10 Ways to Write Skinny Sentences

10 Ways to Write Skinny Sentences

10 Ways to Write Skinny SentencesIf 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.

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland's monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.
Email:
About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Number 7 is my personal crime. I’m working hard at the moment to figure it out, but I just love all those adjectives and adverbs that I can’t do without them!

  2. Lots of good review here–thanks! My personal issues are #3 and #4–I have to really watch for where I repeat myself, and for where passive sneaks in again.

  3. Thanks for the reminders! It’s so easy to forget when you’re actually writing. I’m usually guilty of #2 and the speaker tags and #10. And I bet I’m guilty of #4 without even realizing it.

  4. Great advice. The book that helped me most on this topic is called “Write Tight”.

  5. @Bethany: The good news about modifiers is that they’re relatively easy to expunge in the second draft.

    @Kenda: The repetition is something I’ve been noticing – and chopping – in my own latest draft.

    @Jenn: That’s the thing about all of these: we’re all unconsciously guilty of them. But that’s what editing is for!

    @India: Yes I highly recommend the book. All kinds of good advice.

    • Re “writing skinny” I broke every rule you mentioned plus a ton of others when I wrote my first short stories. It was so much FUN to make readers see exactly what I saw. Recently, I re-read one of my first attempts, Gulp! No wonder no one wanted it! BUT, the story line had potential and I began stripping and stripping and stripping. Every time I re-read it, I find more to cut. Where will it end? One thing that has helped me is writing “short-shorts” (1500 words max.) One re-write of my earliest, deadly stories just won a Gold Medal in a state-wide (NC) contest. Editing is painful but …. not so hard as getting a good story down. Once down, you’ve got something to play with, even if viciously!

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Congrats on the win! Fantastic example of how persistence and acquired knowledge that turn junk into gems.

  6. When I was editing my last project, I couldn’t believe how many times I had a problem with #6! I reduced that problem by a great deal, deciding, as you said, that precision was much preferable to ambiguity. I’ve noticed it in my own speech patterns, and have been trying to correct it (try is a word I say a lot–not precise!) Make your words mean something, that’s what I get from #6 especially.

  7. Such a great post. I love the way you introduced it with the quote from Aleksandar Hemon to underscore your point. Skinny writing doesn’t eliminate the possibility of beautiful prose–it only clears away the weeds and thorns so the reader can see blooms.

  8. @Lorna: I have to admit those cupckaes looked awfully good to me too!

    @Liberty: Exactly. Because, after all, if our words don’t mean anything, what’s the point?

    @Adventures: Ultimately, skinny writing *is* beautiful writing.

  9. What a beautifully thin list. Thank you for the reminders.

  10. Thank you for the post! This is helpful.

  11. @Deb: It’s funny, because whenever I write posts about grammar and style, I end up being hyper-aware. I need to figure out to channel that feeling the rest of the time!

    @Brianna: Glad you found it useful.

  12. great list, good for reminders

  13. Thanks for reading!

  14. Oh speaker tags…I love speaker tags to the point it gets in the way of my writing. Also I tend to get caught up in passive tones when I want to be active. Thank you this is VERY helpful. 🙂

  15. Usually, the most difficult part of editing is recognizing our weak spots. Once we’ve recognized them, catching them and squashing them is much easier.

  16. Great tips! I’m far too fond of #10. Le sigh. Back to the chopping board.

  17. Better start sharpening that knife!

  18. I read a book recently with alot of #9. I was taken by surprise, but I liked it. Then decided it would work in mine. Craziness. Some rules are meant to be broken, but solid rules rule me right now and make my writing stronger. Thank you for the reminders.

  19. #9 is arguably the easiest of these “rules” to break successfully, and, ultimately, the only rule in fiction is that rules were made to broken.

  20. A great, comprehensive list you have here. 1 & 2 are the ones I catch myself doing all the time…thankfully I normally catch them as I’m writing, but it still irks me that they automatically come out. My subconscious needs to catch up with my conscious here. 😉

    This is a good list for final copy edits too, I think. After all the big stuff is fixed, going through with this as a checklist should create a nice clean ms…

  21. We’re so often told we need to pay attention to our subconscious that it’s ironic it trips us up continually in this area!

  22. Excellent post. As a writer and professional editor I concur with all of this list and appreciate your comments. Nicely done.

    The Old Silly

  23. Thanks for stopping by!

  24. What a great post. I chose passivity for the poll, but over explaining is right there with it. For instance…just kidding!

  25. I think there are few of these that we’re not *all* guilty of.

  26. Awesome advice!

  27. Thanks for reading!

  28. This is such a great post. I’m guilty of #1 at times – e.g. he dropped his plate on the floor (like it could fall upwards!) Thanks for these reminders! 🙂

  29. Occasionally, statements that seem obvious are necessary (e.g., if there’s any possibility the character might have dropped the plate on the table or over a balcony railing, then we have to specify he dropped it on the floor), but, more often than not, we’re better of without them.

