Friday, April 18, 2014

14 Examples and 2,300 Words on How to Sharpen Your Sentences

14 Examples and 2,300 Words on How to Sharpen Your Sentences

I just finished the third draft of a book that’s going to take at least five drafts to finish. The biggest problem until now was sheer word bloat. I knew I couldn’t make the additions the book needs until I made a buttload of subtractions. Imagine trying to evaluate the health of a garden when it’s so full of weeds and overgrown shrubbery you can’t see a single stalk or bloom. All you know is there’s an awful lot of green shit underfoot.

To hack away at that green shit, I focused on sentence-level editing. This meant fixing (or deleting) things like:

  • Sentences that use imprecise verbs or descriptions
  • Sentences that convey the same information in two different ways
  • Bloated sentences with filler words like “just,” “only,” “that,” etc.

This is no small task. And a lot of writers never do it.


This strategy might work for some people, but I’m not one of them. For starters, I don’t see how it’s possible to publish that quantity of words that have been edited and polished to perfection. As Miracle Max said in The Princess Bride, “You rush a miracle man, you get a rotten miracle.”

How to Look at Revision: Don't Rush Your Miracle.

I’ve written before about the difference between storytelling and writing. I suspect that million-word publishers are storytellers more than writers. That’s fantastic for them, but I can’t do it. I can’t send a book out into the world without having analyzed every word of every sentence to make sure it earned its place.

And by “analyzed,” I don’t mean re-reading it, thinking it makes sense, and moving on. Or sending it to an editor for approval and sighing with relief when that sentence doesn’t come back with a red mark.
I mean analyzing the combination of words and punctuation to make sure the sentence is sharp, crisp, and effective. I mean owning every damn word. I mean seeing a passable but weak sentence become strong enough to punch the reader in the face.

Making that happen almost always involves deleting words rather than adding them.

To show you how, I’m sharing 14 examples of my sentence-level editing from this third draft. These sentences might still get cut or revised again. Are they works of art? Nope. But do they illustrate my point? Damn skippy.

Production Note: If the thought of deleting your original sentences makes you nervous, save each draft as a new document. That way, you can always refer back to the previous draft if you start feeling like you’re losing too much of the story’s original flavor.  Alternatively, you can work in your original file and paste all your deleted or altered sentences into a text file. This is what I do. I like having one main file to work in, but if I have a suspicion I’ve over-pruned, I can go back into the text file and browse through the sentences that didn’t make the cut. I’ve never re-inserted a sentence I’ve cut.

Sentence-Level Editing: Editors, Start Your Engines!

Original: Mrs. Evans was supposed to give them their Gatsby papers back today.
Revised: Mrs. Evans was supposed to return their Gatsby papers today.

This is a great example of imprecision. Sure, you could say “give them back.” But why would you do that when the word “return” means the same thing, and gets the job done in fewer words?

Original: The small things she’d worried about—quizzes and tests and papers—seemed like crumbs beneath a table now.
Revised: Quizzes and tests and papers were crumbs beneath a table now.

The shorter, punchier sentence conveys more urgency, which is appropriate for the character at that time. “Were” is also more decisive than “seemed like.”

Original: Two weeks ago, she would have sat here and gotten angry about the dirt and grime on the floor, or the flickering hallway lights, or any of the million things wrong with the school that her parents’ tax dollars should have fixed.
Revised: Two weeks ago, she would have been angry about the grime on the floor, the flickering hallway lights, and the million other things her parents’ tax dollars should have fixed.

For the love of God, trim the fat: (1) Does it matter that Emma would have sat while getting angry? No. The angry is the important part, not the sat. Get rid of it. (2) Also, what’s the difference between dirt and grime? If there’s a difference, is it important? No. Get rid of it. (3) Notice how I used “or” multiple times in the list of things wrong? It’s called “polysyndeton,” and while it creates rhythm and emphasis, the benefits don’t outweigh the bloat in this case.  Get rid of it. (4) Why am I using “or” in the first place? If anger is the point, why not have Emma be mad at all these things instead of just one, which is what’s indicated by “or”? Geez Louise. (5)  Emma could be mad at “any of the million things.” But “million” is used for emphasis, so why dilute it with “any of the”? Just say there are a million things wrong. Seriously. (6) This scene takes place in Emma’s school. So it’s obvious in context that the dirty hallway and flickering lights are at that location. No need to re-reference “school.”

Original: Up close, she could see the green of his eyes was more olive than emerald, close to his skin tone, and fringed with a blanket of lashes thicker than hers.
Revision: Up close, his eyes were more olive than emerald, fringed with a blanket of lashes thicker than hers.

What a terrible fucking sentence.  It’s like I got paid by the word or something. Let’s unpack this: (1) “She could see” is meaningless. In the scene, Emma is looking at Dan, her love interest. Of course she could see him. She’s not blind. (2) Since I’m using “olive” and “emerald,” it’s pretty clear green is the color I mean. No need to use “green” before either of those more specific descriptors. (3) Why mention his olive skin tone in this sentence? Let’s keep the emphasis on the eyes, and move the skin tone thing into an earlier scene.  Plus, it repeats the word “close” already used in the sentence opening.

Original: Mrs. Evans strode to the front of the class with a thick stack of papers in her hand.
Revision: Mrs. Evans strode to the front of the class with a stack of papers in hand.

