I was wrong. It happens sometimes. Well actually, it happens a lot in my writing, but luckily I’m discovering how to right those wrongs. I’m learning.
One of the things we’re supposed to do in writing is to vary sentence length. I thought I was doing so, but I was wrong. I’ve gotten several comments from agents and others about my short, choppy sentences, much to my surprise, so I decided to take a look.
First, I looked to two authors/books I really admire. Such a Rush by Jennifer Echols and JH Trumble’s Don’t Let Me Go. I did my super scientific analysis of multiple pages, by counting the number of sentences that were approximately one line in length and the sentences that were less than ½ a line in length. Then I counted several pages in The Proper Way to Say Goodbye.
Imagine my surprise ( ) when I found that, huh—I had way more short sentences than them.
1 line sentences per page: Range of 6 to 12, with average of 8.
½ line sentences per page: Range of 2 to 6, with average of 3.
Approximately 1/3 of the lines being ‘short.’
1 line sentences per page: Range of 7 to 17, with average of 12.
½ line sentences per page: Range of 4 to 11, with average of 8.
Approximately 2/3 of the lines being ‘short.’
My next analysis was made by Word and their neat feature which counts average words per sentence. According to many sources on the web, here are the general guidelines.
Average words per sentence
< 14 is too many short sentences
14 to 22 is where you want to be
> 22 is getting too wordy
Guess, where I came in? Bet you won’t.
Eight. Yes, 8. And < 14 is supposedly too short. Now, I understand some of that is dialogue, which I consider different than narrative, but even so, it's too short.
Varying sentence length is important because when too many sentences are short, the writing might be choppy and ideas may be hard to follow. Too many long sentences might mean there's too much detail, also making it hard to follow.
So I guess I'm going to be doing some revisions.
How about you, have you ever analyzed your sentence lengths?
Image courtesy of ningmilo FreeDigitalPhotos.net
As writers we are supposed to tighten our prose. There are so many unnecessary words out there that plague my stories; I end up spending more time editing than writing. Way more. But we also need to develop that elusive voice and make sure it’s not blah/boring–which can happen if you just go in and automatically cut all these words. Finding that balance is tough, but I’ll keep working on it, keep learning, and hopefully you’ll learn something new too.
Here is one word that doesn’t usually show up on the words-to-avoid lists, except mine.
I went through The Proper Way to Say Goodbye to look for unnecessary usage of TIME, and surprisingly, I found quite a few. Sometimes the word was repeated too often within a few paragraphs, other times I replaced it with cleaner words. Here are my examples.
-We didn’t hang out all the time.
I changed ‘all the time’ to ‘a lot.’ Not a huge change, but I’d repeated ‘all the time’ 3 times in 8 paragraphs during that scene.
-She listened intently, smiling a few times at the mistakes I corrected.
A few times is unnecessary.
-The others cleared their throats and fidgeted until it was time to leave.
I changed ‘it was time to’ to ‘they could leave’. Much cleaner.
-He sang that dumb song all the time when we were younger.
I changed ‘all the time’ to ‘a lot’.
-Didn’t have time to take my medicine.
Changed ‘Didn’t have time’ to ‘Forgot’, because in this sentence the slight difference doesn’t matter.
I got rid of about 60 TIMEs, which is quite a few. Do you unnecessarily use TIME in your manuscripts?
As writers we are supposed to tighten our prose. At the same time, we need to develop that elusive voice and make sure it’s not blah/boring. Finding that balance is tough. The point of doing these posts is to show the ways I’m trying to clean up my writing. There are so many unnecessary words out there that plague my stories; I end up spending more time editing than writing. Way more. So here are some of the things I look for.
FINALLY is another adverb often used unnecessarily. Using it in dialogue is different, but I try cutting the ones in the narrative, unless it’s important. Here are some examples of FINALLYs I cut from The Proper Way to Say Goodbye.
-I told Murphy about when I finally confessed the truth to Brock
-The truth finally bubbled out, mixed in with apologies for not being honest.
-I told Sasha I finally wrote it.
-Because I finally admitted to myself I was a lesbian.
None of these FINALLYs are necessary, and I cut out a little more clutter. Do you use FINALLY a lot?
Another word I looked at in The Proper Way to Say Goodbye is NEED. Sometimes I didn’t need it. Sometimes I could replace it with something less formal.
Here are my examples.
-Kevin and I decided we need to have a family discussion.
