Tuesday, 20 July 2010

TOP TIP 2: VARY SENTENCE STRUCTURE

One common fault I see in less-than-fab writing, and one which could easily be rectified, is the repetition of sentence structure. It's a style thing rather than a grammar thing, but it's still important for the feel of your writing.

There are two very common varieties of this problem.
  1. Where too many consecutive sentences begin with the subject immediately followed by the verb.
  2. Where too many nouns are immediately preceded by an adjective.
Here's an example of both. I have highlighted in bold examples of 1 and italicised examples of 2:
Loretta ran through the thickening twilight, calling his name. Her breath came in painful gasps and her straggly hair was plastered to her sweaty forehead. Her legs were tiring now and black specks rained across her vision. Thick clouds were gathering, rolling in across the darkening moors. Loretta collapsed, unable to run any further. Laughter rose up in her chest. "That's like bloody Wuthering Heights, you stupid woman!" she cried, "Except badly written." The looming rain-clouds opened and she was soaked within seconds. Loretta didn't care. It would make her look much sexier when he came back, as she knew he would. She adjusted her silken top somewhat, and waited.
Lazy, yes?

Now, don't become too paranoid about the subject+verb sentence starts: this is the natural way in which the English language works. But do try to vary it a little. Certainly make sure you don't have too many consecutive She/he/name+verb or anything that sounds too obviously similar.

The easiest way to vary this is to make the occasional sentence start with a participle. For example, "Adjusting her silken top somewhat, she waited." Or a subordinate clause, such as: "As Loretta ran through the twlight, she called his name."

The obvious way to avoid the repetition of adjective+noun is simply to use fewer adjectives and make them work harder. You can do this by choosing stronger verbs, or by trusting your reader to understand - for example, in the second sentence, at least one of those adjectives is redundant. (Straggly, I suggest.) You don't need looming rain-clouds because you've already said they are gathering. In the last sentence, you could have omitted silken and said something like, "As the rain fell, the silk clung to her body." Or something.

There's an easy way to spot any of this: read it aloud and listen for the jarring repetition of pattern.

Here endeth today's top tip.

21 comments:

Amanda J. said...

This is something I have to work on when revising. My first draft is littered with almost nothing but Subject Verb sentences.

thanks for posting! :)

GentlewomanThief said...

Another excellent tip! I definitely find there are certain words and structures I over-use without realising, especially when I'm 'in the flow', so when I read through with my editor's head on, I keep an eye open for them and hack 'em out!

Elizabeth West said...

I do this too. I've been reading Anne Mini's blog Author! Author! and she advised the same thing. I found when searching for overused conjunctions that a lot of my sentences had "Subject Verb and verb" construction, like "She took the paper to the table and sat down. She read it slowly and sipped her coffee. The door opened and someone came in." Gah!

Taking out ands not only is reducing my word count (which is too high), but also forcing me to vary my sentences. In some cases, that means rewriting them. Often, the rewritten sentence comes out better, or I find I don't need it after all.

She says we'll get used to it and the next thing we write won't need as much editing. I certainly hope so!

Mark said...

Great tip. Took me a while to get it as I was thinking about Loretta soaked through, the clinging silk hugging her womanly form...Mmmmmmmm

Miriam Drori said...

A great tip! I've also read books with too many participles. "Running through the twilight, Loretta called his name. Breathing in painful gasps, her hair plastered to her sweaty forehead, she struggled to move her tired legs..." As you say, it's best to vary the sentence structure.

Kate said...

Excellent advice! I do this a lot in my first draft - luckily, once you're aware of it, it's easy to fix.

HelenMHunt said...

I have a feeling this is one of the (many) things I do wrong, but I hadn't really thought about it before. Thanks for such a clear post which will make me much more aware of it in future.

(Now on my third attempt at getting the word verification right. Wish me luck.)

The Wicked Lady said...

Reading aloud is absolutely the best way to detect all sorts of dull sentences, POV shifts, non-sequiturs, and repetitive words and phrases. It always astonishes me when I read aloud a passage I've revised nineteen times and find stupid things I should have exised eighteen revisions ago.

An audience isn't necessary: just read aloud to the goldfish or the wall. You'll still hear the clunkers.

Nicola Morgan said...

Mark - rapped knuckles! (Now don't get all excited - I mean in the metaphorical sense...)

Miriam - good point. Any over-repeated structure is lazy/boring/wrong.

Wicked Lady - I agree, but my preferred (imaginary) audience is an audience which doesn't want to be there because there's a party down the street....

Alleged Author said...

Excellent advice!

Spider Griffin said...

Neat advice. :-)

Anne Cassidy said...

I never think about any of this when I'm writing. The story is the key. the characters are crucial. What happens next? is my main question. If I thought about this I would been paralysed in my telling of the story.
Afterwards, when it's written and I redraft then i might look at these repetitions. But I never think in terms of grammatical constructs. That way lies distraction.

Eric W. Trant said...

Write the same way you post, and you'll naturally vary your sentence structure.

If you don't believe me, read through the comments on any blog you follow. The responders subconsciously vary their sentence structure because they are "talking" rather than "writing."

- Eric

Nicola Morgan said...

Anne - of course, this is a revising / self-editing issue. On the other hand, once new writers are aware of it they will tend to incorporate it as they go, perhaps subconsciously. You are not a new writer!! Also, it's perfectly reasonable, as I think you suggest, to write the first draft without thinking about such things, but in the editing porcess it's really important.

Eric - wow, good point. I'd never thought of that.

penandpaints said...

Wow, that's good advice, I hadn't even thought of that. I think I'll just go an do some more editing.
Thank you.

Whirlochre said...

Isn't the "Adjusting..." thing simply another bugaboo?

Or am I just quoting Tina Charles lyrics?

Nicola Morgan said...

Whirlochre - it's a structure that shouldn't be over-used, that's all. And you should use it far, far less than the subject+verb one. But really, this is my point: vary your sentence structure. Make it read smoothly but not monotonously.

The other reason (more important one) that beginning with a participle in that way is something to be cautious about, is that sometimes it's simply wrongly done, not reflecting the reader's need for order. Generally, in describing action, something that happens first needs to come first in the sentence, otherwise the reader doesn't get the sense in the right order - but this matters most in a passage where speed is of the essence.

ALSO (gosh, you've really got me going now!!), you may be thinking of the bugaboo about the English equivalent of an ablative absolute - eg "Having adjusted her top, she...." Now, that is a bit ugly, old-fashioned, over-formal and best kept to a minimum except when you actually want that effect.

Stroppy Author said...

(Concurrent sentences are something criminals get if they haven't been so totally, awfully bad they get consecutive ones. I think you mean consecutive sentences in this case :-)

Nicola Morgan said...

Stroppy - bugger! Believe it or not, I spotted this yesterday but couldn't get to it at the time to change it and then when I got to my desk I forgot.

Basic error. Hands up!

Stroppy Author said...

I believe you - so easy to do! I only pointed it out because the other meaning of sentence made it too funny to waste :-)

Lynn said...

Great tip as always. Its obvious when someone points it out. Trouble is, it doesn't matter how many times I read through ms it could always be better. When is enough enough?

Many thanks!