Sentence tightening

RICK’S SENTENCE TIGHTENING TRICKS FOR AUTHORS (THAT NO ONE ASKED FOR)

What do I really know about writing? Only thing for sure, it’s been my primary means of earning a living for years and getting paid to write ain’t easy. So maybe I know something?

Over the years, I’ve listened to a lot of critiques that immediately got into plot, tropes, etc. and thought “hold the phone! An editor will notice those sloppy sentences before you get a chance!” These aren’t hard rules, simply one person’s opinion after years of misc. copywriting, being a writer/editor at a national daily newspaper chain, paid writing for social media, business writing etc. I use ‘em daily and haven’t starved yet.

On this page, I do break a few of these rules, sometimes on by accident, sometimes because there’s places where you should break them.

First my personal philosophies:

Sentences are the tools of our trade. Your great plot, world-building and cool characters won’t mean jack-squat to some (not all) submissions editors if they see too many clunky sentences or bad grammar usage.


The first thing the editor might notice is lousy sentence construction and flawed writing that no one is going to want to take time to fix, no matter how brilliant plot, how cool the characters are.

The only reason a fiction reader should read a sentence twice is if they just loved the line and the way it read. Or because they go “Holy sh**!, did that really just happen?”


Not because they need to. Make sure they are clear on the information contained.


A truly great book often contains sentences that are a sheer pleasure to read out of context. This is one of the false dichotomies I often experience as I navigate between the literary set and speculative fiction writers. One accuses the other of weak writing, and the retort is “too much flowery prose, not enough story” and both may be wrong or right, depending. You can have beautifully written sentences, long and ornate, or short and terse that accomplish both.

When I’m an editor, this is stuff that leaps out at me and, right or wrong, it influences whether I will hire you or select your fiction for publication.

Apologies for ham-fisted, hasty examples: I intend to populate this with examples from recognized fiction
in the future.

BASIC PERSONAL RULES:

Every sentence can be cut down

Hack ‘em ’til they don’t work, and then start putting stuff back. Avoid wordiness.

This link covers a lot, including other stuff below: https://moodle.rmc.ca/dcs/DCE080/Content/ModulePages/Module_07_Eliminate_Wordiness.htm

Eliminate passive language

It just generally weakens writing. Passive voice is generally described as using the “to be” — “will be” — “was done” bits. Common advice is to look for two verbs stuck together. People who don’t write a lot often tend to cling to it because it sounds more grandiose and therefore “smarter” but it’s just plain inefficient writing.

NOT: The sports of hockey, curling and ice skating are loved by Canadians in particular.

INSTEAD: Canadians particularly love hockey, curling and ice skating.

NOT: The blog was written by Janelle.

INSTEAD: Janelle wrote the blog.

Here’s a good web link on the topic: https://menwithpens.ca/passive-voice/

Every sentence should do double duty

Make those lazy bastards work for you! Every sentence—an aspirational goal of course—should advance plot, character, backstory etc. and there are inevitably countless opportunities do it more than one in any piece of fiction.

“A handgun sat on the mantle and, like everything in Victoria’s grimy house, lie coated in several months worth of dust.”

—plot, character of Victoria, and character of the protagonist too

Nothing ever “is” or “was.”

Look for a better verb whenever you can.

NOT: She was skinny and her dress was yellow.

INSTEAD: A yellow dress draped her skinny frame.

BUT: His eyes were sweeping the yard — “were,” or “was” can give a sense of mid-motion as opposed to the general past-tense —His eyes swept the yard. It’s a tricky judgement call.

Never repeat a word

Aspirational as opposed to realistic.

It sets off an echo in your head, just seems ungainly when read aloud (more about that later) and can shift the subject of the sentence—at least as interpreted by the reader—to the word itself.

