How to Fix Your Writing Problems and Improve Your Writing Confidence

Published on April 6th, 2013 by | Category: Writing

Hardy’s main difficulty in the sentence he had to spend so much time on was to arrange his words in such a way as to enable the reader to steer a straight course through a maze of plural nouns any of which might be the one referred to by ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘their’ or ‘these’. Just look at the problem:

  • heaps
  • binders
  • men
  • women
  • hands
  • shirts
  • trousers
  • straps
  • waists
  • buttons
  • sunbeams
  • eyes

Such a sentence bristles with more difficulties than any brace-button ever twinkled with sun beams. Twelve plural nouns and only one stand- in, unless you count ‘these’ and ‘those’ as an extra half! Little wonder that he had to do a lot of thinking to keep the connections clear.

. . . upon these the binders laid their hands— some of them in print shirts . . . .

You know, T know and Hardy knew that ‘them’ refers to ‘binders’, but the position in the sentence forms a link between ‘them’ and ‘hands’ that is too strong to be entirely ignored; the grammar pulls against the sense.

Hardy got over that particular difficulty by inserting ‘mainly women’, so that that part of the sentence read

‘ . . . — mainly women, but some of them men in print shirts . . .’

What he may not have noticed was that now there was the same kind of link between ‘them’ and ‘women’. Some of the men were women? He may simply have let it pass, however, knowing how elusive perfection in writing is.

That was only one of his difficulties with these words, however, some of them men in print shirts and corduroy trousers supported round their waists by leather straps . . .’

Whose waists? The waists of the men or the waists of the shirts or the trousers? He let that one pass too.


‘ . . . so that they twinkled and glared . . .’

‘They’ are the buttons obviously, but in a moment you come to ‘glare’. Do buttons glare? Or does ‘they’ refer to ‘men’?

So that part is changed to

‘ . . . so that their only seeming purpose was to twinkle and glare . . .’

That obviously won’t do; it is strained and in any case does not really put ‘their’ at a sufficient distance from ‘men’.

Hardy’s final solution to that problem was to use ‘which’

‘ . . . which twinkled and bristled with sun beams . . .’

Some writers would, I think, have found a problem in the fact that there were many pairs of trousers but only one pair of buttons and would have done something to smooth that wrinkle out. Hardy, however, was by that time satisfied and no doubt most of his readers were too.

If the meaning is clear and the manner in which it is expressed, what does it matter if some fastidious reader could point to flaws in the writing?

For the answer we go back to the idea of confidence. The reader should never get the feeling that the writer is not in full control of the tools of his trade, but that’s what happens if when you are reading you come upon some little flaw that has escaped the writer’s notice — the result, a loss of confidence in the writer’s skill.

Completely flawless writing is, however, almost impossible to achieve.

Here are two sentences from Somerset Maugham’s Pictures on a Chinese Screen. Read them carefully and see if you can find a flaw that escaped the notice of even so careful a writer.

The morning drew on and the sun touched the mist so that it shone whitely like the ghost of snow on a dying star. Though on the river it was light, so that you could discern palely the lines of the crowded junks and the thick forest of their masts, in front it was a shining wall the eye could not pierce.

It is possible that, like me, you feel that ‘the ghost of snow on a dying star’ is a little bit more than you can comfortably take, but that is a matter of taste and here I am concerned with the way the words are put together. The flaw that I hope you detected is in the use of ‘it was light’ in that context. When first I read that sentence, I reached ‘it was a shining wall’ before I realized that ‘it was light’ referred to the mist. Until then I took it to mean the opposite of ‘it was dark’. I think my reading was predictable, and the writer should have been aware of the possibility, because the first sentence had kept my mind on the idea of morning and the sun rising.

That kind of technical hitch should be avoided. Here is a similar slip from Shaw

‘ . . . and the preoccupied person is neither happy nor unhappy, but simply alive and active, which is pleasanter than any happiness until you are tired of it.’

Tired of what? Happiness? But how can you be tired of happiness? Tired of being alive and active? The construction of the sentence suggests both.

The examples I have given show how awkward English pronouns are. Of all the words in the language, they are indeed the most awkward.


Make sure that the reader can have no doubt about which noun a pronoun refers to. It is not enough that the meaning should be clear to any sensible reader. Choose and arrange your words in such a way that the most perverse reader could make any of your pronouns refer to any other noun but the one intended.

Of all the pronouns ‘it’ is the most awkward because of its extra use in such phrases as ‘it was early’, ‘it was cold’ and ‘it was a fact that’. As you saw in the sentence from Somerset Maugham this special use leads to complications that may easily pass unnoticed.


