Editing Workshop, 9: It All Starts with Sentences

I wish I could have sat my recent author down early on in his project and offered a few basic hints about sentences. He could obviously teach me a few things about organizing vast amounts of research into a reasonably coherent narrative. Structure matters even in a very short work — a letter to the editor, for instance — but in a work that runs well over a thousand pages in manuscript it’s crucial.

However (the editor said testily), you can’t create structure without sentences, and a work that runs well over a thousand pages in manuscript contains a lot of sentences. Word won’t tell me how many sentences there were in my recent copyedit, but if I take the word count, 347,179 (which doesn’t include endnotes), and divide by 15 (an arbitrary number based on a quick Google search on “average number of words in a sentence”), I get 23,145.

How to ensure that each one does its job of conveying information and moving the reader forward? This is what I would have told my author if I’d had the chance:

Sentences, like clotheslines, tend to sag in the middle.
  • Sentences tend to sag in the middle. The longer the sentence, the greater the sag. (This is also true of paragraphs.)
  • Subjects and verbs gain impact when they’re fairly close together.
  • Modifiers (adjectives, adverbs, phrases, and clauses) gain impact when they’re close to what they modify.
  • Sentences don’t exist in isolation. They link the preceding sentence to the one that follows. (This too is true of paragraphs.)

Here’s an example of a sentence that sags in the middle and in the process separates a clause from the main part of the sentence. (I’ve edited it to remove identifiable specifics.)

When the issue concerned civil liberties—“the problem is a thorny one,” Mr. X wrote, and it was being emphasized by [several individuals whom X doesn’t like], and even [a colleague] (who saw him “as an obstructionist”)—X’s pique rose.

The important point here is that X got pissed off when the issue of civil liberties came up, but what comes between the beginning and end of the sentence is so long and involved that it’s easy to lose the connection. What comes between the em dashes really belongs in a separate sentence. This is what I came up with:

When the issue concerned civil liberties, X’s pique rose. “The problem is a thorny one,” he wrote, and what’s more, it was being emphasized by [several individuals whom X doesn’t like], and even [a colleague] (who saw him “as an obstructionist”).

Here’s a shorter example, taken from a longer sentence about a political campaign:

Accompanied by numerous local officials and party leaders, she stumped across the city, charming nearly all, according to the reporters in tow, whom she encountered.

Is there any good reason to impose such distance between “whom she encountered” and the “nearly all” that it clearly modifies? I don’t think so. “According to the reporters in tow” belongs at the end of the sentence: “. . . charming nearly all whom she encountered, according to the reporters in tow.” In this version “whom,” though correct, could be safely dropped: “charming nearly all she encountered.”

I surmise from the original that the author thought it was important to provide a source for the assertion that this woman charmed all she encountered; otherwise he wouldn’t have stuck “according to the reporters in tow” in such a prominent place. It serves its purpose at the end of the sentence, but it might also be safely relegated to an endnote.

Like many biographies, my copyedit included many quotations and even dialogue constructed from journals, letters, and notes taken at meetings. Books have been written about how to write effective dialogue, and I’ve blogged about it more than once, but here’s an example of how sentence structure matters in dialogue.

An indispensable tool for shaping dialogue is the tag — the short bit, often no more than a subject and a verb, that attributes the words to a speaker. I think of tags as a sort of punctuation: where you put them influences how the reader hears what the speaker is saying. My author’s penchant for dropping phrases and clauses into awkward places carried into his placement of dialogue tags. Consider this one:

“I thought,” he later said, “I was dying.”

“I thought I was dying” is a dramatic statement, and here it comes at the end of an extended scene that makes it clear that the speaker had excellent reason to believe he was dying. But here the dialogue tag undermines the impact of that short, strong sentence. So I suggested putting it at the end.

The author sometimes does the same trick where dialogue isn’t involved, as here:

At the station, for the first time, Richard held his eight-month-old daughter.

This fellow is just back from extended wartime service. (As it happens, he’s the same guy who thought he was dying in the previous example.) In other words, this scene is as dramatic in its way as the one in which he thought he was dying — and “for the first time” interrupts the visual image. It’s significant, but not as significant as the picture of a young man seeing his first child for the first time. Move it to the end of the sentence and all is well.

One last example:

The project soon fell through, in a clash of personalities and objectives.

There’s nothing wrong with this sentence as a stand-alone. My snap decision to rearrange it was due to what preceded it: a vivid description of those clashing personalities and objectives. So I turned it around: “In a clash of personalities and objectives, the project soon fell through.”

In the online editors’ groups I frequent, editors will often request help or second opinions on a particular sentence. Sometimes it’s easy to see how the sentence could be improved, but other times it depends on what comes before and what comes after.

When you’re editing, you make most of these decisions on the fly. When you’re writing, you can usually take time to try out various alternatives and decide what works best. (If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know I’m a big fan of reading stuff out loud. Often it’s easier to hear the emphasis in a sentence than to see it inert on page or screen.)

