Last week, we presented a macro view of editing at the text and paragraph level. Today, we zoom in and offer a few tips about how to edit sentences for clarity, length, and style.
Reading a text is like traveling by train. Each paragraph is a stop along the way, and each sentence is the ride between those stops. The best sentences ensure the ride is easy and that the train arrives at the next station on time. The worst sentences make for a bumpy, frightful journey that the passenger prays will end soon, and if it’s truly awful, the passenger will simply get out at the next stop and demand a refund.
Here’s how you can edit sentences to guarantee your reader a safe and pleasant journey.
Turn nouns into verbs. Does the text read like a boring informational flyer? It may be suffering from a case of “nominal style” writing. The nominal style focuses too much on things, events, names, and places, and too little on action. What you end up with is a bunch of words like people standing in a room, but that’s not a party. A party needs verbs. Take this example:
The local bookstore’s increase in sales was the result of months of targeted advertising.
Did you spot the verb? If you blinked, you probably missed it. An avalanche of nouns (bookstore, sales, month, advertising) has buried the weak little “was.” This sentence is so afraid of strong verbs, it even made a noun out of “increase,” a word that desperately wants some action. Here is one way to rewrite the sentence so the shy meeting of nouns becomes a bustling dance floor:
Sales at the local bookstore jumped as months of targeted advertising bore fruit.
Jumping? Bearing fruit?? NOW we’re moving!
Vary the sentence length. This sentence has five words. And so does this one. Writing five words is easy. It bores the reader, though. Who would continue reading this? I wouldn’t, that’s for sure. You couldn’t pay me to. Something has to change here…
…so shake things up with a longer or shorter sentence! (Whew. That’s better.) Five-word sentences are good for marching, but most readers don’t want to march. They want to dance. They want to follow the gentle push and pull of a fluctuating rhythm, holding some positions longer, moving quickly through others, rising and falling, up and down through the air like a bird.
Be their dance partner.
Employ cinematic language. As you’ve been reading this article, have any images flickered through your head? Did your mind’s eye just see a bird, for example? Or the marching and dancing described above? Or perhaps the opening paragraph’s journey by train? If so, that was our goal. Descriptive language can make reading a text feel like watching a movie, which in turn makes the writing more memorable and keeps the reader engaged from start to finish.
Rewrite passive sentences into active ones. Countless blogs, style guides, and writing manuals have already beaten this subject nearly to death. We won’t deliver the final blow, but we do have a few thoughts on the matter.
No matter what those blogs, style guides, and writing manuals might say, a passive sentence like The letter was written is perfectly acceptable when a) the person who did the writing is unknown, or b) we are following the letter through a timeline of events (it was written yesterday, then it was sealed in an envelope and delivered today), and maybe c) for the sake of varying the sentence structure in the context of a longer piece of writing.
A few narrowly defined circumstances even make the passive voice preferable to the active voice. Consider again option b. If you were interested in, say, the history of the ballpoint pen, the reader might get whiplash keeping track of the different characters shuffling in and out of active sentences: John Loud invented the ballpoint pen, László Bíró perfected it, and students around the world today can’t get enough of it. Lively writing, to be sure, but the action trades hand so many times that we lose sight of what we’re talking about. Why make three different stops when you could invite everyone over? The ballpoint pen was invented by John Loud, perfected by László Bíró, and today is enjoyed by students around the world. Placing the pen firmly in focus from the start helps us keep our footing through the rest of the sentence.
The strength and clarity of active writing will usually win the day, so when in doubt, write actively. We’re just saying if you write a sentence or two in the passive voice, you won’t suddenly get struck by lightning. After all, we wrote that last sentence and we’re doing fine.
Stop by next week for the final part of our three-part series. If your editing can’t wait that long, shoot us an email or arrange an appointment to get in touch. We look forward to hearing from you!