Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Avoiding Awkward Sentences

As I read other people's writing and critique advice on the forums I lurk in (Hatrack and Nathan Bransford's), I have noticed a theme. Many times someone will comment that a certain sentence or paragraph feels awkward, pulling them out of the story to go "huh?" Our main goal as fiction writers (at least mine) is to write smoothly enough that the reader forgets they are reading because they are so immersed in our story. We need to fix all the awkward sentences to achieve this. So, how do we do it? The first step is recognizing what can make a sentence feel awkward.

Today I want to cover three "symptoms" so we can recognize and clarify our writing. These are not my thoughts (some are, but not all) but are borrowed from Proofreading, Revising, & Editing Skills: Success in 20 Minutes a Day, by Learning Express Skill Builders.

Words with little or no meaning.
When we write, we sometimes take on the same habits we have when we speak. Words or phrases that have little or no meaning fill space when we talk but have limited use in writing. Words such as kind of, actually, in particular, really, certain, various, virtually, individual, basically, generally, given, and practically give our brains a chance to collect our thoughts when speaking. When writing, we should have our thoughts already collected because the helps convey ideas more efficiently. (p 33)
Guilty as charged! Just this morning I commented how I prefer writing to speaking for one simple reason. I can write, walk away, come back and see that I did not fully communicate  my thoughts and try again.  However, when I speak, well, let's say I mumble around my toes a lot.

Example: Various people could actually say that I rarely make any sense at all.
Revised: I confuse people a lot. :)

Wow, taking out all those meaningless words cuts down on wordiness. *insane little giggles* (I think I am sleep deprived.)


Sometimes we have a word count goal in our mind and in our determination to meet it...
...it is tempting to use several words of description instead of one well chosen word with the same meaning. This redundancy, however, makes sentences awkward and interrupts the flow of a piece of writing. To write effectively, you must eliminate words that simply rephrase other words for no purpose. (p 34)
I'm finding that I do this occasionally. It is deja vu for readers. Here is a list of commonly uses redundant phrases:
big fat, complete truth, terrible tragedy, pitch black, true facts, free gift, final outcome, pick and choose, each and every, first and foremost, hope and trust
Both words are not needed and removing one will not change the meaning of the sentence. Hmmm, was that redundant?


Do you remember your mother saying something like, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all"? My mom would also tell me that being positive would get me closer to my goals than being negative. The older I get, the more I learn how right she was.
Changing negatives to affirmatives eliminates extra words. Look for sentences that use not and see if you can rewrite the sentence to make it affirmative...Double negatives make your writing sound more confusing. (p 35)
Example: She wore a sweater that was not different than mine.
Revised: She wore the same sweater as mine.
Some words are negative by definition, such as the verbs preclude, exclude, fail, reject, avoid, deny, prohibit, and refuse. (p 35)
Example: Without failing to refuse denying an invitation, you have not avoided precluding buying a gift.
Revised: By accepting an invitation, you agreed to buy a gift.

Huh? This example made me laugh. Hopefully none of us are this confusing, but I think they wanted to make a point about words that were negative by definition. I don't know anyone that talks like that.

Edit the following sentences by eliminating words that have little or no meaning, repetitive words, and by changing  negatives to affirmatives. I'll post the book answers tomorrow.

1. Actually, a basic and fundamental part of cooking is making sure you don't have the wrong ingredients.

2. Each and every student deserves a fair and equal chance to try out for intramural sports.

3. First and foremost, the Board of Directors cannot make a decision without a consensus of opinon.

4. At an earlier time today, my sister told me she would pick me up after the end of work.

5. Various different people in our office were not against moving the water cooler to a location that would be less difficult for everyone to reach.

6. One accidental mistake some beginning swimmers make is not remembering to kick.