This one’s relatively minor, but still deserves attention. It’s already been established that the class is getting their Gatsby papers back. Is it likely her stack would be thin? “Thick” is redundant based on the situation.  “Her hand” is also redundant, unless Mrs. Evans is using someone else’s hand to carry the papers.

Original: She did not curve the “j,” but wrote it as a long, solid line with a dot on top.
Revision: She drew the “j” as a long, solid line with a dot on top.

First off, if Emma didn’t do something, why am I wasting the reader’s time with that? Get it the hell out of there. Secondly, while “wrote” is an accurate verb, there’s obviously some artistic effect Emma is paying attention to. “Draw” conveys that better than “wrote.” Now that I look at this again, I’d probably take out “long,” too. If the “j” was drawn short, that might be worthy of note. But a “long”-drawn j?  Seems normal, and thus unworthy of note.

Original: She crossed it out, jiggling her pen in scribbles through the childish, malformed letters.
Revision: She scribbled through the childish, malformed letters.

I have a really bad habit of doing this! See how “she crossed it out” is redundant based on what comes afterward? Is there any way that jiggling your pen in scribbles over something could not be considered crossing it out? Probably not, and definitely not in this context. So why the eff did I write it twice? So lame.  Secondly, why did I say “jiggling” and “scribbles”? One verb can convey all of that—so just stick with “scribbled.”

Original: Elvira was already waiting for her at the entrance of the locker room.
Revision: Elvira was already waiting at the locker room entrance.

This is another minor edit, but one that needs to be made. Since Elvira is Emma’s badminton partner (and it’s already been established that Elvira waits for her before heading into the gym), “for her” is unnecessary. Who else would Elvira wait for? Also, why be all complicated with “entrance of the locker room”? I can save two whole words by saying “locker room entrance” instead. Bam.

Original:  Dan knew everything, and he was the only one whose opinion she wanted.
Revision: Dan knew everything about her situation, and his was the only opinion she wanted.

This is the rare sentence that got longer after a revision, and I’ll explain why. In the first version, you could interpret it to mean that Dan is the smartest guy in the world who literally knows everything and makes Stephen Hawking look like Lenny from Of Mice and Men. That’s not how Emma means it. She means he’s the only one she’s told everything to, which calls for some more specificity—hence “about her situation.” Secondly, the end of the first sentence is a fustercluck. What was I thinking? If opinions are the subject of the clause, keep them that way.

Original: Witch soup started in a big yellow bucket that had originally been loaded with sand tools.
Revision: Witch soup started in a big yellow bucket, originally loaded with sand tools.

This is another common mistake I make. “Had been” is a complicated verb pairing. It drags down the speed of a sentence, although it can be far more accurate than “was” if you really need to specify time in the past.  In this case, though, it’s not necessary to use a verb at all. Adding the comma and shortening the description preserves the meaning of the sentence and makes it easier to read and comprehend.

Original: Emma picked up her backpack and went back into the courtyard.
Revision: Emma picked up her backpack and returned to the courtyard.

Remember the first example, when shortening a sentence and adding clarity was accomplished by swapping out a phrase for a word? Keep an eye out for pointlessly wordy descriptors like this. They happen a lot (to me, at least).

Original: Maybe the act of thinking about something over and over again made it seem possible, even if it wasn’t.
Revision: Maybe the act of thinking something over and over again made it seem possible, even if it wasn’t.

This is probably the nitpickiest sentence of the bunch! Still, if you’re using words and phrases, you have to prove you understand what they mean. You’re a writer. It’s your job. If the word “over” in this context means “once more” and I use it twice, “again” is redundant. There’s no way for something not to happen again if it happens over and over.

Original: If she didn’t go to college, if something happened that made it impossible, what would she be missing?
Revision: If she didn’t go to college, if something happened that made it impossible, what would she miss?

This is a two-pronged attack on passivity: (1) If I use the verb “to make,” it means something happens. That’s implied in the verb itself. You can’t “make” something without causing something to happen. So I don’t need to specify that something “happened” to “make” it impossible. It’s redundant. (2) “Be missing” contains two verbs. Two. Seriously? Isn’t there a way to convey this with one damn verb? Of course there is. I just had to find it. “Miss” instead of “be missing” is sharper and more direct.

Original: When her mom picked her up, she was the first one to speak.
Revision: When her mom picked her up, she was the first to speak.

This is an interesting example, and one that brings a stylistic choice into the matter more than the other examples above. For starters, let’s look at what got axed: the word “one.” It’s totally unnecessary. It modifies Emma and her mother, but it doesn’t matter whether Emma and her mom are humans or aliens—the point is that Emma spoke first. Now, you might be wondering why I didn’t just say that:  “…Emma spoke first.”  It’s shorter and punchier, which I mentioned above as being desirable. What can I say? I like the symmetry of the longer form. Six words before the comma, six words after. I like the emphasis on the word “she.” There’s a rhythm to the sentence that gets lost if I go with “Emma spoke first.” I like the rhythm. It’s gonna get ya. So that’s what I’m choosing here.

See how much fun that was? That’s what being a writer is all about. Making choices.  Give yourself the opportunity to make them.

Handing your first draft off to an editor (or worse, publishing it) robs you of the chance to make these kinds of choices. Get up in there. Make your words tremble at the thought of being chopped into pieces.  Whip them into shape. If, like me, you are the furthest thing from assertive in real life, this is your chance to go full dominatrix. Enjoy it.
Writers: Revel in the Choices You Make.