Wednesday 30 January 2013

Rewriting a Sentence - a few tips

Here’s a little writing clinic today, on the art of rewriting a sentence.

Writing is, of course, not just about what you say, but how you say it. Here I’ll give you a few examples of how you can rewrite a sentence (sometimes into more than one sentence ...). This is not, of course, to say how one is better than the other, because there will be a time and a place for most sentences.

As a base let’s try this one –

Vincent ran quickly down the street away from the men who were running after him.

It’s not a bad sentence, but it’s a little boring and doesn’t say much despite using quite a lot of words. We can tighten it with some sharper vocabulary. In general, where an adverb is used – “quickly” in this case – a stronger verb exists that implies the same meaning. Sprinted, bolted, dashed, hurried, rushed, fled . . . all of these are better alternatives to “ran quickly”, which by its vey nature does not express the meaning of the words it uses.

Also, look out for phrasal verbs that can be tightened or replaced by a single word verb. Of course, English originates from many sources, and with Romance languages being more lyrical it makes sense to use a verb that came from one instead of a clunkier phrasal verb. In this case “run after” can be replaced by a word such as “pursued”, “followed” or “chased”.

Consider –

Vincent sprinted down the street away from the men who were chasing him.


Vincent fled down the street with his pursuers following him.

Better. We can also omit details we already know. For example, if we don’t care about the street, or if we already know where Vincent is, we can cull the street entirely.

Vincent fled from his pursuers.

Simple, but not very dramatic.

It’s often interesting to add detail rather than take it away. What you’re doing is adding colour to a scene. Just make sure that colour isn’t in the form of –ly adverbs.

Vincent bolted, his feet clattering over the cracked asphalt. Behind him, the men gave chase, their shouts of anger shattering the still of the night.

Interesting, if a bit long winded, and the clatter/shatter thing is borderline weird because of the rhyme. It sounds nice to write but can annoy readers. However, you can sort that out with a Thesaurus.

When trying to spice up a sentence beware of clichés –

Vincent fled with his pursuers in hot pursuit.

“Hot pursuit” is a cliché (in fact, “spice up” might be one too! I’ll have to check…). These are expressions that are so common as to be eye-rollingly annoying. In short, they’re a sign of lazy writing, of relying on tried and tested phrases, so you should try to cut them out. Search Google for lists of them. (here's one) You’d be surprised how many there are. One that got into Tube Riders was “all hell broke loose”. I liked it, but it had to die …

Another thing that a lot of newbie writers forget about is their senses. Remember, real life isn’t just what you see, but what you hear, taste, smell and touch. Use them. Again, they add colour.

Vincent tasted blood on his tongue as his boots echoed off the crumbling asphalt. Behind him, the shouts of his pursuers rang in the air as they hunted him. He grimaced, remembering the coarseness of their rough hands as they held him underwater, the stench of week-old sweat, the salty taste of the cold liquid as it forced its way down his cracked and bleeding throat.

Okay, so I’ve gone totally over the top there and one one sentence has become three, but you get my drift. You don’t have to force senses into every sentence, but just remember they exist. When describing something always keep them in mind, just like you would in real life. What you want is for your fiction to jump off the page, and remembering your senses will certainly help.

So far we’ve focused on Vincent, but of course there are loads of ways we could rearrange this sentence.

You could focus on the people chasing him –

They were gaining on him, Vincent knew, as he sprinted down the street.

Or on outside details –

The howling wind ripping through the trees screamed at Vincent to hurry. The men were gaining.

You could even consider what Vincent is thinking –

The wind howled down the dark street. At the far end, a group of shadows appeared beneath a solitary streetlight. Here they come. They’re gaining. I’m dead this time. Taking what he hoped wouldn’t be his last breath, Vincent turned and ran.

(use italics if possible to indicate thought. Some people use speech marks which is kind of silly since speech marks are used for speech, while some people don’t do anything, which means the thoughts can sometimes blend into the rest of the narrative.)

And one last thing, as I’m going on far long than I originally intended with this, remember the lengths of your sentences. Depending on your genre, short sentences could be better.

Vincent looked up. The wind howled. There, beneath the streetlights: a man. Heart pounding, Vincent turned. And ran.

Or long ones –

The howling wind tried to mask the sound of pounding feet over the cracked and broken asphalt, disguise the shouts of the men as they raced like a black tide towards where Vincent, his heart pounding, his throat and lungs raw from the torture, turned on shaking legs and began, one fragile step after another, an attempt to escape.

Or something like that …

Okay, I’ve gone on far longer than I intended to with this one, but I hope some of you find this useful. Remember, there are always more than one way to describe something. If your writing feels flat (or worse, other people tell you it’s flat) think about some of these ideas and see if you can’t, um, spice things up a little bit.

Good luck and happy writing.

30th Jan 2012

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