Part Three: Sentence
by Nann Dunne
A majority of writing experts stress the importance
of tight, concise sentences, where concise means more precise rather
than shorter. Delete flabby words and phrases to build clean
sentences that make a stronger impression on the reader, smooth the
progression of the story, and clarify the expression of ideas.
Granted, some readers enjoy ornate, artistically embellished
wording, but they are the minority. Today’s readers tend to be more
impatient; they want to get to the substance of the story without
wading through purple prose or being told how to interpret an action
that can be understood from the situation.
The overused adverb, a part of speech ripe for
deleting or changing, happens to be a favorite of many writers.
Adverbs are divided into several different groups, depending on
their use in the sentence. If you have a hankering to know the
different types, visit the web sites noted at the end of this
To simplify, adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or
other adverbs. They answer the questions when, where, or how and
often end in -ly. Though a -ly word sometimes nails
the situation so perfectly anything else would weaken the sentence,
writers need to take care in their use. They can be superfluous, and
when -ly words are bunched close together within a paragraph
or two, they muddy the writing.
Many -ly adverbs can be eliminated by
transferring their descriptive intent to a stronger verb. Let’s
revise a few examples to improve the strength of each
She read the letter, sobbing heavily. Change to:
As she read the letter, sobs wracked her body. (The original
sentence is structurally poor. Is she or the letter sobbing
heavily? If you try to fix it by putting "sobbing heavily" first,
it sounds like she cried even before reading. Rewording the
sentence solves the problem.)
2. The bells rang happily as the children entered
the church. Change to: Even the bells sounded happy as the
children entered the church. (I stuck "sounded" in so a human
could hear and be happy. Beware of attributing human responses to
inanimate objects—or animals—unless you’re writing a children’s
story, an allegory, or something just as lighthearted. Some
authors tend to have "thinking" pets, but unless it’s carried
throughout the story as a plot ploy, it’s considered amateurish.
And so is the jumping back and forth with point of view that
3. In just a little while now, he would walk
stoically to the gallows. Change to: Soon he would face the
gallows with his chin held high.
4. Traffic moved slowly. Change to: Traffic crawled. Or:
Traffic inched. (Both of these verbs are well-worn in this
situation. How about: Traffic stuttered along.)
misuse that tends to creep into the unsuspecting writer’s prose is
tacking on adverbs to tell the reader how to interpret or react to a
situation that is already clear. For example:
1. "Stay out!" Mary shouted furiously, angrily
throwing a vase toward the door.
Readers know she’s furious. Readers know she’s
angry. (Readers even know she shouted, but we’ll leave that in.)
So let’s rewrite to:
out!" Mary shouted and hurled a vase toward the
door. If the writer has set the scene properly, the reader knows
the rest without being led there by the hand. And if the
dialogue has been set up so the reader knows Mary is speaking, the
writer can leave out "shouted." Write: "Stay out!" A vase hurtled
toward the door.
2. Her eyes filled with tears. "Please don’t tell me
that," she begged emotionally.
Readers know she’s emotional.
Readers know she’s begging. Readers don’t need—or want—to be
inundated. Rewrite: Her eyes filled with tears. "Please don’t tell
3. He stomped noisily into the house.
stomp quietly? Delete! Write: He stomped into the
Get the idea? Maybe some readers like to have scenes
spelled out, interpreted, and spoon-fed to them. Most people are
more independent. They want to absorb the nuances of the story and
figure out things for themselves. That’s how they make it theirs.
When your editor "slashes and burns," understand she’s
urging you toward more professional writing. Be grateful, not
Other common adverbs that don’t end in -ly can be
just as bothersome. Words such as: now, that, just, in fact, soon,
also, too, even, etc., deserve a second look to decide how necessary
they are to the sense of the sentence. When the sentence sounds all
right without them, delete.
Slap down your initial choice of words on the first
draft, but work your brain as you revise. Doing away with
unnecessary adverbs can be a challenge to the writer as she
scrabbles for more active descriptions. But her writing will
improve, the publisher will welcome the professionalism, and the
reader will keep buying her books. Hopefully. (Hey, that’s an
-ly adverb, folks. But it adds a little pizzazz, don’t you
think? Sometimes an adverb hits the mark.)
To learn all about adverbs, go to http://webster.commnet.edu/grammar/ or http://ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/adverbs.htm; the
latter site thoroughly explains adverbs and adverbial phrases and
includes helpful quizzes.
2004, Nann Dunne
Excerpted from Nann Dunne's
(a work in
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