Strip Your Sentences


Happy Sunday, my dear writer friends!


Before we dive in this week, I'd like to share that I've recently interviewed with the talented Sarah Nestler. You can read said interview on Sarah's Book Blog, where she talks to authors and editors as well as reviews books!


Without further ado, let's get started.

All he had wanted to do was to walk over to the local convenience store so that he could buy the power bar that he usually got.


Wow. That is a lot of words to describe a simple action. This week, I’m going to talk about stripping your sentences. We’ll deal today with word economy. As an adjective, economy is literally described as getting the best value for your money; in our case, we’re going to try and get the best value for our word count.


Before you dive into your WIP and start making changes, please remember that this part of the process can easily wait until you are done with your rough draft. It can even likely wait until after your beta read; during a copy edit, word economy is something your editor should help you with.


Even if you don’t hire a copy editor, however, there are many adjustments you can make yourself that will help improve your flow and trim the fat from your prose.


We’ll start by taking the sentence above and cutting out any word that isn’t necessary to preserve the overall meaning.


All he had wanted to do was to walk over to the local convenience store so that he could buy the power bar that he usually got.


One of my earliest blog posts here talked about cutting out “filler” words, like “had,” “that,” and directional words like “over.” By eliminating these, we get a shorter, cleaner sentence already.


All he wanted was to walk to the local convenience store so he could buy the power bar he usually got.


However, even after eliminating these words, we’re left with a lot of lengthy description. Let’s swap out some clunky phrasing and try to streamline.


All he wanted was to walk to the local convenience store so he could buy the power bar he usually got.


walk to = visit

so he could = and


All he wanted was to visit the local convenience store and buy the power bar he usually got.


To improve sentence flow, I’m going to change “the power bar he usually got” to “his usual power bar.”


All he wanted was to visit the local convenience store and buy his usual power bar.


Our original sentence is 27 words long. The revised sentence is 16. We have managed to cut 11 words from just this one sentence! That’s trimming a lot of fat, and we have streamlined the sentence so that the adjectives don’t feel like an afterthought.


A common problem I encounter in unfinished manuscripts is just that: afterthoughts. I often see information thrown on to the end of a sentence to explain where something came from, or why the character is doing something. Your story should be linear, of course, but fortunately you aren’t tied to sharing information in the order you remember it. I can always tell when an author realized they left out a vital detail and slaps it on to the end of a sentence.


It’s been a while since I’ve used an example from my own writing, so I’m going to use this small section from a very old work sitting in my archives.


Mr. Mills unlocked the classroom door with a set of keys hanging from his khaki’s belt loop. He opened it and held it for his students. Once everyone was seated, he began handing out little leaflets with what looked like a syllabus on them.


I’ve conveyed a lot of information in terms of what’s happening in the scene, but it mostly feels like I’m working to get to point B without really taking my reader on the journey with me. The keys hanging from Mr. Mills’s belt feel like an afterthought, as though I have described where they were only as I remembered that this is information my reader might want. Rather than tacking it on, I can move it to the beginning. This will help with my flow as well.


With a set of keys hanging from his belt loop, Mr. Mills opened the door and held it for his students. Once they were seated, he passed around a stack of syllabi.


I’ve gone from 44 words to 32 and eliminated the middle sentence entirely by blending it with the first. This is possible because I stripped down every part I didn’t need and found a way to merge the leftover pieces together. I established “the door” as the subject in the first sentence, so I don’t need to reestablish it in the next and can therefore blend the sentences together. I also don’t need to specify that the leaflets “looked like” a syllabus. It either is or it isn’t, and unless it’s relevant to the plot that it looked like something it didn’t turn out to be, I can outright state the nature of the paper.


One of the things I learned in my earliest creative writing course was to cut unnecessary words. This was quite opposite of what I’d always practiced for English assignment papers, as I was typically working to meet a word count goal. One of the first exercises my professor gave us was to write two pages of information and see if we could cut it down to just one. It was a huge struggle, of course, but when I managed to do it I was awed by just how much better and more impactful my writing sounded!


When you trim the fat from, or “strip,” your sentences, you wind up with a final product that is usually cleaner, more flowy, and easier to digest.


A lot of this falls back under the use of “bad words” or “filler words.” I know I’ve talked about this before, but I’d like to touch on it once more.


“Just,” “had,” “very,” “that,” etc. all have their place – but how often do you slap them into a sentence because you feel like that sentence needs something more? How many times do you utilize an adjective or adverb, when a different word should suffice? Instead of “whispered quietly,” you could simply use “whispered,” or “mumbled,” or “uttered,” whichever word eloquently conveys your precise meaning.


This week, I’d like you to look at about 1,000 words of your current WIP. See if, without losing any information, you can cut out 250 words. Find every sentence that has extra fluff or dangly bits and hack them off! Blend words and sentences together in a way that tightens your prose and directly delivers your meaning.


As always, thank you for reading today! Next week I’m going to talk about keeping your reader in the present. This is a topic I have touched on in the past, but I feel it needs its own post as well as in-depth explanations and examples, a la Meg Trast.


Beta Requests will be open for just one day tomorrow! If you would like to have your manuscript critiqued by one of these talented readers, please fill out the form and send in your manuscript to editor@overhaulmynovel.com.


Have a great rest of your weekend!


I’ve made some adjustments in my schedule, and I’m now in a position to take on several manuscripts, as well as to help with the editing process while you are still working toward completion of the first draft! Please feel free to email with questions or to send a quote request in from the website.


Steven Brust has announced his work on a writer’s conference project in Minneapolis, Minnesota! The event will be from July 12-14, and you can register at Narrativity.fun. Early registration ends on June 21st. I’ll be there with several copies of my book to sign and hand out, and I’d love to see you all there!


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