Keep Your Readers Reading: 4 Easy Ways to Improve Sentence Structure

improve sentence structureConstructing a variety of sentences to keep your reader interested is a challenge every writer faces. If you are like most writers, your “personal style” includes some overused sentence structure.

In Self Editing: Put Your Book on a Diet, I discussed the importance of deleting unnecessary words; another important part of the revision/self-editing process is making sure your sentence structures are varied . . . but sometimes writers create new problems for themselves in the quest to vary sentences.

Let me explain.

As a freelance editor, I work with writers who have varying levels of experience. In the course of a month, I usually do some coaching, evaluate manuscripts, proofread a novel, and copyedit a proposal. In almost every case, I find that the writers have specific tendencies to overuse words and phrases or to construct most (or at least too many) sentences in a similar fashion.

Now, look at those last three sentences. Can you identify the common sentence structure I used? (Cue “Final Jeopardy” theme.)

Time’s up!

If you identified “overuse of introductory dependent clauses,” you win! (Sorry, no valuable prize, but you DO have the satisfaction of knowing grammar geeks will welcome you into the club.) I know that particular sentence structure is one I tend to overuse, so when I revise my writing, I’m always on the lookout for ways to restructure those sentences. A few sprinkled in every so often are great, but when the majority of my sentences have the same format: Zzzzzzzzzzzz . . .

(By the way, one of the best ways to learn to spot your own writing gaffes is by editing other writers’ writing. I wrote about that here. Try it—you’ll be amazed how much your own writing improves!)

Sentence construction should almost never be the same throughout a paragraph. That’s boring for the reader, and it’s a sure sign that you need to do some revising.

Here are some other common writing faux pas:

  • Overused words: All writers have their favorite words, even if they aren’t aware of them. I recently edited a manuscript with a great deal of clever dialogue, but more than half of them begin with “Well . . .” Every main character and most of the minor characters begin at least half their sentences that way: Zzzzzzzzz.

Lynn Serafin at Spirit Authors wrote about this in her excellent series on self-publishing:

This part of the process can be a real emotional journey for an author, especially if they have never worked with a good editor before. You might wonder why the editor didn’t do this herself. I’m glad she asked me to do it because a) it gave me the chance to decide which instances of these words should stay or go and b) it helped me improve as a writer. I notice that I am much more mindful of my ‘filler’ words since being challenged by my editor to address this issue.”

  • Dangling Modifiers: These are especially fun to include if you want to give your editor a good laugh. What is a dangling modifier? It’s a descriptive word or phrase (a modifier) that is separated from the noun or noun phrase it is supposed to be modifying. This often happens when the modifier is tacked onto the beginning or end of a sentence.

    Dangling Modifiers Lead To Slippery Pedestrians
    Dangling Modifiers Can Lead To Slippery Pedestrians (Photo credit: jaydoubleyougee)

Here are some examples:

  • Almost two feet tall, he hurled himself over the coffee table. (He’s awfully short, isn’t he?)
  • Returning home, the fire was still burning out of control. (Did the fire run out for a quart of milk?)
  • Knocking on the door, the package sat where the delivery man dropped it. (What a clever package—it can announce its own arrival.)

 

  • Comma Splices: Our dear friend the comma is often asked to do more work that it was designed to do. Connecting two independent clauses with a comma but no coordinating conjunction or punctuation is one form of a comma splice. Here’s an example:
  • I can’t believe you brought me here, I have postponed it for so long, this is an awe-inspiring place, my sister would have loved it here.

There are a number of ways to fix this type of sentence. You can add coordinating or subordinating conjunctions, make dependent clauses out of one or more of the independent clauses, use different punctuation, or revise the sentences to add some variety to the structure. And, of course, you could use almost any combination of the above.

  • I can’t believe you brought me here. I have postponed it for so long, but this is an awe-inspiring place; my sister would have loved it here.

OR

  • I postponed coming here for so long. This is an awe-inspiring place, and my sister would have loved it. I can’t believe you brought me here.

OR

  • I have postponed coming here for so long that I can’t believe you brought me. This is an awe-inspiring place, and my sister would have loved it here.

You’ll keep your readers reading if you use a variety of the four basic sentence constructions:

  • Simple sentences
  • Compound sentences
  • Complex sentences
  • Compound/complex sentences

Mixing up the order of the clauses, adding coordinating or subordinating clauses, removing dangling modifiers, and eliminating extraneous words are important parts of the revision process. When you utilize different approaches to address the subject of each sentence, your writing will guide your reader to share your vision through your mastery of sentence construction.

What is YOUR biggest challenge when revising on a sentence level? I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments!

Happy Writing,

—Candace

Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be.

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The Fear of Making a Mistake

Writer's Block 1
Writer’s Block 1 (Photo credit: OkayCityNate)

“Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”

Writer, actor, and tall person John Cleese is my inspiration for today’s blog. (And thanks to Jon Winokur at Advice to Writers.com for the tweets that got me to thinking about this.)