Actually they decided TO have the discussion, so I cut the WE NEED. Totally unnecessary.
-I need to catch upon my sleep.
-You need to read these.
With both of these I changed the NEED TO to SHOULD. It’s dialogue and is a little less formal.
-Um, what did you need to see me about?
I changed the NEED to WANT. Sometimes you need to specifically use NEED versus WANT. But this time either worked. In those cases when it didn’t matter, I used WANT for Chloe and NEED for Sasha.
So this isn’t a huge issue, but it’s one more thing to look at if you want to clean things up.
I haven’t done any sloppy writing posts for a while, but trust me, I still have lots of issues to fix. The point of doing these posts is to point out ways I’m trying to clean up my writing. There are so many unnecessary words out there that plague my stories, I end up spending more time editing than writing. Way more.
As writers, we are supposed to tighten our prose, but we also need to develop that elusive voice. We want to get rid of all those unnecessary words, but we don’t want our voice to be blah/boring.
Finding that balance is tough, but I’ll keep working on it, keep learning, and hopefully you’ll learn something new too.
Two (often) unnecessary words I use are outside and inside. They can easily be cut without changing the meaning. And really, most of those times, it’s just redundant saying outside/inside. You’ll see what I mean in my examples below, all from The Proper Way to Say Goodbye.
-Her empty voice matched the way I often felt inside.
-I clenched my fists trying to control the anger inside.
-Nervous couldn’t begin to describe my feelings inside.
Apparently I mostly overuse inside when it comes to feelings. And really, does anyone have feelings outside their body? No.
-The cool air outside was a welcome relief.
I didn’t have as big a problem with outside, but this is one I could cut. You know from the prior sentences that she is outside, so I just don’t need it here.
Do you have an outside/inside problem?
Title: The Proper Way to Say Goodbye
Genre: Contemporary Young Adult
Word Count: 66,000 words
Only one person knew Chloe was gay, and his love and support disappeared when he hung a noose around his neck. And jumped.
Eighteen-year-old Chloe attends the college where her brother Brock spent his final days, hoping to uncover the reason behind his death. His whispers often invade her mind, and she can’t bear to tell anyone how he died. Or that she likes girls.
She soon finds Murphy—a boy who totally gets the wrong idea about their friendship because Chloe refuses to tell him the truth, afraid of losing his support when she needs it the most. And Sasha, her gorgeous young teacher, who reveals Brock was sexually abused as a child. Even after Sasha gives her his journals, Chloe still can’t figure out what pushed him over the edge.
Brock’s plan for revenge against his molester consumes Chloe, and her depression deepens. She pushes away the important people in her life and begins to stalk the one girl who might have the answer: Brock’s former girlfriend who is the daughter of his abuser. But Chloe’s obsession comes at a cost, and she might have to give up everything she’s ever wanted—her girlfriend, her best friend, and her sanity, in order to discover Brock’s final secret.
First 250 words:
The biggest thing I had in common with my older brother, Brock, was that we both liked girls. Two months after he killed himself, his whispers still invaded my mind. I didn’t need a therapist to tell me it wasn’t really Brock talking. I wasn’t mental.
Usually his words comforted me, but other times they annoyed me.
Each step I took up the stairwell, my nerves grew exponentially. It’s only book club, I repeated.
Cricket’s got a crush, Brock’s voice teased.
I rolled my eyes at his comment and the stupid nickname he used to call me, but he was right. In a few minutes, I’d see her for the first time outside of class.
Beautiful long blonde hair, gorgeous full red lips, and a big chest to match. Perfection in every way. Unfortunately, she was also my Freshman Composition teacher. Teaching assistant technically, so she couldn’t be more than a few years older than me. Not that it mattered.
I could imagine the horror on her face if she found out I liked her. She wouldn’t laugh it off like she did with the guys in class who lusted over her.
A female student—yeah, that’d trip her out.
Nobody knew I was gay. Not here at college. Not at home. Brock took that secret to the grave when the noose snapped his neck.
To be verbs. They always show up on the list of words you should avoid. To be verbs can often make a sentence weak or passive. And many sentences can be improved by using a stronger verb. A more descriptive word.
So the ones you want to look for are: is/am/are/was/were/be/been/being. Here are some of my examples from The Proper Way to Say Goodbye that I changed.
-Being a shrink, he was an expert in interrogation techniques.
Being a shrink qualified him as an expert in interrogation techniques.
-Most of the room had cleared before my bag was packed.