Some of the following sentences and passages have flaws in them; others, as far as I can see, are without fault. Comment on the flaws and suggest correct versions. Compare your answers with those given in at the end of this article.

1. Choosing books for children nowadays is an onerous task; there are so many of them.

2. The dictionary has been planned primarily for the general reader, but the advanced student and the specialist should find it a handy volume to have by them when more cumbrous and exhaustive works are inaccessible.

3. Gibbon has been in my thoughts lately. I have often occasion to go to Putney, now a suburb of London, where he was born. I see the church at the end of Putney Bridge close to where he resided as a little boy, and the river which he must have contemplated. Resided, contemplated; I use these pompous words on purpose, for even as a little boy Gibbon was not playful or frisky. I cannot imagine him bowling his hoop down Putney High Street or fishing for sticklebacks in the Thames. But I can imagine him residing there. . . .

4. The writer should be in full control of the tools of his trade and the reader should feel that he is.

5. The main point is that this vessel be built on such principles as to enable it to withstand the pressure of the ice. The sides must slope sufficiently to prevent the ice, when it presses together, from getting firm hold of the hull, as was the case with the Jeannette and other vessels. Instead of nipping the ship, the ice must raise it up out of the water.

6. The principle of the arch was developed by the Romans. Arched bridges were first built of stone. The arch supported the bridgeway by transferring the thrust caused by the weight of the roadway and the vehicles on it through the arch to the abutments. In modern steel and ferro-concrete bridges the bridgeway is often suspended from the arch.

7. But how can I predict your reactions to the words I write? I do not know you as an individual. You are one of many readers and recognizably different from all the others. You have your own characteristic voice, your distinctive face, even your own particular way of walking. Even the markings on the tips of your fingers can be shown to be yours and no one else’s. Your physical brain, too, is surely special to you. And your mind? Is it so standardized that I can confidently predict your reactions?

8. This book is designed to help you to improve your written English. It is by no means easy to write technically flawless English but if you work steadily at it you will gradually acquire competence.

9. To read an author’s manuscript can be an enthralling experience, especially if it is written in longhand. We see the places where his pen has scudded along, the dots of the i’s and the crosses of the t’s trailing behind like smoke from an express train, and we see the places where, in the argot of the profession, he ‘bleeds’, and words are crossed out heavily, almost it seems with a savage deliberation at times, or intensely thoughtfully, letter by letter, or where scribbled arabesques begin to creep along the borders of the page.

10. But our concern at the moment is with the simple word ‘table’. Even about it you could find scores of questions to which you haven’t the answer. What shape is it? Of what wood is it made? . . .

11. This combination of the need for electricity and the need for steam can be used to great advantage. Oil can be used for firing boilers to F provide steam — as is already done at the steam raising plant in the refinery; and it can also be used to generate electricity by providing steam to drive the turbines harnessed to generators.

12. In this dictionary special attention has been given to the wealth of colorful American coin- ages with which the English language is in process of being enriched.


1. So many children or so many books? It would be better to focus ‘them’ more sharply on ‘books’.

‘There are so many children’s books nowadays that it isn’t easy to decide which to buy.’

2. I picked this sentence from the preface to a popular dictionary as one of those that needed no alteration. If you found nothing wrong with it, count yourself right. When I typed it out, however, I saw that it was a sentence I’d have altered, probably at the proof stage. First, I’d have deleted ‘to have by them’. The phrase is unnecessary. More than that, it brings a suggestion of confusion. Two people, the advanced student and the specialist, with one handy dictionary! I’d also have done something about ‘cumbrous and exhaustive’. When you join two ideas with ‘and’, the reader expects both ideas to be of the same kind or in the same tone. That a dictionary should be cumbrous is a disadvantage; that is should be exhaustive is an advantage. The word joining ‘cumbrous’ and ‘exhaustive’ should therefore be ‘though’. I have another objection to those two words anyway. Anything that is cumbrous is likely to be exhausting to handle; the association is too close. I’d have simplified the whole into ‘when one of the bigger dictionaries is not available’.

3. No change required, beautifully written by E. M. Forster. You are perhaps on the point of resenting the slightly pompous language, but then he quietly brings you up short by giving you the reason for it. Note with what economy of words he draws attention to the great difference between Putney in Gibbon’s time and Putney today — ‘now a suburb of London’. This phrase is cut off from the rest of the sentence by commas. It does indeed interrupt the flow of the language a little, but you realize that this is quite deliberate and you have no doubt at all that this writer is really master of his trade.