When I began this blog, I set a goal for myself to blog twice a week about something that is relevant to writers. That sounded easy . . . except “blogging day” keeps coming around. (“Didn’t I just post a blog yesterday?”)

How difficult can it be to write something that is interesting and helpful for writers and then polish it up every Wednesday and Sunday?

How difficult? That depends on the week, as every blogger who reads this post can attest. My hat is off to those bloggers I follow who manage two, three, or even four posts a week—you are a true inspiration! But as John Cleese said, the fear of making a mistake can keep even the most prolific writer from actually putting words on paper.

My personal crucible is the desire to write something that is practical, informative, interesting, and so good that everyone who reads it wants to follow my blog and share the post. Because I’m hoping to appeal to writers who might someday need editing services, I feel the need to be extremely careful—to not make mistakes—and that really can stifle the creative process.

So my advice today to every writer who reads this, and most especially to myself, is

 Just Do It

If you’re one of the thousands of writers participating in NaNoWriMo this month, and you find yourself spending too much time coming up with the perfect word or a character name that feels right, make a pledge to yourself: no matter how much editing you might need to do later, get the words out now, because you can always come back and polish. Don’t wait for the right time or the right mood; if you have something to say, write it down—just do it!

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes had this to say:

“If you’re afraid you can’t write, the answer is to write. Every sentence you construct adds weight to the balance pan. If you’re afraid of what other people will think of your efforts, don’t show them until you write your way beyond your fear. If writing a book is impossible, write a chapter. If writing a chapter is impossible, write a page. If writing a page is impossible, write a paragraph. If writing a paragraph is impossible, write a sentence. If writing even a sentence is impossible, write a word and teach yourself everything there is to know about that word and then write another, connected word and see where their connection leads. A page a day is a book a year.”

So yay for me—this is ready to post tomorrow, and it’s only Saturday night! Heck, I’m going to go completely crazy and post it early. Not that anyone else will notice, but I’m just happy to be writing. What about you?

Happy Writing!

—Candace

 

Related links:

http://www.kmweiland.com/images/Manifesto.jpg

http://meghanward.com/blog/2012/11/02/nanowrimo-a-different-call-to-action/

http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2009/01/09/time-to-write/

http://catherineryanhoward.com/2012/10/22/nanowrimo-im-only-going-to-say-this-once-okay/

http://www.copyblogger.com/become-a-better-writer/

http://chillersandthrillers.com/2012/11/17/nano-day-16-procrastination-station/

 

 

How a Professional Editor Can Help You Get Published: Developmental and Substantive Editing

Image courtesy of acclaimclipart.com

Writers are often too close to their own writing to be objective. After spending hours trying to get a concept or dialogue “just right,” it is difficult to know what should stay and what should be cut. Even after you’ve self-edited, had your friends critique your work, and perhaps even asked a friend who is an English teacher to take a look, an objective and professional opinion from a professional freelance editor is the best way to identify what is and isn’t working.

No matter how well written a manuscript is, it needs more than what another writer or a friend can offer. Writers are often amazed at the amount of help a good editor offers; published authors who have already been through the process understand how valuable an editor is to the success of their work.

If you have a great idea but don’t know how to organize it into a book or article, or if you’ve written a draft and want to be sure it is well-ordered and doesn’t drift off somewhere it shouldn’t, consider hiring a professional freelance editor. A professional editor has an objective viewpoint and will be honest with you about the many ways you can improve your manuscript—yes, even when you think it’s perfect, you’ll be surprised at the things an editor will suggest that never occurred to you.

Scott Norton, an editor at the University of California Press and author of the first full-length handbook ever published on the subject of developmental editing, writes: “For our purposes, developmental editing denotes significant structuring or restructuring of a manuscript’s discourse. The DE’s role can manifest in a number of ways. Some “big picture” editors provide broad direction by helping the author to form a vision for the book, then coaching the author chapter by chapter to ensure that the vision is successfully executed. Others get their hands dirty with the prose itself, suggesting rewrites at the chapter, section, paragraph, and sentence levels. This hands-on approach is sometimes called substantive editing or line editing.

This important function is not meant to replace self editing; whether you engage an editor before or after you begin writing, developmental editing is synonymous with The Big Picture. Norton goes on to say:

“From this perspective, stylistic intervention alone is not ‘developmental.’ To be sure, there are cases in which a manuscript’s organization is sound but the tone so pervasively wrong that virtually every sentence must be recast. Severe as these problems of tone may be, they can usually be handled by a high-powered copyeditor—and those that can’t are beyond the reach of editing, requiring instead the hand of a ghostwriter or coauthor. Nevertheless, most manuscripts with structural problems have stylistic lapses as well, and DEs are often asked to fix both kinds of problems. . . .”

Developmental editing (also called substantive editing, heavy line editing, structural editing, or book doctoring) is the first step for many authors on their way to having their work published. If you are a first-time author, don’t make the expensive mistakes by hoping an agent or publisher will share your vision, even if your manuscript isn’t in top shape. Do your research and find an editor who will work as your partner to help you say it the way you mean it.

—Candace