Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Word Best Forgotten

By Davilynn Furlow

Here’s another little writing tip that was inspired by a discussion from a LinkedIn group we belong to. The question posted was, “Are ‘compose’ and ‘comprise’ interchangeable?”

The person who started the discussion actually knew the answer and shared some academic thoughts on the subject, including some in defense of allowing a sentence like, “The book was comprised of three chapters and a glossary.”

Every right-thinking writer and editor, however, knows that to say “was comprised of” runs the risk of causing a fingernails-on-chalkboard reaction among educated readers. No matter how many times “comprised of” is used, it’s still wrong, and to let it go unchallenged is to contribute to dumbing down the English language.

The correct use of the word “comprise” is as follows: “The union comprises 50 states.” To say, “Fifty states comprise the union,” or “The union is comprised of fifty states” is flat wrong.

Bill’s response to the posted question was to advise writers to leave “comprise” alone and never use it. Used incorrectly it’s annoying, and used correctly it is awkward. When I come across the rare proper use of “comprise,” I automatically say to the writer, “good job,” which means the flow has been interrupted.

One person responding to the LinkedIn post pointed out that the Latin root word for “comprise” means “comprehend,” “contain” or “include.” You can’t turn those words around and get “fifty states comprise the union.”

Another suggested also forgetting about “compose” in favor of “consists.” “It is instantly recognizable…and is so commonplace the reader tends not to notice it – for either good or bad reasons,” she said.

So, are “compose” and “comprise” interchangeable? Of course not!

Thanks to Erin Brenner, Rosanne Dingli, Kathleen Much, Curt Mattson and Benjamin Lukoff, whose comments are represented here.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Don't Go THERE

By Bill Furlow

Of the many variables that help determine which books get selected by agents, publishers or readers and which sell only a few copies online, one of the most important is whether a book reads like a professionally crafted work. An agent or publisher can flip the pages reading random paragraphs and quickly spot writing that doesn’t make the grade.

One sign that a work was written by a hopeful amateur rather than a skilled professional is the repeated use of the word “there” to begin sentences. Sentences that begin “There is/there are” usually indicate that the writer either is too lackadaisical to search for a more interesting way to make a statement or doesn’t recognize the weakness in his/her own writing.

We’re not talking about “There he goes,” where “there” refers to an actual place. Rather this is about what I call the “lazy there,” the practice of using the word to begin a very boring sentence. Think high school term paper.

I thought about this when reading an article on how to improve the chances of a blog getting found and read. The paragraph began, “There are many millions of blogs that currently exist on the Web.” What an awful sentence on a topic that’s really important to anyone with a blog. Better would be, “Many millions of blogs exist on the Web today.” Or, “The Web today hosts many millions of blogs.”

Usually “there” sentences can easily be rewritten to make them more compelling. Here are a few examples quickly pulled from books found on

“There was no music on as she preferred the quiet of her thoughts when maneuvering through traffic.”
She preferred the quiet of her thoughts when maneuvering through traffic, so played no music.

“There was a finch at the window and you had never seen one before.”
A finch sat on the windowsill, and you had never seen one before.

“There is a nude beach less than a hundred miles from where I live. I went there once in a while to get an all-over tan…”
Once in awhile I drove to a nude beach less than a hundred miles from home to get an all-over tan.

“There is a movie where the lead character says: ‘Every once in a while you've got to get a little bloody.’"
She remembered a movie character who says: “Every once in awhile, you’ve got to get a little bloody.”

Beginning sentences with “lazy theres” may not be a mortal sin, but it’s at least venal. If you want your book – or any other writing project – to be read by those who matter to you, read back over the work and find ways to eliminate them wherever possible.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Bore-geous for Bore-geous's Sake

Novelist Ayelet Waldman discusses a problem nearly all writers have in an excellent little piece in the Nov. 27 Wall Street Journal (Beware the Trap of ‘Bore-geous’ Writing).

Waldman defines bore-geous witing as “meticulously constructed writing that bores even its author…A bore-geous novel is one that is packed with gorgeous, finely wrought descriptions of places and people, with entire paragraphs extolling the slope of one character’s nose, whole chapters describing another’s perambulations through a city…Bore-geousness happens when you are writing beautifully but pointlessly.”

Sound familiar?

Every writer we’ve ever worked with – or ever been – has fallen in love with a phrase, an image, a coined bit of language so clever that it seems impossible to leave it out despite its lack of value or appropriateness to the overall work.