4. Who is ‘he’? the writer or the reader? This sentence illustrates very well a difference between speech and writing. This sentence could be read aloud in such a way that the meaning is perfectly clear — with the accent on ‘feel’.

‘ . . . the reader should feel that he is . ’

But it could also be read aloud so as to suggest that ‘he’ refers to ‘reader’

‘ . . . the reader should feel that he is.’

Spoken, therefore, the sentence would not be ambiguous; written, it is. There are dozens of right ways of putting it. Here is one:

‘ . . . and the reader should feel that the control is there.’

5. If you say that this extract is correct, give yourself full marks. Again, it was only when I typed it out that I noticed what is to my mind a slight flaw. Here it’s a matter of punctuation. Remove the comma after ‘hull’ and you have a clearer sentence. That comma puts ‘as was the case with the Jeannette and other vessels’ at a distance from ‘getting firm hold of the hull’ and brings it nearer to ‘must slope sufficiently’. With the commas, therefore, the sentence could suggest that the Jeannette and other vessels were constructed on the principles that would enable them to withstand the pressure of the ice. But even now, at this very moment, I notice another flaw — not of sentence construction but of meaning. It is not quite accurate to say that a vessel constructed on the principle suggested will ‘withstand’ the pressure of the ice. Certainly there would be pressure, but the point is to construct the ship in such a way as to escape from pressure of the intensity that crushed other vessels.

6. This is another passage selected as hem flawless. If, therefore, you saw nothing to find fault with in it, again give yourself full marks. However, once more, I found a little flaw in it. There came into my mind a picture of one of the London bridges at 8.45 in the morning of any working day — the pavements crammed full of well-fed citizens. Tons of them! Isn’t the thrust of their weight also transferred through the arch to the abutments? Why mention the weight of the roadway and the vehicles only? There’s also the weight of the foot-traffic and of whatever the vehicles are carrying. Therefore it would be better to write ‘the weight of the roadway and the traffic on it’.

7. I can find nothing wrong with this technically, but. that may be because I wrote it myself.

8. This should be altered. The reader has proceeded too far with the second sentence before he realizes that the ‘it’ with which it begins does not refer to ‘this book’; some doubt still remains about the referent of the second ‘it’.

9. The second sentence here is a long and complicated one and about it I’ll have most to say. Of the first one .1 will merely say that the commas after ‘experience’, unlike the comma referred to in 5, is necessary; it cuts the ‘it’ off from experience and puts it decisively where it belongs — with ‘manuscript’. The passage is quoted from the book already referred to Word for Word. I went to that book for a flawless sentence that was at the same time complicated. I thought I had found it here, but was wrong. ‘Scudded’ has too strong a nautical association. It is used for ‘sailing before the wind’. Therefore the transition to the simile of the express train is too sudden; the reader wonders if the author was conscious of the nautical association — loss of confidence in the writer again. ‘Intensely thoughtfully’ jars on the ear. Finally the last ‘or’ is quite wrong; it conflicts with the ‘or’ in front of ‘intensely thoughtfully’ and also with the ‘and’ of ‘and we see places where’. The skeleton of the sentence should be

We see places . . .

and we see places . . .

and we see places . . .


We see places where . . .

or where . . .

or where . . .

But the two ways of joining parts of the sentence should not be mixed up.

10. More trouble with the word ‘it’. You get the idea that ‘it’ refers to the word ‘table’. Then you reach the questions about shape and the wood ‘it’ is made of. The ‘thing’ and the word for the ‘thing’ have become mixed up.

A better version: Our concern at the moment is with the simple word ‘table’, not with the table itself. There is a great deal you do not know about the table — its shape, the kind of wood it is made of . . .

11. Here the idea could be brought out much more clearly as in this version:

An oil-refinery needs both steam and electricity, the steam for use in the oil-refining process and the electricity for supplying light and power. There is fuel at hand — oil. Oil-burning furnaces can be designed to supply steam for the refining process and for use in turbines harnessed to generators. So both needs can be supplied by one central unit.

12. Two ideas have got tangled up in this sentence:

1. That ‘colourful American coinages’ are continually coming into use in England.

2. That ‘this dictionary’ gives special attention to these importations from America.

Both these statements can be taken to be true.

It is not true, however, that the dictionary pays special attention to those coinages with which the English language is in process of being enriched. No dictionary includes a word until after it has come into fairly general use.

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