Friday, December 4, 2009

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Fine-Tuning Sentence Structure

During this part of the self-editing process you will look at the structure of your individual sentences and then compare that structure to the surrounding paragraphs and pages. The purpose of this exercise is to:

1. Look for sentences which are too long.

Bad: The day I walked down the hill from my apartment to the town center was the day I began my adventure in Tourettes-sur-Loup, a village in the South of France which is famous for its spring festival of violets and perches on the edge of a cliff as though hanging on for its very life.

Better: The day I walked down the hill from my apartment to the town center was the day I began my adventure in the South of France. I was in Tourettes-sur-Loup, a village famous for its spring festival of violets. It perches on the edge of a cliff as though hanging on for its very life.

2. Find awkward sentences that might require a second reading to be clear. This may require correctly punctuating the sentence, or the sentence may need to be rewritten.

Bad: I rounded the corner and bumped into the old woman on my bicycle.

What I meant to say: I rounded the corner on my bicycle and bumped into the old woman.

3. Spot series of sentences with the same or similar structure within a paragraph or on the same page.

Look at the subjects of the sentences in each paragraph. Then check out the subject/verb/object set. Vary sentence structure wherever appropriate.

One good sentence containing a series of three might be very effective. Seven or eight sentences containing a series of three, all on the same page, might be noticed by the reader and be a distraction that pulls him out of the story.

Example: I walked into the coffee shop, ordered a cappuccino, and carried it to my car. I sat for a moment, sipped my coffee, and watched a man cross the parking lot. I started the engine, rolled down my window, and turned on the radio.

4. Look at fragments and determine if complete sentences would be better.

Fragments are often used in dialogue or for emphasis in narrative (especially when writing in first person). Too many fragments in narrative, however, may signal to an agent or editor that a writer does not know a fragment from a complete sentence. Use fragments with care.

Example: Marilyn knew her boyfriend would call and beg her to forgive him. She wasn't going to do it. Not this time.

5. Make good use of short sentences in action or high tension scenes. Again, you'll want to vary the sentence structure, and even throw in a complex sentence for variety. But if you're aware that short sentences increase tension, you can use them to good advantage.

Example: Marilyn had just turned off the shower and pulled the towel off the rack when she thought she heard a noise. She froze and listened. Nothing. She quickly dried herself and slipped on her robe. Then another sound--a soft squeak. She reached toward the doorknob, but jerked her hand back. Someone was in her bedroom. She could hear him breathing.

6. Use the same form or format for each element in a series.

Bad: I was weeding the garden, pruning the roses, and mulched the tomatoes.

Better: I was weeding the garden, pruning the roses, and mulching the tomatoes.

Paying attention to sentence structure and how the sentences on a page relate to one another helps establish your professional attention to detail. It really is worth the time it takes to do a thorough job.

Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017).

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers podcast that you can find at the RMFW website.


  1. These are very helpful, Patricia. Thanks.

  2. Oops, I neglected to add the "best" to the series in No. 6: Use active verbs instead of passive so the sentence reads, "I weeded the garden, pruned the roses, and mulched the tomatoes." Must have had a brain freeze...

  3. This post gave me a boost of confidence. I think I've pretty well mastered these areas.

  4. I liked this tutorial, Patricia. Thank you!

    Straight From Hel

  5. All really good points. I find these niggles very hard to spot, as I know what I meant to say!

  6. Example 1 is an instance of a character talking to the reader, filling them in on information. I don't mind this. It isn't intrusive to me as long as it isn't a long-winded info dump.


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