  30. I’m quite vigilant with the passive sentences

  31. This is a great post!!! I am so guilty of “fat” sentences sometimes. I’ll be keeping this article for future reference! Thanks! 😀

  32. @Ee: Me too – to the point sometimes where I feel I’m hyperaware. Always in search of that perfect balance.

    @Mandy: Fat and sentences and long sentences aren’t necessarily the same thing, but long should always be the result of well thought out writing.

  33. Do you hear my applause? Excellent. Cruel to include the cupcakes on a scale. 🙁

  34. Yeah, but see how little they weigh?

  35. Thanks for the reminders. Being aware of the rules does not always mean we follow them.

  36. Every writer should print this out and post it next to his/her computer. Excellent blog.

  37. Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you found the post useful.

  38. Anonymous says:

    These are all rules I try to live – and write – by. But, as you say, I’ve broken all of them before, and am likely to break them again. I’d like to add: don’t let what passes for “good writing” today determine your own prose. Words such as “amidst” and “amongst” are popular today, but are archaic. I see them everywhere! “Amid” and “among” are perfectly good words, but in our efforts to be fancy, we seem to have forgotten they exist. Nadine Liamson

  39. I’ll break them again myself, without doubt – and probably on purpose occasionally. We all follow the fads, inevitably, but I agree that’s it’s vital for us to be true to our own styles.

  40. Good writing is always about using the least amount of words possible and those words that you do use must be as precise.

  41. We also need to understand when it’s beneficial to pile on the words. But, generally speaking, skinny is almost always best.

  42. Reading your stuff really helps keep me in shape. Thanks.

  43. Thanks for stopping by!

  44. To be sure, I am a late bloomer. After turning 70, I self-published my first novel and an anthology of short stories and poems, both received literary awards. I enjoyed and respected your tips on skinny sentences. Poetry taught me brevity and the value of each word. Short story writing honed my skills in writing strong characters and lean dialogue among a lot of other good writing skills. I am looking forward to reading all your writing tips in the near future. Thanks. http://www.timeoftriumph.net

  45. Glad you found the post helpful! Working in different media can be so valuable for honing different parts of the craft. Poetry teaches us something about storytelling, and storytelling teaches us something about poetry.

  46. Very useful information. I

  47. Most of us get nabbed by one or the other sooner than later.

  48. Jan Swanson says:

    Thank you for your post. I reread Stephen King’s ‘On Writing A Memoir of the Craft’ where several of your points were hammered into my head. Your points on skinny sentences are far more gentle without comments using explicit words. Gentle is better than being smacked. Your points soak in and help disperse needless words in my drafts. I thank you! (I just had to throw in a repeat!)

  49. Author Allyn Lesley says:

    K.M – I am so taping this post near my laptop. Thank you for these tips.

  50. Thanks for sharing your advice and writing tips.
    Blessings,
    Deborah

  51. Thanks K M. Personally, the hardest part is the prose I love which fails to add much. But how I love those bits. 🙁

  52. Hi K.M.,

    I know this question my not be related to writing skinny but there are two things I struggle with, and that is tense and audience. I’ve been told several times to choose either past or present tense and stick with one. I’m not sure I can read what I have written and know if it’s past or present tense. How do I know?

    I was asked more than a year ago when I started writing my novel who is my audience? I didn’t know then and I still don’t know today. The narrative is third person. I would seriously doubt anyone under the age of 30 would read it.

    My novel is not about vampires, science fiction or any adult subject. It’s about a woman in her early thirties who inherits castle remains and an estate from her uncle. Has to solve mysteries, make really cool discoveries, deal with a tough antagonist and fall for a tall dark handsome guy. There are lots of plot twists and sub plots.

    So how does a writer figure out who the audience is before we publish?

    • Past tense uses past-tense words: She walked down the street.

      Present tense uses present-tense words: She walks down the street.

      As for discovering your audience, the trick is to envision your *one* ideal reader. Ask yourself about this person’s gender, age, race, income, and interests.

  53. Succinct!
    Often find myself desperate to explain.
    Will refrain.
    Thanks, Katie!

  54. Elizabeth says:

    I’ve learned a lot from you, Ms.Weiland. I’ve learned from people like CAroline Levitt, James Patterson, Jerry Jenkins and Dr. Yeoman (who is no longer with us) to mention a few. But no one can cause me to see deep into my work as you and Dr. Yeoman.

    Cutting becomes an art, like declutting. Years ago I was praying and asking why I started writing at a very early age, published at 16 but could not write a good novel (short stories and poetry ‘yes”) and the answer that would come to me was “declutter”, and I would say, “God what do you mean by that? Do I have to decluter my house? My office?”.

    As a psychologist I tend to look for hidden motives of my subconscious mind., so I pushed the thought away, but during my prayers it would come back at me. So I started declutering my office, but very carefully also removing some of those ‘little darlings’ that kills our prose. I kept up doing just this, and then, suddenly I achieved another level of understanding (one that I would never had reached had I not begin to decluter my copy).

    This article is a must to any aspiring writer. I also like to to remind writers that use scrivener to print every single editing, if you plan to continue using scrivener. I lost all my edited files to scrivener and they can’t be recovered.

Trackbacks

Speak Your Mind

*