Easy steps to stronger sentences

Words of wisdom from Harry Bingham at Jericho Writers. If you haven’t signed up for their newsletter at least, or joined, then I recommend you do so. Harry is full of brilliant writing tips delivered in an easy, practical way. Here’s what he had to say recently:

Self-editing, and I want you to start by considering this sentence:

The words sound lame even to Ted.

What do you think about that? For that matter, what do you think about this one?

I quicken my step, searching the undergrowth in case anyone jumps out at me.

And let’s have a think about this one as well:

There’s a smell of damp earth and rotting vegetation

Now, ideally, you will actually pause reading to consider the sound and weight of those sentences in your head. If you encountered those sentences in your own manuscript, would you leave them or adjust them? And if you were going to make changes, what would you do?
And look: let me say right away that none of those sentences are calamitously bad. They’re clear. They communicate their meaning. There’s a bit of colour and interest in each one.
But they can all be improved, and improved easily, because the strongest location in any sentence is the very end. The second strongest location in the sentence is the very start. That means, you should try to give each sentence real weight in at least one of those places. With shorter sentences, the real kick – the purpose of the sentence – should come either first or last. Never in the middle.
With that rule in mind, let’s look again at that first sentence:

The words sound lame even to Ted.

Pretty clearly, most of the ingredients in that sentence are a little dull. The one that isn’t – the squeeze of lime that gives life to the whole sentence – is the word lame. But that word is buried away in the exact middle of the sentence, which is the least salient place to have it. So we need to rephrase the sentence as follows:

Even to Ted, the words sound lame.

And, bada-bing, the sentence springs to life. The phrase ‘even to Ted’ drained the energy out of the first version of the sentence. In the second version, they act as a tiny springboard into the rest of it. The word lame, which was lost before, now dazzles under the spotlight.

Now, OK, I recognise that’s a tiny shift, but it also took about three seconds to do. Perform that same magic over the 10,000 sentences of your novel, and you’ve made a really important difference – and done so easily.
Here’s that second sentence again:

I quicken my step, searching the undergrowth in case anyone jumps out at me.

Now you can already see why I am going to object to the current structure. The first part of the sentence is fine – that word quicken is a nice introduction. But the out at me bit at the end is just a clutter of small, dull syllables.

One easy change would be to delete the at me. It adds nothing in terms of meaning. The sentence is definitely better without them.
But as soon as you start to think like that, a more radical notion suggests itself. What about just deleting the whole last part: in case anyone jumps out at me? The scene, after all, is set in a narrow urban path at night. It’s pretty clear why the protagonist would be anxious, so perhaps we don’t need to spell it out. And if searching the undergrowth isn’t quite clear enough, we can always give that a bit of extra weight, like this:

I quicken my step, anxiously scanning the undergrowth.

We’ve deleted almost half the words from the original sentence, but we end up with something that is strong at the beginning and end (and, as it happens, in the middle too.) The slow hiss of deflation that affected the earlier version of the sentence is gone. And again, this change was easy. Notice a weak sentence ending. Start to trim it. Get a bit more radical. Boof! Done. OK, that probably wasn’t a three second change, it might have been a twenty second one, but it’s still nice, easy, anyone-can-do-it editing. Apply that kind of improvement over a whole manuscript and, again, you’ll make a massive difference.
I won’t spend much time on the third sentence:

There’s a smell of damp earth and rotting vegetation.

I’ve adopted that example just to remind us that sentence beginnings matter as well as sentence endings. In particular, I want to warn you against any sentence that starts off with there is or there are. It’s an easy crime to commit – my first drafts always have such sentences – but it’s also a waste. You’re putting the least colourful words in English at the very start of your sentence. You might as well just say ‘Blah blah blah the smell of damp earth…’

And again, it’s easy to fix. The normal fix for a there is type sentence is just to make the thing you’re talking about the subject of its own sentence – and using a better verb than is to do it. So we might end up with something like this:

A smell of damp earth and rotting vegetation floats over the path.

I don’t absolutely love that solution – though it’s definitely better than the previous version – because I’m not sure we’ve really nailed what the smell of damp earth is doing in the story. Why does it matter? Why is the character thinking about it or noticing it? Figuring that out will make the sentence better again.

But that’s a different point. What matters here is that we’ve moved A smell of damp earth to a prominent place in the sentence and we’ve murdered the blandest of all possible sentence openings. In doing so – another benefit – we’ve allowed ourselves to bring in a more interesting verb. And again, the basic change is incredibly easy and obvious once you start becoming alert to this sentence start / sentence ending issue.
Easy, huh? And powerful? A nice combination. Needless to say, and sad to say, most editing is a little more tricky than that.