How I revise a sentence

Let’s say my novel’s first draft has a sentence like this:

Sara awoke at four o’clock a.m. for the fifth time that night, and found herself slightly irritated when she discovered that John was still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder rolled outside.

My first thought is that it’s a bit clunky. It’s longer and wordier and more complicated than it needs to be. I’d start by splitting it into two sentences.

Sara awoke at four o’clock a.m. for the fifth time that night. She found herself slightly irritated when she discovered that John was still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder rolled outside.

Better, but still clunky. Here’s one example: “She found herself slightly irritated”. The adverb “slightly” contributes nothing. If her irritation is so slight, why mention it? On the other hand, if she’s significantly irritated, why qualify it with an adverb?

And “found herself” — does that phrase add anything? In this case, I’d say it’s just a longer version of “was” that offers no extra insight, meaning, or beauty.

“She found herself slightly irritated” becomes “She was irritated”. From five words to three, from ten syllables to six. (Syllables matter because we mentally read “out loud” even when we read silently.)

Sara awoke at four o’clock a.m. for the fifth time that night. She was irritated when she discovered that John was still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder rolled outside.

Another clunky bit: “when she discovered that John was still sleeping peacefully”. This can be streamlined as well: “to find John still sleeping peacefully”. We’ve swapped the verb “discover” for “find” — there are times when the specialized meaning of “discover” justifies its extra length, but this isn’t one of them. “Find” conveys the meaning with perfect clarity. (Notice we’ve left the adverb “peacefully” for now. We should regard adverbs with suspicion, but not all adverbs are evil. This one conveys significant meaning, unlike our “slightly” from earlier.)

We’ve cut another three words, another five syllables.

Sara awoke at four o’clock a.m. for the fifth time that night. She was irritated to find John still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder rolled outside.

Next up: “four o’clock a.m.” Assuming this is written from Sara’s point of view, “four o’clock a.m.” makes her sound a bit technical, even formal. If that’s not our intention, then we want something a little more relaxed: “four in the morning”. (If context makes it clear, we could even drop “in the morning,” but we’ll leave it for now.)

Sara awoke at four in the morning for the fifth time that night. She was irritated to find John still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder rolled outside.

“Sara awoke” is slightly awkward because of the two consecutive “ah” sounds. If I were reading that aloud, I’d have to leave a slight pause to make it clear that they were separate words. It doesn’t flow. Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: “Sara woke.” This has the pleasant side effect of cutting another syllable.

I’m also concerned about having “four” and “fifth” so close together. They’re both numbers, which may get the brain thinking numerically and comparing them and wondering (for a split-second) if there might be a connection between them. But there’s no connection, and there’s probably no need for such precision. Most likely, I’m just trying to say that it’s early, and Sara slept badly. If that’s the case, two numbers in one sentence are probably just a distraction.

So let’s try this:

Sara woke yet again. It was four in the morning. She was irritated to find John still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder rolled outside.

We’re up to three sentences now, but that’s okay. We’ve cut our word count further. In fact, if we’re willing to be a bit informal for the sake of better sentence flow, we can even cut “It was”.

Sara woke yet again. Four in the morning. She was irritated to find John still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder rolled outside.

Now I’m looking at “She was irritated to find”. It’s also a bit clunky (I say that a lot, don’t I?), but there’s another problem: I’m telling the reader that she’s irritated.

All new writers hear the advice “Show, don’t tell.” Now, as with most writing advice, you can take that too far. If it’s raining, you don’t need to show that it’s raining, you can just say it. The advice applies more to emotions and subjective judgments.

If your hero is a lazy slob, it’s better to show examples — “He slumped on the couch for another afternoon nap, wiping Dorito crumbs from his cheek” — than to just say he’s a lazy slob. Why? Because an observation has a stronger impact when readers deduce it themselves. When someone tells you something, they could be wrong, but when you see something, you know (or believe) it’s right.

So how can we show Sara’s irritation?

Sara woke yet again. Four in the morning. John was still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder rolled outside. Seriously?

A one-word thought from Sara does the trick. There are a million other paths we could have chosen, of course. By the way, we’re now up to four sentences, but again, that doesn’t hurt anything.

I’m not crazy about “thunder rolled”. It’s a bit cliche. Not as cliche as “raining cats and dogs,” for example, but it’s still a very common (and boring) way to describe thunder. We can do better. The replacement we choose depends on context, the effect we’re trying to achieve, and personal preference. For today, let’s try “thunder growled” — a phrase I can’t remember ever hearing before.

Sara woke yet again. Four in the morning. John was still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder growled outside. Seriously?

We could keep going, tweaking and adjusting forever in pursuit of that perfect sentence. (I’m not thrilled with “even as”, for instance.) But I’m reasonably happy with what I’ve done, so we’ll stop there.

Let’s compare.

Our original sentence:

Sara awoke at four o’clock a.m. for the fifth time that night, and found herself slightly irritated when she discovered that John was still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder rolled outside.

