Have you ever read your work and thought to yourself: This isn’t right? This reads terribly. The flow’s off and the sentences are bulky.
Well, there is a solution. Now, before you beat yourself up about having so many bulky sentences—let me tell you; all of us do it. Every writer on the planet writes terrible sentences.
I’m going to help you learn to spot a few of the most common errors that cause the dreaded clunky/bulky sentences and awkward phrasing.
A common habit I run into and must often correct/quell in many manuscripts is this: they make their points in the most wordy, clunky, roundabout way imaginable. This is something every writer needs to learn to avoid, and some word processors will help you—on occasion, to spot where you’ve done this.
Ever seen (in Microsoft Word) those little dots beneath a phrase that sort of resemble ellipses except the ellipses aren’t ellipses at all because the dots underline the length of an entire phrase? Those are there for a reason. That is Word trying to tell you, “Hey, asshole. Have you thought about condensing this long-winded sentence? Hover over me—I’ve got suggestions for you”. What you would do is then right-click over the dotted phrase and see what grand suggestions Word has for fixing the issue.
A word of caution (lol, get it? Word of caution while I’m writing about the Word program? I’m so funny): Word and Grammarly do not always get their flagging right. So if Word or Grammarly flags a phrase or a word, if you are positive the program is wrong—look it up online to confirm, then leave your statement alone.
I’ve already covered authors who choose to be ostentatious and show off their vast vocabulary, and I’ve also lightly touched on this topic in my grammar errors posts, so this post sort of ties into those, except this post is more centered around this idea:
“Cut every unneeded word.”
I discovered this quote many, many years ago when I was writing my first novel. I found the quote in Strunk and Whites’ The Elements of Style, which is a very easy, very helpful guide on writing well. Every writer should own this book. You can buy the paperback on Amazon for a whopping seven dollars, and it’s the best seven dollars you will ever spend if you are genuinely interested in improving your skills. Go buy it. Now.
Here are a few examples of redundant phrases you may not recognize yourself using:
1. It was a little bit cold outside.
You may not see anything wrong with this at first glance. Let me show you how I would fix it, and that might help you to spot the problem:
It was a little bit cold outside.
Here, I’ve suggested the writer remove ‘bit’ to help clean the sentence up. The word “little” and the word “bit” are so similar that using both adds nothing to the sentence. But, that’s not the best way to conserve words. Let’s try to make the statement even more concise:
It was a cold day.
There! Now that describes everything the first sentence does, removes the excessive word, and reduces the word count! Look at that!
These next few examples really chap my ass for some reason. They make me want to hurl my computer across the room. Here’s a comprehensive list of actual phrases I have read (and yes, likely written back in the day) and that are problematic for obvious reasons.
1. I nodded my head.
2. I squinted my eyes.
3. I shrugged my shoulders.
Here is how I would fix each of them:
1. I nodded.
2. I squinted.
3. I shrugged.
I’m sure most of you understand why I’ve suggested these cuts, but for those of you who may make these errors and see nothing wrong with them, I’ll quickly explain:
1. What else does a person “nod”?
2. What else does a person “squint”?
3. What else does a person “shrug”?
My point is that if you simply write I nodded, most readers are going to catch your drift immediately. Same with I squinted, and I shrugged. To add the body part into the mix is redundant for the purposes I’ve outlined here. If you find yourself writing such phrases—stop. Or go back through your manuscript and pick them out. Especially try to do all of this before you send this to your content editor, or your copy editor, and definitely before you send it to your proofreader.
Note: there are absolutely exceptions where such language is acceptable, especially if the voice of the narrator requires over-explanation, but to do that well, you must be a talented writer.
Oh, there’s more! When you edit fiction (and non-fiction, to be fair), you’re going to see all kinds of crazy shit that might make you want to tear your hair out. Personally, I love it. Especially these small errors I’m discussing in my blog. These are so easy to fix, that I usually only need to point out a few instances to the author and they will be able to spot other instances while they revise. Though I do try to edit all of them for the author. I don’t know how many other editors operate, but as a substantive editor, I feel I should be providing edits that are, well, substantive.
