Friday, October 24, 2008

The Spice of Variety

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

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  1. Well done, Shelley.

    Looking at sentence structure and verbs should definitely be on an author's list of things to look for when editing.

  2. I amble into the room, plop myself down, and perch the peds on the edge of a beat-up old table. Chewing on my blood-red pencil, I think to myself, "Wow, that Shelley has some good writing tips!" Then I collapse in hysterics. Hey, why isn't anyone else laughing?


  3. Hey Shelley, I liked your post. Just out of curiousity, how would you best rewrite the Jennifer sentence? I'm curious how it would look all spiffed up... Maybe some of you other editors have an idea?

  4. Shelley, you're right about varying sentence structure. It gets dull having every sentence look the same.

    It's so easy to fix the problem. A quick glance through your manuscript will show right away if the sentence structure isn't changing.
    Morgan Mandel

  5. Emma. I'd ask the author to rewrite the Faulkneresque Jennifer sentence. But if she wanted a suggestion, here's mine.

    Lori looked stunning, so Jennifer grasped her well-toned shoulder and said, "You look fabulous, Lori."

    "Thanks. I've been lifting weights and swimming several miles in our new natatorium. Everyone in Minneapolis seems to be there."

    I'd love to see some other rewrites.

  6. Good points Shelly, and I'll take you up on the challenge. :-)

    Shelly's rewrite: Lori looked stunning, so Jennifer grasped her well-toned shoulder and said, "You look fabulous, Lori."

    "Thanks. I've been lifting weights and swimming several miles in our new natatorium. Everyone in Minneapolis seems to be there."

    I'd change the first paragraph to read: Jennifer walked across the room and grasped Lori's shoulder. "Muscles, girlfriend. I feel muscles. You look fabulous."

    That eliminates the first sentence which is more telling than showing.

  7. Great job, Maryann. Your first paragraph is a lot better than mine.

    It definitely shows rather than tells, and the dialogue is more natural and compelling. Love the use of "girlfriend."

    It's so much quicker and easier to tell rather than show, isn't it?

  8. Shelley,
    Excellent advice. Lack of variety in sentence structure is a common problem.

  9. EXCELLENT POST! I've been talking, ad nauseam, about sentence variety and verb usage with my freshman comp students lately.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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