From a former (miserable) government da- job: “The municipal government is currently opposing the location of offsite gas-fired generation assets to the east of the town, as offsite gas-fired generation assets in the region only constitute 30 per cent of offsite gas-fired generation assets in the province, each of which differs greatly in greenhouse gas emissions from offsite gas-fired generation assets located elsewhere in the province.”

Asked what that sentence was about, the average reader told me “offsite gas-fired generation assets,” but the only point the author wanted to make was that the town was opposing its location, and why.

From wordiness link below:

NOT: In trauma victims, breathing is restored by artificial respiration. Techniques of artificial respiration include mouth to-mouth respiration and mouth-to-nose respiration.

INSTEAD: In trauma victims, breathing is restored by artificial respiration, either by mouth-to-mouth or mouth-to-nose.

Don’t just focus on words alone—overall, your goal is a pleasurable reading experience and keeping the reader from thinking “I’ve heard that one too many times” will help you get there. For me personally, a good example is Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon series. LOVE IT! But (never mind the egregiously long sex scenes) I got sick of the term “envoy conditioning” on every second page.

PRO: https://prowritingaid.com/grammar/1000128/Why-should-you avoid-repeating-words-in-a-sentence-

CON: https://www.proofreadnow.com/blog/bid/82322/Myth-Don-t-Repeat-Words-Use-Synonyms-Instead

Search (control F) “of” and “that”

Watch for “for” and “from” too but I can’t think of a good example right now.

Okay, taking this literally after writing an 80,000 word novel might be an excessive time-suck. But when tightening sentences and getting word counts down to what submission guidelines are asking you for, every bit helps.

NOT: The hockey fans of Calgary

INSTEAD: Calgary’s hockey fans (free bonus—you sometimes also get to ditch boring space-sucking words like “the”)

NOT: John said that it was Jane’s birthday.

INSTEAD: John said it was Jane’s birthday

PROS & CONS: https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/when-to-delete-that

Embrace shorter sentences

This drifts into the realm of personal style and should be adjusted to what’s right for you.

Me, I love Hemingway, despite the passages that make a modern person living in today’s society cringe. And I love Raymond Chandler so this rule suits my noir-sensibilities well.

A good example of a long sentence style to the extreme is Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings—which I quite liked—and The Committed by Viet Thang Nguyen, sequel to The Sympathizer, both of which I LOVED. Brilliantly written stories revolving around violent crime, which I love. The first has sentences that run over multiple pages long, and the latter, several paragraphs. I find it annoying as hell.

But James won the Man Booker prize for that novel, and Nguyen won the Pulitzer for fiction. If that’s being wrong, you may want to rethink being “right.”

NONETHELESS: Studies show that sentences nine words or less give you almost 100 per cent information retention. At 15 words, you still get 95 per cent. At 45 words—about two and half lines, quite common, you drop to about five per cent.

ALSO: Short tight sentences are good for action. Then when you want to slow things down, it’s easy enough just to put a longer sentence in. You know that scene in the movies where everything is in slow motion after the explosion and the audio track is just the protagonist’s ears ringing? This technique allows you to capture that because you need to be inward, character-focussed in literature as opposed to outward focussed with the camera shots in movies. You often start with a wide shot in movies, in fiction, you often begin with character’s POV.

Contrasting short vs. long gives you great control of pacing and story flow.

TECHNIQUES: Places where you see the word “and” or “but” are good places to put a period. Commas too, especially if your style allows for starting sentences with “but” or “and.”

Consider sentence fragments. Better if you use a less flowing poetic style, and a bit more “Hemingway.” But useable by anyone. Particularly good for making a reader feel like they are in the character’s head since we don’t actually think in complete sentences. Great for action scenes. 

BASIC TRICKS

Avoid word ambiguity

This often shows up in verb choice. My personal rule is that you shouldn’t have to see the word or clause after a verb to know which meaning the verb implies. I change the verb if I see that. In dialogue, how real people speak, I let this and a lot of these other rules slide if need be.

NOT: It could get hot.