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Got a question about sentences, punctuation, usage, or anything else editorial? Either leave it in the comments or use the contact form on the menu bar up top — click on, you guessed it, “Got a Question?”

Location!

Location, location, location!

It’s not just about real estate. For writers it’s also about where you place the words, phrases, and clauses that make up your sentence.

English is wonderfully flexible in oh so many ways. Sentences don’t have to follow the same subject-verb-object pattern. The same word can change the meaning of a sentence depending on where it’s placed. Here’s a simple example, using “only”:

Only she would eat coffee ice cream for breakfast.

She would eat only coffee ice cream for breakfast.

She would eat coffee ice cream only for breakfast.

Phrases and clauses can mean different things depending on where they’re placed in a sentence. I do much of my copyediting for trade and university presses. The authors of the manuscripts I edit are a generally experienced, accomplished lot. They know what they’re doing. When a sentence brings me screeching to a halt, it’s often because a phrase or a clause either creates ambiguity or gives the wrong impression altogether. The phrase or clause itself is fine: it’s just in the wrong place.

typo

Recently I copyedited a biography whose author had a penchant for dropping short phrases in between subjects and their verbs. An example: “Smith, at times, tried to relax.”

Mind you, this isn’t wrong. Sometimes sticking a phrase between subject and verb yields exactly the shading and cadence you want. In general, though, proximity strengthens the connection between two parts of a sentence, and usually we want our subjects clearly and closely connected to their verbs. More to the point, this particular author was splitting up subjects and verbs so often that I suspected a literary tic — one of those habits writers get into without realizing it. So I made it “At times, Smith tried to relax.”

If you deal in dialogue or quoted material, where you place the attribution — whatever you’re using to identify the speaker — can make a big difference in how readers  read/hear the text. “He said,” “she said,” and all the rest function like punctuation. They can create a pause or emphasize a phrase or group a string of phrases together. Here’s a random example from my novel in progress. Matthew is a four-year-old being bratty in the back seat.

“That’s enough, Matthew,” said their mother, not turning around. Matthew looked surprised. “When we get home,” she promised, “I’ll put water in the play pool and you can play in it while I work in the garden.”

That last sentence could be arranged in several ways. “She promised” could come at the end, or after “play pool.” The “when” clause could come in the middle or at the end. For now I like it the way it is. (I beginning to suspect, however, that the mid-October weather is too chilly for the play pool and that Mom isn’t much of a gardener.)

Here’s a nonfiction example, adapted from the biography mentioned above:

“The big issue of the campaign,” stated Williams, “will be security.”

Coming upon this sentence, my immediate reaction was that putting the attribution in the middle weakened the connection between the subject and the object — when “big issue = security” is the whole point of the statement. So I moved it to the beginning:

Stated Williams, “The big issue of the campaign will be security.”

Again, the original isn’t wrong, but the edited version is stronger. (The author liked it better too.)

The lovely flexibility of English makes it possible to construct sentences that are perfectly grammatical but that either don’t say what the writer meant to say or make it unclear what the writer did mean to say. Here’s an example. The author is writing about the New Deal.

The Republican resurgence in the elections of 1938 and 1942 spawned a congressional counterattack against FDR’s domestic agenda which saw such agencies as the National Youth Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps vanish amidst the exigencies of war.

Huh? thought I. FDR’s domestic agenda killed the NYA and CCC? On second reading, I realized that no, it was the congressional counterattack that helped do the agencies in. The “exigencies of war” evidently had something to do with it, but “amidst” was vague about what. And was the congressional counterattack just sitting on the sidelines watching all this happen?

As a writer, I know that ambiguity can be intentional, but in a history book it’s generally not a plus. I didn’t see a way to move the “which” clause closer to “counterattack” without making a big snarly mess, so I broke the sentence in two:

The Republican resurgence in the elections of 1938 and 1942 spawned a congressional counterattack against FDR’s domestic agenda. That, along with the exigencies of war, caused the demise of such agencies as the National Youth Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps.

Because the original was somewhat ambiguous and because my edit made the cause-and-effect relationship more explicit, I flagged it with a query to the author: “OK?” It was.

mistake

Finally, here’s an instance where a very capable writer didn’t realize that the words weren’t saying quite what he meant to say. The question was whether Jones (not his real name) was “the right man for the job in China, which required more diplomatic finesse and fewer prejudices than he was capable of.”

Jones was fairly riddled with prejudices, and being capable of more wouldn’t have made him the right man for the job. The writer knew that; the problem was the word order. The fix was easy: I swapped “diplomatic finesse” and “fewer prejudices” and voilà, the question now was whether Jones was “the right man for the job in China, which required fewer prejudices and more diplomatic finesse than he was capable of.”