Line by Line Editing: Part One: Long Sentences

Author: Anastasia V. Pergakis // Category:

Long sentences are caused by a number of reasons - weak verbs, too many nouns, and/or an overuse of prepositional phrases. In The Writer's Academy I see this happen a lot in the short story and novel classes. At the time, I did not realize why many of the sentences "sounded wrong" to me - they just did. After doing a bit of research, now I know WHY they sounded wrong.

Weak Verbs
I knew this part well as other reviewers often pointed out this same mistake in my own work. Inert verbs (to be - am, is, was, were, being, been), actionless verbs (have, exist, etc) or the passive form (to be and a past participle - is believed, was seen), and verbs ending with -ing, all lend to the same argument -- aggressive or action verbs are more often than not, better than passive or actionless verbs.

Am I saying that you need to go through and change every single passive verb to an agressive one? No. The point is not to have your manuscript riddeled with them. The rule I often make for myself is that I cannot have two sentences in a row that contain passive verbs. In an action scene (like a fight or chase), I don't allow passive verbs at all. Those are my personal rules, but they seem to work for me. I also do not pay much attention to passive/aggressive verbs in character dialogue, unless there is a certain feeling I wanted to create that was lost in using a passive verb. Otherwise, I let the characters talk the way they want.

Passive: Running across the sand, Tim felt like his lungs were going to explode.
Active: Tim sprinted across the sand, his lungs ready to explode.

Bulky Nouns
Often times a sentence becomes filled with too many nouns or long Latinate ones (end -tion, -ment, and -ence). Too many nouns can make a sentence boring or even hard to understand. Often times nouns used the wrong way, causes a writer to compensate with extra adjectives and pronouns that are not needed.

Bulky: During this blog post, I will provide information about wordy sentences and how to fix them, as there are many mistakes that can be made.
Simple: This blog post will provide information to fix common mistakes in sentence structure.

Overuse of Prepositional Phrases
Prepostionional phrases are easy to spot - just look for the preposition! For those that don't remember, a prepositional phrase is made of a preposition, its object and any assocated adjective or adverbs.

It is easy to over use prepostionial phrases when trying to describe something. However, the same detail or feelings can be shown without so many phrases in one sentence.

Too much: Writers can often fall into a trap where they have too many of these phrases in one sentence in a row. (4 phrases)
Better: Writers trap themselves when they have too many phrases in one sentence. (1 phrase)

Fixing the Problem
How can you catch these sorts of things in your own writing? It takes a certain mind set.

The first thing I do, is put my book down for a few days. When I return, I try to think of it as someone else's work - not mine. I'm much harder on others in a critique than I am on myself! Pretend it's not your story. (That is extremely hard to do, I know - but it works!)

Word has a great feature that I use to highlight the passive verbs. Then I choose a different color to highlight prepositions. I don't use this for nouns, I simply keep a close eye out when reading.

Instead of just reading the manuscript like I would a book I pulled from the shelf, I read it one sentence at a time. Sounds like normal reading right? Wrong! I mean that I read one sentence, then think about it. I ask myself "Can I make this sound better? Is there something here that shouldn't be (like too many nouns or phrases)? Is there something missing? If I answer no to all the questions, I read the second sentence and repeat the process.

It takes a long time to do it that way, but I find it is best to really catch the mistakes that are often hidden. Sometimes, I'll read out loud. Hearing the sentence aloud instead of just in my head, makes a huge difference in the way a sentence sounds. That can really help to find mistakes - especially if you know something is wrong, but you don't know what.

Of course, it never hurts to have someone else read your work too!

3 Responses to "Line by Line Editing: Part One: Long Sentences"

J. D. Brown Says :
February 28, 2010 at 9:53 PM

Oh I am SO going to use this when I'm done revising! Right now, my focus is on getting the scenes straight and makeing sure the details are consistent. Bu eventually that will be done and I go on to line by line edits. *dread*.

Harley D. Palmer Says :
February 28, 2010 at 11:42 PM

Yes indeedy - I am doing a series about line by line edits and what to look for so keep coming back to read more!!

Angelica Weatherby Says :
March 1, 2010 at 5:57 PM

Hmm... Maybe, not just for novels, I could use this advice for my English homework! Now... for the issues I have with writing a thesis statement... How can I overcome that? I failed on my essay- 80%. Issue: Weak thesis statement lead to weak essay map lead to weak organization of the essay. Oh I didn't do any proofreading either- but this just shows the exact problems my teacher may have had reading my essay!

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