Let’s talk about gerunds!
I hate gerunds. I hate them passionately. Now, many publishers are fine with the use of gerunds these days, and I’m trying to ignore the ones that function within a manuscript. But oftentimes authors will use them excessively or incorrectly. Here is yet another list of redundancies via gerund usage:
1. I was running across the street.
2. She was eating her sandwich
3. Harold was packing the box.
So, as you can see, this is very common when the manuscript is written in the past-tense. I’ve seen in in the present tense as well, but past-tense is the most frequent offender. Here is how I would edit these to conserve word usage, and clean the sentences up:
1. I ran across the street.
2. She ate her sandwich.
3. Harold packed the box.
As you can see, in most cases, simply recalling the past-tense form of the verb can save your ass from a clunky sentence. Sure, Forrest Gump was running but he had an excuse for they way he abused the English language that you likely don’t have. Taking out the ‘was’ is necessary. You’re doing yourself a few favors by finding and eradicating similar instances: you’re saying bye-bye to the gerund, you’re conserving words, and you’re also giving your sentences a more “active” feel to them.
Yet another example that may pertain only to me and my personal issues (I am easily annoyed, and I nitpick like crazy) would be this:
1. I sat down next to Clara.
2. I stood up to meet her eyes.
3. I ran away from the officer.
Now you’re probably wondering what could possibly be wrong with these, right? Well, here’s what I would suggest:
1. I sat next to Clara. (If you’re sitting, chances are your ass isn’t magically floating upward, so yeah, the “down” would be implied.)
2. I stood to meet her eyes. (Well what do you know? Same here. Usually when you’re standing, the “up” is implied so you don’t need it in your writing).
3. I ran from the officer. (I don’t know, I’ll be honest: “away from” just rubs me the wrong way when you can accomplish the same meaning by taking the “away” out of the picture.)
In those instances, there’s always something that’s already implicit, so you wouldn’t need to add the extra words. As I said, this could just be me. But I’ve not yet had many disagree with my outrage over such phrasing.
Here’s a list of phrases I often see worded excessively, and how I would edit them:
1. They both looked at each other.
They looked at each other
2. I’ve never seen that glove before in my life.
I’ve never seen that glove. (Alternatively: I haven’t seen that glove before).
3. She was pretty angry
She was angry.
4. The carnival was actually very fun.
The carnival was fun!
5. The cat slowly stalked the mouse.
The cat stalked the mouse.
So, those are a few random examples for you. If you’ve never seen something, you probably don’t have to add “before” or “in my life” because the fact that you’ve “never” seen it, well, “never” means “not a single time, ever”, so anything after “never” becomes excessive.
#3 and #4 contain qualifiers. I hate qualifies. Take the qualifiers out of your sentences. How do they read? Has the meaning changed? If not, take them out and leave them out. I do understand that in some MG or even YA novels, the MC’s voice requires that they use qualifiers occasionally. That’s not what I’m talking about. There are always exceptions to every rule.
#5 contains an adverb. As a general rule, I advise most authors to just not use adverbs. If the cat is “stalking” the mouse, “stalking” means that his actions are slow and deliberate, so the adverb doesn’t modify the verb in this instance. Cut it. Now, let’s try this:
The cat warily stalked the rattlesnake.
That usage of adverbs is A-OK in my book because ‘warily’ modifies “stalked”. The reader should probably know that the cat wasn’t fearless and was being cautious due the fact that, well, it’s trying to get one-up on a fucking rattlesnake. It sure makes me feel better to know the cat’s wary of the damn thing.
So, what this post boils down to is: there are so many ways for you to conserve words. I’ve also read the advice: “Never use five words where two will suffice”, which is fantastic. I love that advice and I give it each of my clients. If you keep some of these in mind while you’re writing your manuscript, I promise it will read smoother than it would had you littered your book with them.
That’s all I’ve got for now, but I’m sure I’ll be back with a second post on this topic. I have a tendency to enjoy my complaints. Whoops! I meant: I love to complain.
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