Secrets of micro-revision #3: Testing your sentences

Once we get our words on the page, and rework them over and over, it’s the small things that escape our notice when we come to micro-revision. While we can search diligently for clichés and other language errors that trip us up, the one thing I find writers forget about is their actual sentences, and whether they’re working clearly as building blocks to pace, tone, style and voice.

Some of the things that happen when we don’t pay attention to sentences are:

  • Ambiguities and confusion, often caused by modifiers in the wrong place, e.g. Reaching the end the of the operation, the sun rose. (The doctor is reaching the end, not the sun!)
  • Repetition of construction, e.g. starting a number of sentences with a phrase such as Taking her by the hand, Walking up to the front door, Touching her hand gently – it’s those –ing phrases creeping in.
  • Using commas where you should have a full stop.
  • Long, multi-claused sentences where the subject gets lost and so does the reader.
  • Using long or short sentences where the pacing indicates the opposite is needed.

What is a simple way to avoid these errors? Obviously to have someone else read your manuscript! But you can also set yourself up a test run to check whether these are things you need to work on.

Sentence Test 1: Take one chapter of your manuscript and look specifically for repeated constructions of certain phrasing – check in particular for every use of an –ing word and mark it with a colored pen. One chapter is usually enough for you to see if this is a habit you didn’t realize you had!

Sentence Test 2: Take three or four pages at random from your manuscript – choose pages that provide a range, e.g. one with plenty of dialogue, one with mostly straight prose, one with a mix. Use two different colored highlighter markers, and

sentences

Test your sentence lengths by highlighting alternatively and then counting words.

highlight every second sentence with each marker. You should end up with a page of stripes. Now look at your sentence lengths and count the words in each sentence. Are all of your sentences the same or similar lengths? Are they all short, or long? Or are they all around medium length (around 12-16 words)?

 

When someone is reading, they may not notice that all the sentences are a similar length but what they will find is a certain tedium in the pacing and “feel” of the story. Contrasting sentence lengths is a powerful tool at your disposal – as soon as you analyze what you are currently doing, you then have the capacity to rewrite, vary your sentence lengths and make them work harder for your story.

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Comments

  1. You have some very good pointers here. Another suggestion is to use your “Find” option under edit. Put is a word that you use a lot and it will pull up every place you have used it. When it occurs too many times in one paragraph or one page, you can then either replace with other words for some of them, or rewrite so that the word is not necessary. You can do that with phrases, too.

    Sentence length is one thing we look for in our critiquing group, so I’m used to checking on that one. I have also learned the words I tend to use too often and go after them with a vengeance. I’m never far away from my Thesaurus, so I can look for substitutes.

    Thank you for your helpful suggestions.

    • Thanks, Diane. That Find function comes in very useful, doesn’t it, especially when you decide to change a character’s name! I know some people scorn the thesaurus but I love it, especially Roget’s which can lead you to all kinds of things you might not have thought of.

  2. Chris Titheradge says:

    Hi Diane. Thank you for a great article. After a recent critique I found I used he said/she said allot that resulted in many ing words. when I eliminated the said word and tensed the next word correctly I found the sentence read so much better. I have also started filling out my style sheet for copyediting. It’s great to understand your own unconscious faults so when you send off your manuscript it’s the best it can be.

    Also I was a bit confused with the it’s and its explanation, I thing I have my dumb hat on. Correct me if I’m wrong as this is how I understand it. If it is works in the sentence when said aloud the correct abbreviation is it’s.

    Thanks for your time.

    • Chris Titheradge says:

      oops I meant think not thing 🙂

    • Glad it was helpful!
      The simplest way to think of it’s/its is this – if you can read the sentence using “it is” and it makes sense, then it is it’s (with apostrophe). Otherwise its without apostrophe.
      Example: The cat licked its paw – you wouldn’t say – the cat licked it is paw – so the its has no apostrophe.
      However, if the sentence was – I told you it’s fine – you could say – I told you it is fine – so use the apostrophe.

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