Tips from an editor #2: Vary sentence structure

Hello! I’m an editor. I work on all sorts texts, from novels to essays to academic textbooks. In this series, I will show you the most common problems I encounter, so you can avoid making the same mistakes in your own writing.

In any piece of fiction, style and story must work together. It’s no good writing beautifully stylish sentences if they don’t tell a story, and it’s no good telling a story if you do it in a boring, repetitive way.

Sometimes when I’m editing, I come across a writer who favours a particular sentence structure. They will write almost every sentence in the same way, and while the content of the sentence might be extremely interesting, reading the same style over and over again can be off-putting. Let me show you a structure I see all the time:

“x-ing the object, the character x-ed”

That looks a bit confusing because I’ve used general terms. I’ll fill them in with some examples:

“Picking up the key, he unlocked the door.”

“Looking at him, she smiled.”

“Running his hands through his hair, he leaned back.”

Notice how each sentence is divided into two parts. In the first part we get an ‘-ing’ verb and in the second part we get an ‘-ed’ verb. Now, this is a perfectly valid sentence structure; the problem arises when every sentence is written like this. For example:

“Looking around the room, he knew he had to get out. Picking up the key, he unlocked the door. Glancing into the corridor, he stepped outside. Hearing something in the distance, he broke into a run.”

The story might be exciting, but that repetitive sentence structure is not making it fun to read.

Image result for boring gif

This kind of trap is easy to fall into: sometimes you’re so interested in telling your story that you stop thinking about how you’re telling it. And that’s OK, but once you’ve finished your draft and the story is nailed down, sentence structure is the kind of thing you should go back and change.

I’ll leave you with this excellent quote by Gary Provost, which demonstrates varied sentence structure (and length) in action:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals – sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

Do you need a professional editor to polish your writing for you? Contact me to find out how I can help.

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