Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish
When I’m looking for inspiration, I frequently turn to the craft essays in Brevity, an online literary publication with great essays as well as process pieces. This one, called “Not Every Sentence Can Be Great But Every Sentence Must Be Good,” written by Cynthia Newberry Martin, offers up tangible ways to brighten up our sentences with some spit and shine. I’m taking the liberty to share the second half of her piece which is filled with tips. Click here for the complete essay.
Perhaps good is best defined by what a sentence is not: indifferent, slack, utilitarian, boring, Since it’s more effective to work toward a positive than away from a negative, let’s look at seven ways to revise a sentence – seven ways to take a sentence from boring to good.
1. Add detail.
a. An unusual detail and/or a detail that is personal to the narrator.
May Sarton in Journal of a Solitude: There is nothing to be done but go ahead with life moment by moment and hour by hour—put out birdseed, tidy the rooms, try to create order and peace around me even if I cannot achieve it inside me (33).
Note: The detail of “putting out birdseed” emerges as unusual and specific in this list of tasks. Readers of May Sarton will recognize it as characteristic of her.
b. Framing details plus a dash of vagueness.
Neil Young in Waging Heavy Peace: Crosby had recently gotten straight, was recovering from his addiction to freebase, had just completed jail time he got for something having to do with a loaded weapon in Texas, and was still prone to taking naps between takes (3).
Note: Adding details to just one of the clauses brings this sentence to life. The details plus the spot of vagueness cause our minds to go to work imagining what might have happened in Texas.
2. Add unusual repetition.
a. Different forms of the same word.
Anne Enright in The Gathering: I close my eyes against the warm sunlight and doze beside the dozing stranger on the Brighton train (55).
Note: Enright repeats doze in the adjective form of dozing.
Pam Houston in Contents May Have Shifted: Henry is the only man I’ve ever known in my life that I knew how to love well, and as luck would have it, we were never lovers (6).
Note: Houston repeats love in the noun form of lovers. And notice the rhythm of the sentence.
b. The same word as different parts of speech.
Anne Enright in The Gathering: I was back to school runs and hovering and ringing other-mothers for other-mother things, like play dates, and where to buy Rebecca’s Irish dancing shoes (133).
Note: Enright uses other-mother both as a noun and as an adjective, where it supplies a frame for the vagueness of things, which she then frames even more by using examples.
3. Incorporate a character’s voice.
David Foster Wallace in “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” from Consider the Lobster and Other Essays: People keep asking Mrs. T’s permission until she tells them to knock it off and for heaven’s sake just use the phone already (138).
4. Add a surprising or unusual perspective.
Anne Enright in The Gathering: The Hegartys didn’t start kissing until the late eighties and even then we stuck to Christmas (53).
Note: Enright enlarges the time frame: instead of referencing an event, she references an entire decade.
5. Use sentence fragments.
Brian Doyle in “Joyas Voladoras” from The Best American Essays 2005: So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment (30).
Thomas Merton in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: How the valley awakes (117).
Cheryl Strayed in Wild: Planet Heroin (53).
6. Use compression—combine sentences to create density.
Pam Houston in Contents May Have Shifted: We were each locked inside our individual sorrows, didn’t know each other well enough to share, but we agreed, out loud, that like moose, pelicans were surely put on earth to act as suicide preventers, agreed we’d never kill ourselves within the sight of one (8).
Note: Multiple could-have-been-single sentences are contained in one sentence; notice how the compression creates a lovely rhythm.
7. Delete a sentence.
From my novel-in-progress:
Original: Angelina went straight from Lucy’s to the gym. In the face of matching clothes, mirrors, strutting, she could feel her body regressing—curling in instead of opening out—and she reminded herself to breathe.
Improved: But at the gym, in the face of matching clothes, mirrors, strutting, Angelina could feel her body regressing—curling in instead of opening out—and she reminded herself to breathe.