To quote Waldman further:

“When rewriting, I inevitably find passages that aren’t necessary
to the plot…Usually I’m convinced that these passages are among
the most gorgeous things I’ve ever written. It’s then that I remind
myself of Faulkner’s painful advice: ‘In writing, you must kill your

“Good narrative writing must defend itself. Every sentence, even
every word, must be there for a reason beyond its beauty. It must
move the story along, pushing it toward what comes next. Good
writing can and should be beautiful, but it must never be only beautiful.
Bore-geous is always too much, and never enough.”

One final point on Waldman’s writing lesson. Note when she discovers her writing excesses – when she’s rewriting. More on that topic later.

Two-for-One Editing

Our mission is to help little-known but serious authors realize the full potential of their novels and nonfiction works. Our complementary skills enable us to provide high-quality content editing and copy editing in one package. Click here to learn more about us and our services.

Sell Books with a Great Promotional Blurb

If you want to sell lots of books, it’s self-evident that you first must write a really good, readable book. Whether you’ve done that or fallen a little short of the mark, it’s a cinch you won’t sell many books if the summary you present to potential buyers showcases poor writing and drab thinking.

These examples were discovered in just a few minutes perusing summaries in the ebook section of We have changed just a few words in some of the excerpts to prevent any embarrassment, but the essentials remain. As a reader, would you buy these books?

Mistakes in a summary are good predictor of careless workmanship in the book itself.

“The 19th century may have seen the United States embroiled in a
bitter War of Succession (as opposed to a war over secession)...”

“The lightening (not lightning) was crashing and the thunder was
rolling as Annie Rogers stood on that bridge looking down at the
river below. “

If the blurb begins, “This book is about…,” you’re not likely to be drawn in. The chances that the sentence will end “a maniacal ship captain obsessed with killing a great white whale” are slim.

“This is the story of a man who shot his wife's lover and thus
created a memory which wrecked his own life.”

“This book allows us into the life of Danny Clyde; inside his thoughts and motivations to create, his will to sculpt and survive, and what experiences have brought him thus far.”

Nothing says unprofessional like bad punctuation – or the weird use of capital letters.

“There are Many Ways to be able to travel with your family and
make it a memorable and also Enjoyable Trip for You and Your Family!”

“In the far future, Earth is a worn-out backwater and humanity is spread
across the galaxy on worlds that began as colonies, but now feel like home,
each with its own long history of a thousand years or more, and each with
its own unique culture.

“Life hasn’t been easy for Celia Colby, raised by a single mother, money’s
been tight, but it’s about to get a whole lot worse.”

Our intention is not to demean the work of any of these authors, each of whom has invested the time, effort and expense to write and publish a book.

Chances are these summaries accurately reflect the books they describe. But if your book is well written, properly punctuated and doesn’t contain spelling or factual errors, make sure your summary is working for you, not against you. Perhaps as much as any other aspect of writing a book, the time spent perfecting your first communication with the reading public is critical to your sales success.

The Furlow Writing Lab

Lots of bright, knowledgeable people with much to say are writing fiction and nonfiction books these days. Many are brilliant lawyers, business people, scientists, teachers or sales reps but lack a full understanding of the rules of grammar, punctuation and style. Some write well word-to-word but do not know how to structure a book, or even a chapter.

The Furlow Writing Lab, hosted by Two-for-One Editing, offers bite-size lessons and tips based on common problems we see in the works of new authors. Without embarrassing authors, whom we admire for their willingness to put themselves on the line, we use this space to point to good and bad examples that can help us all improve our writing.

Equally important, we solicit your questions about your own work or passages you have read and wondered about in the works of others. The blog should not be a mere tutorial but a conversation about what makes good writing.

Davilynn and Bill Furlow are longtime editors who worked for many years at the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers. They have run a communications consulting practice and done all manner of writing and editing for a wide range of clients. Now they’re focused on books, with a particular interest in working with authors who are very serious about what they’re doing but who need high-end editing to turn their manuscripts into professional-quality books. (See more about the Furlows at

Very few among us are natural writers. Writing is hard work. Even mastery of grammar, punctuation and spelling doesn’t guarantee a well-written book. For example, how much description of a person or place is enough, and when does more detail become tiresome and counterproductive? When should the rules be obeyed, and when should they be broken for the sake of clarity or emphasis? How can a writer tell whether his or her work will have the desired effect on readers?

Welcome to The Furlow Writing Lab. Come on in and join the conversation.

Davilynn Furlow
Bill Furlow