But there is more to editing our sentences than simply making sure the basic structure is correct. We have to also make sure that the sentence is doing what we want it to do for our reader. Sentences can be constructed in many different ways so being precise means making thoughtful choices.
Stanley Fish (2011) suggests a little experiment to help writers understand the nature of sentences.
Look around the room you’re sitting in. Pick out four items at random. I’m doing it now and my items are a desk, a television, a door and a pencil. Now, make the words you have chosen into a sentence using as few additional words as possible….That’s the easy part. The hard part is to answer this question: what did you just do? How were you able to turn a random list into a sentence? It might take you a little while but, in time, you will figure it out and say something like this: “I put the relationships in.” That is to say, you arranged the words so that they were linked up to the others by relationships.
Fish defines a sentence as “a structure of logical relationships”. This is helpful because now, as an editor, you can have a way to evaluate whether the sentence you created is doing what you want it to do. If not, how can you change its structure to make it better? Let’s look at our examples below:
Active Example 1: The student wrote the essay.
What if we changed this around?
Passive Example 2: The essay was written by the student.
The first example is an “active” sentence in which the subject (the student) is performing some action (writing an essay). The sentence is about the student.
The second example is a “passive” sentence in which the subject (the essay) is having something done to it by something or someone else (being written by the student). The sentence is now about the essay. In most cases in academic writing, active sentences are preferred but there may be good reasons to structure a more passive sentence. Why? Think about it.
Obviously, sentences can also be more complex and interesting than the examples here. There can be “ands” and “buts” and adjectives and details etc. These are all choices you make as a writer – choices that affect the meaning, the emphasis, the impact of each sentence. Editing means examining these choices more closely and determining whether your sentences are doing what you want them to do. Consider asking these questions as you engage in the editing process:
- Is the sentence properly constructed (begins with a capital, ends with a period, has a subject and a verb that match etc.)
- A good site from the Frankfurt International School on the fundamentals of English sentence structure
- Is the sentence about what you want it to be about?
- Interesting article by Stanley Fish on the idea of good sentences
- Is the sentence clear?
- Good resource on sentence clarity from the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University
- Is the sentence concise?
- Here are some quick and dirty tips on writing clear and concise sentences
- Does the sentence include the necessary, interesting detail?
- Does the sentence avoid being too dramatic or “flowery” (unless there’s a good reason to write that way)?
- Does your writing fall into the category of purple prose?
- Does the sentence keep the reader’s understanding in mind?
- Good tip-sheet on “audience” from the Writing Centre at the University of north Carolina at Chapel Hill
- Does the sentence connect well and logically with the adjacent sentences?
- Another good tip-sheet on using “transitions” from the Writing Centre at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- Is the sentence written in the appropriate style (formal, informal, journalistic…)?
- Does the sentence incorporate citations appropriately?
- Have you varied the structure of your sentences to add interest to the paper?