Saturday, 19 November 2011

Strengthening sentences with some weeding

The great thing about the editing process is that it’s a chance for writers to weed out the superfluous, the structural errors and all those grammatically incorrect words and sentences. 

A writer should always aim for better constructed sentences. That means weeding out things like adverbs and adjectives, passive sentences, gerunds and making sure the tenses are correct etc.

There are other constructions that creep into our writing without us noticing and that is the use of phrasal verbs or prepositional words.

We write these kind of phrases and words without thinking too much about them, which is why they can end up becoming prevalent in our work.  For the most part, if you want tightly constructed, concise and well thought out sentences, you take need to weed them out.

How many times have your characters decided to do something, or they have begun to or started to do something, or they are going to do something? If you read back through your work, I’m willing to bet a few of these have crept into your writing.

Begin to, decide to and going to. Too many of these phrasal anomalies weaken the sentence structure, unless they are absolutely integral to the sentence or form part of your character’s dialogue.

Begin to

How many times do you have characters "begin to" do things? For example:

He began to make the coffee
She began to cry into her handkerchief

While these sentences are not grammatically incorrect, it is better that the characters take direct action, especially if you have a story in based in past tense, so that it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the narrative.

He made the coffee
She cried into her handkerchief

This tidies up the sentences and makes them much tighter and the flow of action is much better.

Started to

This is very similar to begin to, in that you have your characters starting to do something when instead you can be direct and get them to just do the action.

He started to unravel to the rope
They started to run towards the trees

Again, by using direct action, you avoid slowing the narrative and the sentence structure becomes tighter.

He unravelled the rope.
They ran towards the trees.

Decide to

We can apply the same principle when we have characters ‘deciding to’ do something. Instead of the characters doing that, have them do the direct action.

He decided to look through the files
She decided to make lunch

Again, having them decide to do things creates an unintentional slowing of the sentence structure. Be direct.

He looked through the files.
She made lunch or she prepared lunch.

Instantly you have tighter sentences. The only time you would use decide to, is in dialogue between characters, where they would say these kinds of phrases.

‘I decided to go for it,’ he said.
‘He decided to look through the files,’ she said.

Going to be

‘Going to’ is future tense because it’s stating future events or actions that might take place, for instance, someone is going to be angry, sad, happy etc. Something is going to happen. These usually occur in dialogue. For example:

He is going to be angry
She is going to be unhappy with this
They are going to be so happy with our surprise
I think it is going to rain

Again, it’s about being direct within the narrative and what you want to express, and replacing ‘going to’ with ‘will’. 

He will be angry
She will be unhappy with this
They will be so happy with our surprise
I think it will rain.

Beginning to, starting to, deciding to and going to all create unnecessary pauses within the narrative and slow the pace, particularly so if you have a fast-paced action scene and your hero is right in the action, but then you have him deciding to do something, or starting to do something or going to do something, which creates a stumbling block.

Always remember to be direct wherever possible. Not all phrasal verbs are avoidable, but most are unnecessary and unconstructive within your narrative. Weeding them out will make for better writing and better sentences.

Next week: Creating better sentences: Action /reaction sentence order

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