INSTEAD: It could become hot

I find “get” to be one of the most common examples of this problem

Watch for directional redundancy

Rose up
Fell down
Jumped up (depending)

Kill your adverbs

Walked quickly – ran, jogged, skipped…

This where the practice “show, don’t tell” kicks in.

NOT: Why don’t you come over here and sit by me? she asked flirtatiously.

INSTEAD: Why don’t you come over here and sit by me?” she asked, batting her eyelashes.

NOT: I hate writers,” he said angrily.

INSTEAD: His eyebrows furrowed and he thumped his fist on the table. “I hate writers.”

Here’s a link on killing adverbs: https://www.writingforward.com/writing-tips/avoid-adverbs

Eliminate dialogue tags

Don’t be afraid of them—done correctly phrases like “she said’ are all but invisible to the reader. But you can cut a ton of them and provide more info to the reader at the same time.

NOT: “MMMMM, pork chops,” said Bill, licking his lips.

INSTEAD: Bill licked his lips. “MMMMM, porkchops.”

It also helps add beats where you need them.

NOT: “I’ll let you know tomorrow,” said Cynthia.

INSTEAD: Cynthia drained her cup and set it down. She looked up at Rachelle. “I’ll let you know
tomorrow.”

Avoid words ending with “-ing.” Especially multiple usage

It sets up a bell ringing in your skull, just kind of off-putting. They also show up in conjunction with passive language, and get used weakly as a subject/noun. Lots of complex reasons like gerund rules (see links). I find it easiest to just blanket-policy avoid them.

Doesn’t mean you can’t use a word like sibling—exercise judgement.

Check these links on “-ing “words:
https://www.geist.com/writers/writers-toolbox/gerunds-and-participles-avoid-ing-words/
http://theeditorsblog.net/2015/04/08/writing-advice-what-about-ing-words-part-four/

Avoid filter words

These are verbs that increase the “narrative distance “ and remind us we’re being told a story rather than living it through the character. Words such as “noticed” or “felt.”

NOT: He saw a car racing up the street. She felt like the whole day had been a complete waste.

INSTEAD: A car raced up the street. This whole day had been a complete waste. (Judgement call on the passive language in that last example.)

BUT: Sometimes the action of perceiving is what’s important. You might want to know that he’s looking out the window, so if he sees a car moving—instead of the car just being described as moving that’s OK.

Here’s a link with more on that:
https://www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com/blog/filter-words-in-fiction-purposeful-inclusion-and-
dramatic-restriction

Watch for the attribution of motion and intent, subject/verb confusion 

There’s probably a name for this, hell if I know what it is.

NOT: The dog brushed her bicycle and it fell over. Did the dog fall over, or the bike?

INSTEAD: The dog brushed her bicycle, knocking it over.

Watch for subtle mixed metaphors/similes and incorrect pairings

Make sure the verb matches the action the subject of the metaphor might take. (For example: comparing a linebacker to a bulldozer driving up the field, not floating up the field )

Stolen from the link below:

NOT: Milking the temp workers for all they were worth, the manager barked orders at them

Watch for things like: Somewhere in my day, I lost sight of what my mission was—when you mean sometime

More on mixed metaphors from these knowledgeable people:
https://www.bloomsburycollections.com/book/mixed-metaphors-their-use-and-abuse/ch1-perfect-mix-
or-perfect-mess?from=search

Avoid “suddenly,” “unexpectedly,” “then she…”

Most of the time, just make it happen.

Learn to weave short, descriptions into your prose

Sneak a quick adjective in to the sentence when you can. If the protag grabs a cup, make it a blue cup (exercise judgement). If she exclaims something wearily, have her lean against the paint-chipped wall before she speaks. Etc…

You may have a bit longer sentence, but these add up in time and eliminate the need for lengthy descriptive passages that can slow pacing.

Old writer’s saying: Never say a table is made of wood when you can say it’s made out of oak.

