I style-edit a lot of novels. Whether dealing with a romance, mystery, sci fi, or literary work, I check the same basic elements. Sentence structure and verbs are two of the most important.
If all the sentences in a paragraph begin the same way, the writer needs to mix things up. Nothing puts a reader to sleep faster than a paragraph in which sentences start with nothing but “Jennifer saw,” “Jennifer walked,” and “Jennifer ran.”
But a series of sentences that begin with gerunds or other constructions distracts even more completely. For example, “Seeing Lori across the room, Jennifer thought she looked stunning. Walking over to Lori, Jennifer put her hand on her shoulder. Running her eyes up and down Lori’s well-toned body, Jennifer envied her.”
Sentence openings are important, but writers also need to vary the type of sentences they use. Novels made up primarily of simple sentences, a la Hemingway, often come across as too choppy, rough, and abrupt.
Example: “Jennifer saw Lori across the room, and she looked stunning. Jennifer walked over to Lori and put her hand on her shoulder. Then Jennifer ran her eyes up and down Lori’s well-toned body.” Dick and Jane and Spot and Puff.
Conversely, novels that contain mostly long, complex sentences are often difficult to read and comprehend. Think Faulkner.
Example: “When Jennifer saw Lori, who looked stunning, across the room, she walked over to her and put her hand on her shoulder, running her eyes up and down Lori’s well-toned body, probably the result of a daily visit to the gym, where she obviously lifted weights and swam several miles in the new natatorium that had opened just last year, to the delight of the citizens of Minneapolis.”
A string of such sentences can discourage even the most dedicated reader.
The key word in most sentences is the verb, so I check to make sure each one is effective. Is it strong and does it precisely convey the intended action as well as the emotion that the action should express?
Weak verbs: “Cindy moved across the room. Cindy made her way across the room.”
Stronger verb: “Cindy walked across the room.” (Rather neutral)
Strong verbs: “Cindy glided. Cindy stomped. Cindy strode. Cindy wandered.”
Of course, a book with all strong verbs can tire the reader, but a book with too many weak verbs can confuse the reader and lull her into a deep sleep. Variety is a writer’s most useful spice.
About ninety percent of the verbs in a novel should be active ones, because they are clearer, shorter, and punchier. “Cindy walked into the room” definitely beats “The room was walked into by Cindy.”
Passive verbs such as the preceding are vague, long, and weak. They can be useful at times, but only if the writer knows how to handle them.
When writers examine the type of sentences and verbs they use, they can usually understand and strengthen their writing style.
Shelley is a native Texan who writes, teaches, and edits--not necessarily in that order. Other than recently dodging hurricanes, she enjoys retirement and posts a poem weekly at myspace.com/editlit.