I packed my bag while most of the room cleared.
- Her face and voice were never far from my mind.
Her delicate face and sexy voice never strayed far from my mind.
-and I committed to running every morning, no matter how hard it was.
and I committed to running every morning, no matter how hard.
-This was ridiculous.
You can see how getting rid of the was/were makes and replacing it with a better verb makes a stronger sentence. Was is one of my tough words. I’ve gone through trying to eliminate them. It’s a lot of work, but hopefully my writing is a little better because of it.
I’ve got a word to watch for that I’m sure some will be surprised about. WHEN. I’ve seen a few writers’ blogs talk about this, and once I started to look at my manuscript, I could kinda see it.
The problem with WHEN is, sometimes it turns a sentence into a telling sentence. Take this example from The Proper Way to Say Goodbye.
-I took a step backwards when a redhead with pale skin swooped up to me.
The action is backwards. The redhead swoops before Chloe steps back. And maybe in past tense it’s not as big of deal as in present, because in past, the story has already happened, and the narrator knows the outcome and is retelling it. Whereas present is happening right now.
But the other part is that using it as I did above sort of pulls you away from the action. Detaches you from the narrator. Chloe is telling me what happened. She’s not showing me. And it puts a distance between her and the reader.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter, but when it’s a scene where you really want the reader to connect with your character, you want them to feel what’s going on, and not just listen to a character narrating.
Back to my example. Here is my fix:
-A redhead with pale skin swooped up to me, and I stepped backwards.
Just a reversal of order. But I changed this one because, although you don’t see the context, Chloe is taking a big step, doing something she’s totally nervous about. Something she keeps questioning whether or not to do. So I want the reader right there, feeling her uncertainty, her anxiety.
You don’t have to go and delete all your WHENs. Some are fine. But when you want the reader to feel that connection with the character, make it more active by not using WHEN.
Here are a few more I changed.
-I shook my head when Gracie nudged me to talk.
-My heart did a jumpstart when Sasha scooted her chair closer to mine
-A little ping of jealousy zipped through me when she leaned toward him and laughed.
I want you to experience the emotion she’s feeling, and that’s why I changed these ones.
So what do you think? Can you see how WHEN can be a telling word?
If my explanation doesn’t make sense, see Janice Hardy’s site for her explanation, which is much better than mine.
Last week I talked about how I was overusing the word MADE when I could be using so much better words. So I’ll do another along that line. GET.
So sometimes I could just delete the GET because it was unnecessary. I tightened my sentence. No, it’s really not a lot of words, but it’s cleaner.
-I slipped over to the water fountain to get a drink as a girl clutching The Time Traveler’s Wife cruised by.
I slipped over to the water fountain for a drink as a girl clutching The Time Traveler’s Wife cruised by.
-I’d rather be teaching upper level classes, but that’s not what TAs get to teach.
I’d rather be teaching upper level classes, but that’s not what TAs teach.
- I need to get to my grading finished.
I need to finish my grading.
Other times I could use a better, more descriptive word. No, they’re not really fancy replacements, but I’d rather use those words than the plain GET.
-Then they’d get quiet.
How about grow instead of get?
-After our next two books, perhaps we can get a Stephen King in.
Why not read? Because that’s what she means.
I suppose GET would be a word you could use to differentiate characters, but I didn’t see that as important here, so I cleaned up as many of them as I could. And I got rid of/replaced about 50 GETs. So not bad.
Do you overuse GET?
MADE is one of those words that can often be replaced by something better, more descriptive. So I went and checked The Proper Way to Say Goodbye for my MADEs and made lots of changes.
-Sasha made introductions, but the names didn’t stick.
Why am I using made introductions when I can just use introduced?
-His words made me cringe.
Again, why not just use I cringed. I did this several times, where something made her verb. Not only is it not a great word, it’s Telling.
-We made our way down the less crowded hallway, and I tried to think of something to ask her. Made our way—how boring and blah. In this case ambled fit how they were walking, so that’s what I used.
-“Get a haircut,” she’d tell him, unable to understand her nagging made him grow it longer?
Instead of made, I used encouraged. A better word.
-Being a shrink made him an expert in interrogation techniques.
Qualified was much stronger.
-Made a proper knot.
He actually tied a proper knot, so why not use that.
So you can see that I was using MADE several different ways, and many times I found a much better word. I deleted almost 40 MADES in all, not so bad. Do you use made or make a lot?