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.