Cut away the fat for leaner, stronger sentences.

As writers, we must make many choices during the writing process. We wear the hat of Editor just as often as that of Writer. The editing process forces us to make cuts, revisions, and rewrites in order to turn literary tripe into prose gold. Editing is the writer’s act as a gatekeeper, the solitary protector of the story.

Often, this process is repeated again and again, resulting in frustration, anxiety, and often suicidal deletions of entire stories. How do we avoid this? Simple: start small.

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“I move for no writer. I am the Verbose Knight.

More to the point, we can focus on a small part of the editing process. That small part is looking for key words that pinpoint weak writing. Call these words, Fat Words. We must begin chopping away at these villainous, verbal cads, and whittle the story down to its purest form. So, let’s get started.

Every writer knows (or should) they must avoid passive sentence construction in most cases. Certain key words can higlight these instances to you as you edit. Here they are, the words listed as the Writer FBIs most wanted: WAS, WERE, IS, ARE. “You mean, I can never use these words??” Of course not. But, more often than not, they will help you identify when a sentences construction can be strengthened. These words are different forms of the verb, “is,” or “to be,” in a sense.

Here is an example:

Beyond the doorway, there were countless figures moving in the blackness. 

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“That? I don’t need that. Come on, ye dodgy little bastard!”

Do you see it? Notice as well, these words often have an accomplice: THERE. “There was,” “There were,” and so on. Typically, if you are using there in a sense other than to indicate a location, as in “the dog lay over there,” then the sentence can be strengthened.

So, the sentence example should read this way:

Beyond the doorway, countless figures moved in the blackness.

Much better! We got rid of the “there were,” and changed “moving” from its gerund form to a stronger verb form in the past tense. Already, this simple sentence has been improved.

This doesn’t mean you will never use this type of construction. In some instances, it will be the best choice, and possibly (though I am not positive of this) unavoidable.

Here is a passage from Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys:

The house WAS much to large for the Gaskells, who, like Emily and me, never had children, and it WAS filled from crawl space to attic with the inventory of Walter Gaskell’s collection of baseball memorabilia, so that even on those rare occasions when I went over to see Sara and we had the place to ourselves, we WERE never alone: the grand, dark spaces of the house WERE haunted by the presence of her husband and by the fainter ghosts of dead ballplayers and tycoons. 

Now, Mr. Chabon, has won several awards, such as the PEN award and the Pulitzer, so I think we can safely say he knows what he is doing. This is a long sentence, which effects how it can be constructed so as to ensure readability. If we tried to reconstruct this, it would completely change the esthetic and readability. I tried working it a few different ways, and I was unhappy with each of them. So, in this case, Mr. Chabon has carefully balanced the use of these words with the effectiveness of his prose.

"What? Is that all you've got?"

“What? Is that all you’ve got?”

Here are some more examples to give you an idea of how these words make sentences weaker, and to give  you some practice at spotting them and their solutions.

1. He turned and looked to the ground and saw there were two dogs fighting over a rawhide bone.

2. He turned and looked to the ground. Two dogs fought over a rawhide bone, pulling at it, and growling. 

1. When he pulled the trigger, there was a loud bang, and the man’s face was reduced to hamburger. 

2. He pulled the trigger. He flinched from the sound of the gun’s report, and in the same instant, the man’s head disappeared in a pink mist. 

1. For a moment, he was unsure where he was. 

2. He looked at his surroundings, confused and lost. 

These are just some examples of how you can cut your sentences, or entire passages down to size to avoid weak sentence construction. But, again, there are instances where you may decide these words must be used, either esthetically, for readability, or just because it is more efficient. These are all factors you must consider. When you’re finished, you will be left with a shiny new piece of writing you can be proud of!

"Look at me! I'm so lean and shiny!"

“Look at me! I’m so lean and shiny!”

Until next time (however long that may be), keep writing.

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6 thoughts on “Cut away the fat for leaner, stronger sentences.

  1. Cool. I’m sure I have problems with passive voice. I’ve been given tips by over the years, but I think some of these things are just bad habits I’ve picked up over time and just don’t see them anymore. Strunk and White doesn’t help. It just confuses me. What I really need is a grammar refresher course! Thanks for the post!

    • I am completely with you on that. I just finished my Bachelor’s in English and Creative Writing, and I STILL feel lost most of the time when tackling a grammar/writing style issue. I always search the internet to see how others have done it.

      It is a lot of information to take in. And, I certainly agree with the bad habits. I posted this because I have the tendency to write in a passive style. This is because I experience my stories visually in my head first, then report them onto paper, so I end up with a lot of “there was,” “there are,” “there is,” sort of constructions.

      Thanks for reading!

    • Every rough draft I have is filled with them. Unfortunately, that is just how my mind writes. It gets very frustrating, but that is our lot!

      Thanks for reading!

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