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Wrestling with Sentences

April 2, 2009

The most common mistake I see in my students’ work is the belief that “revision” means you read over the draft and correct a few typos and inconsistencies.

“Revision” means you need to break down every sentence, define its purpose, and either fix it or get rid of it. Read the paragraph out loud, with and without the sentence. If it works without it, cut it. Don’t fall so in love with your own words that you refuse to cut anything.

Those who refuse to cut remain unpublished.

Once you have a string of best sellers, you can throw your weight around, as several well-known writers do, and refuse edits or cuts. They’ve earned enough cash for the publisher to justify it. Until you’re in the same position you’re going to have to learn to cut. Hopefully, as you grow in your writing fluency, you’ll see where cuts are appropriate, and where it’s appropriate to embellish. Sometimes, especially in transitions, writers rush over or skip over important information and jar the reader out of the story.

Again, every sentence has to serve a purpose. Every sentence must serve the paragraph, the chapter, and the overall book. Otherwise, change it or remove it. Keep working at each and every sentence until it fulfills it mission.

That’s different from “killing your darlings”, which to me is a silly concept. You should love your work; however, you have to be able to revise it with the same objectivity as though it was written by someone else. You have to be willing to strip away anything that obscures the context in order to make the book shine. That takes time. If you start revisions immediately after you finish a draft, you won’t see the problems; you can’t. You’re still in the subjective head necessary to create rather than the objective head necessary to revise.

The other biggest problem is the overuse of passive. Readers don’t want to read about what WAS DONE TO the character, or what the character HAD DONE when the readers weren’t around. They want to read what the character DOES. They don’t want to read ABOUT the character’s experience. They want to EXPERIENCE the actions with the character.

As you revise, take out every passive use. If it can’t be replaced with more active phrasing, then put the passive back in. Otherwise, replace it with something active.

If the point of your book is that the character is passive, let’s hope the character grows into activity during the course of the book, and we start to see the growth early and the characters around the passive character are active. Passive voice can (rarely) work throughout a short story. There are few stylists who are good enough to make it work over the course of an entire novel.

Don’t rush your revision process or fall into the fallacy that a single pass will whip it into submission shape. Once you’ve sold a few books, you will probably need fewer drafts. But when you’re starting out, keep at it. You’ll feel it when you hit the right point – and then anything beyond becomes counter-productive and an excuse not to submit.

Trust your story. Trust your characters. And wrestle every sentence so it’s the best it can be (a deliberate use of passive).

-Devon Ellington

Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. She writes The Jain Lazarus Adventures (http://hexbreaker.devonellingtonwork.com), has a YA horse racing mystery releasing this summer, and her plays are produced all over the world. Visit her blog, Ink in My Coffee: http://devonellington.wordpress.com, for more information.

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