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.

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. 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!)

  2. Author Allyn Lesley says

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

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

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

  5. 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.

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

  7. 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.

  8. Passive writing sneaks up on me, but I’m working on it! I found the Hemingway Editor is a great resource for when I’m writing. It highlights passive sentences, use of adverbs, and weak wording. And shifting my writing between two programs encourages me to write tighter sentences!

    Though in all honesty, I doubt I’ll ever like cutting adverbs completely.

    When I was younger, I set myself a challenge to assign my characters a word-count limit. Your average person might get 15-20 words per sentence. At most. Dreamers averaged 20-25, and talkative (rambling) characters didn’t have a limit at all. I had to stop when I got to a character so terse he only had 10 words per sentence. It was near-impossible to write from his POV because he couldn’t describe anything. Every single one of those words were pulling their weight somewhere else!

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