Interrogate your sentences like you suspect ’em of murder…

imageI’m feeling teachy today, so here’s a short revision exercise for a pleasant autumn morning. It starts, naturally enough, with your current work in progress. Grab a sentence. Make it a nice long one, something you think isn’t bad but maybe needs some work. Or something you’re obscenely proud of. You get different results with different choices.

Next, put it through the wringer. Treat that sentence badly. Imagine the worst of it. Make it justify its every syllable and turn of phrase.

  1. Read it aloud. Get someone else to read it aloud. Get a machine to read it aloud. How does it sound? How closely does the sentence you imagined hearing sound like the one that hit your eardrums?
  2. Cut all of the following: actually, really, seems, started to, began to, turned to, sort of.
  3. Note all of the other adverbs and give them a serious frown so they know they’re in serious trouble.
  4. Now, home in on the verbs. Are they workmanlike, or even boring? Can they be punched up?
  5. What is this sentence for, anyway? Is it sidewalk, smoothly conveying the reader from Point A to Point B without calling attention to itself? Is it scenery, a delivery mechanism for sensual imagery? Is it striking an emotional chord, delivering a character speech, slipping in a bit of exposition, transitioning us to a new idea, or eliciting a laugh? Is it only doing one of these things? Should it do more? Damn these lazy sentences anyway!
  6. Now that you have a job description for the sentence, ask yourself: how well is it performing?
  7. What is the vaguest word in the sentence? Who let that word in?
  8. Is anyone declaring, exclaiming, simpering, snorting, purring, giggling, or sneering when they ought to just be saying, asking or replying? (Pro tip: Sneering is not a synonym for saying. It’s something you do with your lip.)
    Wait a minute, I hear you saying – you just told me to punch up the verbs! This is true, but it doesn’t apply to said. Look up Said Bookisms in the Turkey City Lexicon if you need to know why.
  9. How is this sentence supposed to sound? Is it in a passage featuring the jangly off-road surprises of improvisational jazz, or an easy listening scene? Is it a classic country tragedy about a lost dog and a dead truck, or is it the Imperial March from Star Wars?
  10. If someone threatened to take a blowtorch to your favorite action figure, could you parse out the subject and object of this particular sentence? Do you need that semicolon, honestly? And if you do, are you sure you used it correctly?
  11. Take the eviscerated remains, smooth them out, and read the sentence again. How does it sound now?

This kind of interrogation works nicely on paragraphs and scenes too, of course, but remember to interview your subjects separately before examining them to see if they’ve got their stories straight.

Here’s the Imperial March to play you out.

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About Alyx Dellamonica

After twenty-two years in Vancouver, B.C., I've recently moved to Toronto Ontario, where I make my living writing science fiction and fantasy; I also review books and teach writing online at UCLA. I'm a legally married lesbian, a coffee snob, and I wake up at an appallingly early hour.

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