Friday, June 10, 2011

Simple Edit

Sometimes we come across a sentence structured like this:

There/It (subject)
was/were (verb)
someone/something (direct object)
who/which/that (relative pronoun)
did something (relative pronoun clause)

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.

It was a face that only a mother could love.

This creates a slight wordiness and relegates the impact ideas to a dependent structural position in the sentence. Fix it by killing the flat subject/verb, cutting the relative pronoun, and rearranging the remaining words into a simple sentence.

An old woman lived in a shoe.

Only a mother could love that face.

You see how that works? It's not all-purpose, but it will yield a stronger sentence in the majority of cases.

Theresa

11 comments:

JewelTones said...

I have a list of common edit issues I have noticed in my writing that I've had for years and years and that's the kind of stuff I have on it. I don't think a lot of people realize how much stronger a sentence can become by eliminating such simple issues. Ditto with finding more concrete nouns or verbs to eradicate wordiness.

JT

Coleen Kwan said...

I often catch myself writing sentences like:

"It was five o'clock on Sunday afternoon."

Any suggestions on how to re-word this?

Thomas Sharkey said...

@Coleen.

Five o'clock, Sunday afternoon.

Thomas.

Stevie Carroll said...

Thomas,

Am I allowed to be terribly British and cringe at your construction there? Unless you're writing first person detective fiction, I suppose.

What about: 'at six o'clock on Saturday afternoon' or 'in the middle of Saturday afternoon' and then 'subject was verbing object in an adverbly way'?

green_knight said...

Coleen,
one thing you can do is to replace the factual statement with a personal one. An hour after the shops had closed, The five-o-clock news had just begun, the kitchen clock had mooed five times,

And maybe the time doesn't matter - would the _character_ notice the exact time? If not, you can talk about something vaguely late-afternoonish (in winter, the sun goes down, but sitting down for tea, or the time character usually comes home from work, or going out into the garden now the sun wasn't quite as hot and before the midges swarm might all work.

Edittorrent said...

Stevie Carroll, you're on the right track.

Coleen, Stevie Carroll is talking about sentence combining techniques there. I'm going to front-blog this so you can see a full example.

T

Edittorrent said...

GK, those are good suggestions, but only if the time and day don't matter. Then that sort of phrasing can be interesting. But if time and date matter, then a different fix is in order.

T

Edittorrent said...

JT, when we talk about how it's all in the execution, that's what we're talking about. The greatest story idea in the world will fail if the writing doesn't act as a good vehicle for delivering it. And an ordinary story idea can be made special by proper execution.

T

Jonathan Stephens said...

Fundamentally sound advice. Thanks.

Some grammatical correction:

"Here/there" are very rarely subjects; they're adverbs. Examples:
(as subject) Here is spelled h-e-r-e.
(as adverb - it's telling where it is) Here is the money I owe you.

"Someone/something" is either the subject or direct object.

For instance, when you fixed "There was an old woman..." you aptly put old woman as the subject, because it was "was"ing in the original.

Happy grammaring!

Edittorrent said...

Thanks, Jonathan. You're technically correct, but it's off the point of the exercise, which was about showing people how to identify a weak structure built around a flat verb and relative clause.

Jonathan Stephens said...

Oh, I know I went off on a grammar tangent.

I did love your advice. Your focus on putting the actor first is spot on and is absolutely fundamental to engaging writing.