OKAY: Jim found her in the sewing room. She held a folded piece of cloth in her hand.

BETTER: Jim found her in the sewing room. She held a folded piece of silk in her hand.

EVEN BETTER: Jim found her rummaging through the bolts of fabric that were inevitably strewn across
the sewing room floor. She held a folded piece of silk in her hand.

Make your characters react

Generally fiction instructors cite this as a good way into the interiority of your character—it makes them more real, puts you in their head. But also draws immediately upon other rules here, the above oak/wood rule, dialogue tags, especially making sentences do double duty and, when used consistently through a piece, cuts the need for info dumps and lengthy descriptions.

We start with a ham-fisted example I just made now, a woman entering a restaurant:

Another burnt pork chop. Served on the same chipped plate as yesterday, cooked in a kitchen that hadn’t seen a mop or any cook who’d lower himself to wear a hair net in ten years. She looked at the faded Budweiser poster beside the front window. Outside, she saw Amos descending the rickety wooden stairs of the post office. The dithering old farts on the town council still hadn’t fixed the sign which had read “P_ST OFFICE for over a year now. Amos stepped across the pothole in the center of the crosswalk, clutching an envelope. Probably a welfare check, soon to be converted into booze at Percy’s Tavern, soon to be converted into rage in the vicinity of his wife. Jesus, this town.

Screw it. Screw the rusty street lamps, screw the pervasive stink of the textile mill, screw this shitty strip mall—definitely screw that bitch Jane and her overpriced pet store next door—screw it all. By this time next week, the population of Gopher Bluff would only be 1103.

You could just describe her meal, observations in third person. But the above way, in my opinion, gives you so much more and doesn’t feel like an info dump. You get a sense of character as a free bonus with the world-building.

Lay vs. lie, that vs. which

I still get this wrong sometimes.

LAY: I was told to lay the book down. I laid it down as I have laid other books down. I am laying more books down now.

LIE: I was told to lie down. I lay down. I have lain here since. I’m still lying here.

Visit an expert on this:
https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/how-to-use-lay-and-lie

That is for defining clauses, that impact the meaning of the sentence. Which is for “disposable clauses.”

He burned down the house that was painted white. (there is more than one house on the block)

He burned down the house which was painted white. (the sentence conveys same important info without knowing colour and possibly there’s just one house).

Here’s a link:

https://www.grammarly.com/blog/which-vs-that/gclid=Cj0KCQjw5oiMBhDtARIsAJi0qk1dhE5Rb0PnBpRXmpJgrHLjPEs_B5n85xnrVfu73ZgXM5M6pSrB1mwaAt9TEAw_wcB&gclsrc=aw.ds

Avoid confusion with careful name attribution

I try to use names sparingly but it can be a big help.

He stared at him as he walked away. Who stared at who? Your preceding sentences can establish that, but when in doubt:

Bill and Jacob just finished arguing:

Bill stared at him as he walked away.

He stared at Jacob as he walked away. (Admittedly, we don’t know for sure who is walking in this lone sentence)

He stared as Jacob walked away.

Handy Tips

  • Subscribe to the Grammar Girl podcast: Grammar Girl :: Quick and Dirty Tips ™
  • Do use a thesaurus — just exercise good judgment
  • “Action is character.” — Tom De Falco
  • “Character is story.” — John Vigna
  • The above two work hand in hand with the double duty and dialogue tag rules.
  • Read it aloud or have the Microsoft robot voice do it. All humans vocalize when they speak. If it sounds clunky it is clunky.  
  • Step  up your vocabulary. There’s a sweet spot with words that normal people don’t use every day that still don’t read “strange” to them. People buy into the idea that writers are a little more grammatically diverse than they are. The meaning of a word a person doesn’t hear very often can still be clear through the context of the sentence and the paragraph. 

Questions? Opinions? Contact me. But be nice please?