If brevity is the soul of wit, then economy is the energy of prose. Let’s hear it for skinny sentences! Don’t get me wrong: I love complex, twisty, beautiful sentences. As Aleksandar Hemon pointed out in an interview with The Writer magazine:
I like to push language toward poetry, to activate the dormant possibilities inherent in it. That’s what great literature does, in my mind—it re-creates the language, it mines the beauty that is sometimes deeply buried inside mountains of clichés and platitudes.
That said, the possibilities of prose will never be realized so long as it is burdened with unnecessary fat. Learn to trim your sentences into lean, mean bundles of incisive power. When you do, their inherent beauty and complexity will run laps around their former flabbiness.
Here are ten easy ways to start writing skinny sentences.
1. Don’t State the Obvious
Don’t say your character “reached out a hand for his glass.” If he’s reaching, he’s obviously going to using his hand. By the same token, no need to say he “stood up,” since he’s probably not going to be standing down.
2. Resist the Urge to Explain
If you’ve written a dynamic bit of prose, don’t feel like you have to explain it to the reader. This is especially true of dialogue, which writers often feel they need to explain via speaker tags, such as “screeched” or “purred” or “stuttered.”
3. Don’t Repeat Yourself
Too often, we either forget we’ve already explained something, or we feel we purposely need to remind the reader. Trust the reader’s memory. If you said the character’s father died at the beginning of the book, chances are the reader will still remember two chapters in.
4. Write Active, Not Passive
Passivity not only bloats sentences, it also saps energy. Active verbs often convey meaning much more clearly and more colorfully than state of being verbs. Analyze your passive sentences to discover if they can be rewritten more poignantly in an active voice.
5. Cut Clichés
Even when they don’t take up much space, clichés are so much dead weight simply because they add nothing new or vibrant to your prose. Delete, rewrite, and tweak clichés to create phrases that are new and memorable.
6. Cut Ambiguities
Prose should always be sharp and distinct. Never leave readers floundering through weak sentence structures in search of your meaning. If your character is a foot away from a jagged precipice, don’t say he’s “about a foot” or “almost a foot.” Be precise.
7. Cut Pointless Beauty
Beautiful phrases are the pride of all writers. But if your writing is beautiful just for the sake of beauty, it’s not worth keeping. Cut useless flourishes wherever they fail to further the story.
8. Cut the Pompous
Inflated language designed to impress readers with your intelligence and mastery of the English language has no place in your writing. Skip the “therefores” and “whereins” and “heretofores.”
9. Watch Your Punctuation
Semicolons, colons, and parentheses all have important punctuation roles, but guard against overuse. If a comma or period will do just as well, use it instead.
10. Chop Modifiers
Nothing weights a sentence more than misused adverbs and adjectives. Use them with sparing care. If you can eliminate their necessity through the use of punchy verbs and solid nouns, your sentences will never miss the extra poundage.
If you want our characters and plots to hit readers to the fullest effect, put your sentences on a strict exercise regime that will have them emerging buff and trim and strong enough to the bear the weight of your stories.
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