary—to help find problem areas.

Exercise: Rewrite the example sentence so that it makes sense. Embellish at will, but don’t lose track of the main goal: clarity.



On Being a Professional Amateur #1 — 11 Comments

  1. Hi,
    Are you sure besides should be capitalized? I thought after a comma, even when the sentence turns into speech, there is no need for a comma. If it had been a period, then yes, it would be capitalized.

    Here is an example from Dune:- Page Fourteen

    ‘Teaching is one thing,’ she said, ‘the basic ingredient is another. We shall see.’ The old eyes darted a hard glance at Jessica. ‘Leave us…… etc etc..

    However, I’m by no means an expert, I’m prone to many errors in my own writing!


  2. Honestly, that’s why I’m leery of sites like this. While the idea of reading something from a fresh, new author for free is certainly enticing, the rawness of the prose may get in the way of the stories and demonstrate the need for a professional editor.

  3. Bob: Take a look at the sentence again. In the example you post, the lowercase word “the” is lowercase because it is a continuation of a sentence started before the dialogue tag. My sample sentence starts with the word “besides” and is not a continuation. In fact that’s one of the problems with the sentence — it starts as if it’s continued from a previous thought, but isn’t.

    As to the punctuation, that’s ultimately up to the writer and editor. It could also have been ‘who said: “Besides…” I’ve also seen published works that used em-dashes in that situation or no punctuation at all. When in doubt check a style guide such as Chicago Manual of Style.

    To Rick: Hm. Not sure what you’re responding to. The members of BVC aren’t fresh new authors. They’re all pros and have been in some cases for years. Read “Who is Book View Cafe?”

  4. Considering I’ve been around so long everybody thinks I’m 102, I’m kind of charmed to be accused of being a “fresh new author.”

    Reminds me of the time after I’d won both the Hugo and the Nebula, and had been making my living as a fiction writer for approaching ten years, and somebody asked me if I preferred to be called a pro or a neo-pro.



  5. To be charitable, perhaps Rick was referring to the rawness of the prose in the bad sentence you used as an example. He certainly couldn’t have been referring to the authors of Book View Cafe.

  6. Hi Maya,
    Yes, it’s the comma in that instance which is off-putting. I think it would be better with a period. Actually you could probably even drop the ‘who said’ and leave the sentence thus:

    Pausing for a moment to look over at the commander, he noted the slight nod of approval. “Besides, to obtain Washington’s approval could take months and we can’t have civilians interfering in our politics.”

    It’s still very ambiguous as to who is actually speaking.


  7. I’d quibble about the necessity of making “Washington” posessive. The type of person i get the impression is speaking sounds like me to be the type in whose jargon “Washington” would be used in that manner.

    (That is, “Pentagon orders”, “HQ policy”, e tc.)

  8. I don’t act as the grammar police generally but given the context of the post, possibly changing “3) whose saying the line of dialogue.” to “3) who’s saying the line of dialogue” might be in order.

  9. I will observe, for the benefit of those who may be critiquing other people’s stories, that definition of “run-on” is very useful. I have, unfortunately, run across several critiquers who seem to think that “run-on” means “longer sentence that I want to stomach, even though you could diagram it and use it for a coat rack.”

    Criticizing sentences for undue length may be just, but calling them “run-on” is a good formula for getting your criticism ignored for pure silliness.

  10. I can imagine writing this sentence on a first draft, especially if I’ve had wine. The distance from my brain to my fingers can be quite long at times. It should never be allowed to go past that first draft. You’re right about reading it out loud. I also print out my pre-editor draft and read through it on paper. It helps.