Jul 22 2006
1) Try not to begin sentences with the words there, it, so, and then.
A. There and it create passive sentences. For example, “there are only three cities with many supervillains” can be rewritten as “only three cities have many supervillains.”
B. So usually connects an action awkwardly to a previous statement, like “I hate Italian food, so I’m not a fan of lasagna.” Phrases that begin with so are often obvious and unneeded.
C. Then is problematic when it indicates that a string of actions is continuing. “I went to the door and then I knocked.” Usually, then suggests that the action is individually insignificant. Sentences with then frequently feel like laundry lists of actions that don’t need to be spelled out. “I hit the up button. Then the elevator came. Then I stepped inside and got out on the ninth floor” could be revised to “I took the elevator to the ninth floor.” Unless something interesting happens on the elevator, there’s no reason to draw it out.
2) Passive voice lacks punch and verve. Is passive voice in your piece? Does your piece use passive voice?
3) Have you weeded out unnecessary and unproductive sentences and phrases? Writers don’t stumble upon coherent, compact stories any more than a sculptor accidentally turns a stone into a face. Good writing relies on editing and deletion as much as creation/addition. If a scene, chapter or character adds little to the work as a whole, you’ve got to have the guts to remove or revise it.
A. One common objection is “but I’ve already got 60,000 words! If I cut anything, I won’t have a manuscript long enough to submit.” OK, but if you don’t cut anything, you probably won’t have a manuscript good enough to get accepted anywhere. Wise editing and deletion will increase the publishability of the whole.
B. How does one edit wisely? Well, here are some suggestions. List your chapters and then write a 1-2 sentence synopsis of your book’s plot. Which chapters are tangential to your synopsis? For example, Harry Potter’s Quidditch scenes are useful and enjoyable, but not really related to the main plot. Compared to the rest of the book, how long are your tangential chapters? As a rule, tangents shouldn’t make up more than 10-15% of the book.
C. Deleting scenes and chapters can be emotionally hard. Instead of deleting them, try cutting and pasting them into a separate file. In a few days, if you feel that you really need that scene, then you can retrieve it.
D) Talk to your reviewers. Ask them to nominate scenes that could be reduced. Did they ever use phrases like “this dragged on”?
4) There are many stylistic tics that may cause readers to stumble. Get out a set of markers and print out a copy of your work. Circle each of the following tics in a different color.
A) Modifiers (a lot, almost, very, extremely, roughly, approximately, quite, nearly, a bit, etc.)
B) Sentences that begin with nouns
C) Words that have 5+ syllables
D) Sentences that have 15+ words
E) Sentences that have 4+ commas and/or semi-colons
F) Sentences that have 3+ clauses
G) Lines of dialogue that are not attributed to a speaker
H) Capitalized words that are not the first word of the sentence. (Why might this be problematic? According to the article “Revision Checklist” by B. Mac and Jacob Mallow, 9 out of 10 members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors of America agree that Over-Capitalization Syndrome can be visually disorientating).
I) Fragmented or grammatically incorrect sentences.
J) Paragraphs with 150+ words
K) Italicized words
It’s not a problem that you will have many circles on your page for some of these categories. There’s nothing wrong with an occasional long sentence, for example. But when each page has 10-15 long sentences, that might rub readers the wrong way. Circling each of these items helps you get in the reader’s mindset.