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Nonsequiteur: the narrative "doesn't follow."

In the course of your copy editing, you'll come across several places in your material where, when you were writing, your mind went off at a tangent to the material. The flow of your narrative gives a hiccups, or trips. At the time, you didn't notice it, but reading the text back, days or weeks later, you do. Time to fix it.

"Nonsequiteur" is Latin, and it literally means "out of sequence," or "not sequential." When something is out of line, it should pop out of the narrative at you, begging to be fixed. Like this:

    "Jack was late arriving in Innishfree, but the lady's umbrella was bright scarlet."
    "Simon took a great vacation in Delaware, and Mandy's grandfather has a dog called Jock."
    "Maud went shopping, and the Pope's car is white."
    "The kids fed the ducks, but Qantas is laying off more staff."
    "Summer came in early that year; my bedroom walls are pale green."
    "Jeff should attend more lectures; he's been missing a lot of sleep." (!)
    Like a great snake, the river curved through the hills, and the movie that night was made in 1966."
    The chiropractor fixed Joe's back yesterday, but the cat is still asleep on the couch."

Some nonsequiteurs can be hilarious, like the one which seems to say Jeff ought to be in the lecture hall more to catch up on his missed sleep! Copy editing will find these errors, if you're vigilant.

Nonsequiteurs can easily happen if your let your sentences get long and rambling, and especially if they begin to suffer from "run on syndrome." A run on sentence is a sentence where several separate sentences have been glued together with commas, colons, dashes and conjunctions (and, but, therefore, because, as, when, while, however, though, then, after which, throughout which ...!)

Here are some beauties -- to demonstrate what NOT to do! In the excerpt below, each paragraph is a single sentence. Mel Keegan wrote this piece as a joke -- and it takes an extremely talented writer to pull this off. The sentences actually scan and make sense, while being longer than some of the chapters in the Iliad! Take a deep breath:

    Once upon a time, on the third moon of the planet Katzenensis IV, there lived a handsome prince who lived in a castle that could have used a lick or two of paint, but wasn't likely to get it because 1) the atmosphere outside the castle was corrosive and 2) the prince's family were so poor that they couldn't afford the nanotech paint that would survive point 1.

    The prince's name was Garbenunkelwassam, but everyone called him "Gar" for short, because the atmosphere on Katzenensis IV was so thin and ratty that long before you got finished with saying "Garbenunkelwassam," you'd have run out of blood oxygen, turned blue and fallen flat on your face, which would be an extremely back thing to do on Katzenensis IV, because the ground was even more corrosive than the air, and if you paddled around barefoot (or did a faceplant), your feet (or face) would be turned to protoplasmic goo in 8.7 seconds flat.

    One day, Prince Gar was eating his poor, simple breakfast of beetroot marmalade on black-bread toast (which is a staple dish on his home world, where bacon and eggs, pancakes and maple syrup, waffles and sausages, and boiled eggs and perfectly percolated coffee, and golden brown buttered toast with lashings of freshly churned butter, were all things which people read about in travel brochures for other worlds, but never expect to taste for themselves, on account of being no poor and so isolated on this idiotic little moon).

(Would you like to read the rest of the story?! It was done as a "picture challenge" and is posted as a comment on a blog:

Enjoy the story, and the joke ... just don't write like this! Mel's piece is the perfect illustration of what NOT to do. Hats off to a particularly talented writer.)

As a general rule, in your copy editing be on the lookout for sentences which are hard for you to read, even though you wrote them yourself. If you're losing the thread yourself, how will readers keep up with you? Especially readers to whom English is their second or third language! The rule of thumb is: write for your readers, and take pity on 'em!

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