Constructing 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.)
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.”
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.
- 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.
- 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!
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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