Self-Editing Tip #7: Variety is Key (Even with Sentence Structure)

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Sentence structure is one of the elements I believe make up an author’s narrative voice—their style, if you will. And as we see over and over again, each author clearly has their individual preferences when it comes to how they structure their sentences. Long, flowing, and wordy. Short, choppy, and to the point. A mix of the two. All of these are appropriate and can work together to build an author’s style.

But just like everything in writing (characters, plot lines, dialogue, vocabulary), variety is key—even with sentence structure. When you’re just starting to find your narrative voice and unique style, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of repeating the same sentence structure over and over again. I’ve seen this with a number of my clients, and I really try to stress the fact that we don’t want meaningless repetition throughout a work of fiction.

While it might be impossible to single out every single combination of phrases and sentence types, I want to talk about the two most common sentence structures I see repeated in manuscripts. There are so many ways to rewrite a sentence that doesn’t flow well at first, or that seems to be written exactly as the one before it or the one after it. Knowing these different types of sentences and how to rearrange them to create that ever-important variety will keep your narrative from sounding like a broken record and help you find your own unique style.

The most commonly repeated sentence structure I’ve seen lately uses the word “as” as a conjunction, bringing together two independent clauses.

Example: He turned to face her as the door opened. 

Normally, this type of sentence is used to show the action of both independent clauses happening at the same time (“as” can also be replaced with “while”). However, when “as” is used simply as the only conjunction in sentence after sentence, it really stands out.

Example: “I’ve been waiting for you,” he said as he lit the candle. He turned to face her as the door opened. 

This is what I see most often—”as” used over and over again in each sentence (I see it a lot when an author wants to combine a dialogue tag with an action tag in the same sentence, as shown in the first sentence above. I’ll be going into how to do this more effectively in next week’s post).

When I find repetition in these sentences, I always look for ways to spice it up a little bit, changing the structure around so the sentences don’t sound so repetitive. Let’s take a look at the first sentence in the above example. When two independent clauses are connected by a conjunction and have the same subject (the “who” or “what” performing the action), the conjunction can almost always be taken out, and one of the clauses can almost always be changed to use a present participle (the verb getting an -ing ending).

Example: “I’ve been waiting for you,” he said, lighting the candle. He turned to face her as the door opened. 

Now these sentences don’t sound so repetitive. The same thing can be accomplished when “as” is used at the beginning of the sentence.

Example: As he lit the candle, he said, “I’ve been waiting for you.” 

Changed to:

Example: Lighting the candle, he said, “I’ve been waiting for you.” 

This only works when both clauses have the same subject. If you’re wanting to find variety with something like the second sentence, where each independent clause has a different subject (he turned to face her; the door opened), turning either of those verbs in the present participle form (adding -ing) will not work.

Incorrect Example: Turning to face her, the door opened.

As seen above, if you tried the same present participle switch in this sentence, it literally means “the door turned to face her” and “the door opened.” Not what we’re trying to say. You can, however, use another conjunction like “and” when trying to create variety in a group of sentences that all use “as”.

Example: “I’ve been waiting for you,” he said and lit the candle. He turned to face her as the door opened. 

Example: Lighting the candle, he said, “I’ve been waiting for you.” He turned to face her, and the door opened. 

Sometimes, you can even put them all together if you want a longer sentence among a few shorter sentences.

Example: “I’ve been waiting for you,” he said, lighting the candle and turning to face her as the door opened. 

Here, we have the the present participle with “lighting” and “turning” and the conjunction “as”, all in the same sentence. The possibilities are endless when we know how to conjugate the verbs and how to arrange them together in one or more sentences.

Another common sentence type I see, which I almost always change, involves adding multiple verbs or dependent clauses without turning them into a list within the sentence (or simply making them all separate sentences), as shown below:

Example: She twirled with her dagger and she flung it at the wall and watched as the blade buried itself into the wood.

Example: She twirled with her dagger. She flung it at the wall. The girl watched as the blade buried itself into the wood. 

Yes, this is a mouthful, but I see it a lot. Most simply, this can be combined as a list of action because the first three verbs (twirled, flung, and watched) all have the same subject (she).

Example: She twirled with her dagger, flung it at the wall, and watched as the blade buried itself into the wood.

Of course, I’m a firm believer in the Oxford comma, which is why I use it here. Also, I would even further remove words from the sentence, most notably deleting “as”.

Example: She twirled with her dagger, flung it at the wall, and watched the blade bury itself into the wood.  

We can even further tighten up this sentence if we need variety from a group of sentences that have lots of lists in them. Because “dagger” is referenced twice in this sentence (as dagger and as it), we can also combine the phrases using that object. I also like to remove things like “she watched”, “she saw”, “she heard”, or “she felt” when a piece is written in third person limited (also my preference).

Example: She twirled and flung her dagger at the wall, the blade burying itself into the wood. 

This works with the second clause using the present participle, even though the two independent clauses have separate subjects (she and the blade) because we include each subject in its appropriate clause.

Or we can incorporate the present participle into both independent clauses.

Example: She twirled, flinging her dagger at the wall, the blade burying itself into the wood.

Example: Twirling, she flung her dagger at the wall, the blade burying itself into the wood.

Or we can use the present participle on one end and a conjunction on the other.

Example: Twirling, she flung her dagger at the wall, and the blade buried itself into the wood.

Sometimes, it’s helpful to use the present participle of a verb at the beginning of a sentence when you’re trying to eliminate starting every sentence with “she”, your character’s name, or “the girl”.

As show above, we don’t always have to use “and” or “then” in order to describe the sequence of events. Lists, and even independent clauses, can be brought together using these conjugation and conjunction rules to show the sequence of events, to make the action stronger, and to really tighten and clean up your writing.

Of course, there are so many other types of sentence structure and so many different ways to organize the action in your sentences. These are only guidelines to show how you can rearrange your own sentences when it seems you write most of them the same way. Once we understand the mechanics of our writing, it’s so much easier to find that flowing narrative we all seek.

As always, if you have any other questions on this topic of variety in sentence structure, please don’t hesitate to ask. That’s what I’m here for!

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