Our revision:

Sara woke yet again. Four in the morning. John was still sleeping peacefully, even as thunder growled outside. Seriously?

From 31 words to 19. From 48 syllables to 31. The result is clearer, simpler, and more convincing, with no significant loss of meaning.

At this point, you may think I’m kinda crazy. So let me address three possible objections you might have to the process above.

Objection #1: This isn’t necessary. The sentence was fine to begin with. It was grammatical, and I understood it. We’re obsessing over minutiae that will never matter to a typical reader.

Okay. Let’s say you’re an architect, and the plan for a house has a four-inch step up from the living room to the kitchen, for no particular reason.

You could say the step is “fine.” It’s practically no extra effort to lift your foot an extra four inches. If someone visits your house for an evening, they’ll surely remember the time they spent talking with you, rather than a slight architectural oddity.

All true.

But the step is a tripping hazard. It’s a distraction, making people devote just a bit of extra brainpower to navigating the house. That might not be a big deal if you only use the step once, but if the problem repeats thousands of times, it gets to be a drag.

Above all, it’s unnecessary — good craftsmanship demands simplicity (unless you’re trying for a certain stylistic effect on purpose). To an architect, the step calls out to be removed.

I assume. I’m not an architect.

Objection #2: This is too much work. You could spend five or ten minutes working through the changes above. Are you really asking an author to do this kind of thing for every single sentence?

Yes and no.

Yes, every sentence requires a careful eye, and revision if necessary. But no, it doesn’t have to be an arduous process. The more you revise, the more it becomes second nature. Your first drafts will also get cleaner over time. These days, it’d be pretty unusual for me to write a sentence like the original one above, even in a first draft.

It’s kind of like driving. If you make a list of everything you have to do for a quick trip to the store — buckle seat belt, check mirrors, start engine, check dash, foot on brake, put car in reverse, foot on gas, look at signs, look for pedestrians, on and on — it sounds like a lot. And maybe it is, when you first learn to drive. But after a while, you barely even think about it.

Objection #3: You’re dumbing down your writing. Readers should be willing to read carefully and think carefully. By streamlining and simplifying this way, you’re making readers lazy and stripping away all the subtle stylistic touches that make writing great.

Nope.

A book is sort of like a contract between reader and writer. The reader agrees to expend time and mental energy to listen to (and think about) what the writer has to say. In return, the writer conveys their message as simply as possible, imposing as little burden on the reader as they can.

If your message is inherently difficult or complex, and the reader won’t take the time to think it through, then perhaps you can call the reader lazy. But if you’re making your message more complicated than it needs to be, then it’s you, the author, who is lazy. (Notice, again, that the original and revised versions above convey almost exactly the same meaning.)

As for style — if you’re trying for a particular style, and your style demands some complexity, then by all means, go for it. But that’s not a violation of the “simple as possible” law. We’re still trying to reach our goal as simply as possible — it’s just that our goal now includes this particular style, so as simply as possible is more complex than it was before.

Anyway.

Questions? Comments? More objections? Thoughts? Invective? Fire away.

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9 responses to “How I revise a sentence

  1. Four in the morning
    Awoken, again, she stares
    To her side lies john

    Peacefully, John slept
    Even as thunder growled
    Seriously, how?

    • lol I kept saying “growled” in my head as 2 syllables, seems the internet says otherwise.

      to keep haiku form, maybe that line could be changed to:
      shades aglow, thunder clapping

      or just say growled like grow-led 😄

      • There’s actually a standard mark, in poetry, to indicate that part of a word (typically an ending -ed) is pronounced with an extra syllable. You normally see it in old-school metered poetry, like John Keats’ stuff, rather than haiku, but there’s no reason we can’t borrow it for a minute:

        Even as thunder growlèd

        You say that as GROW-lid, which may not be the pronunciation you had in mind, but it gets the job done. 🙂

  2. My favorite comment on this comes from a profile Kenneth Tynan wrote about Tom Stoppard in the New Yorker some ages ago:

    To illustrate the problems of dramatic composition, he has brought along two dozen drafts of the blast of invective that [Tristan] Tzara launches against [James] Joyce in “Travesties.” He reads them out, from the first attempt, which begins, “You blarney-arsed bog-eating Irish pig,” to the final version, which starts, “By God, you supercilious streak of Irish puke!” What isn’t commonly understood, he adds, is that “all this takes weeks.”

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1977/12/19/withdrawing-with-style-from-the-chaos

    For me, though, I don’t worry too much about making things shorter. I go for grammar, and playback. I guess it’s because I started as a musician — I revise and listen and revise and listen and revise and listen until it sounds right.

  3. Two thoughts. First, when I read the original version, even before you explained the problem, my first thought was “how can you wake up at 4 in the morning 5 times? Once you do it the first time, 4 in the morning is gone until the next night.” I don’t know why I do that.

    Also, how about “the thunder grumbled”?

    • No, you’re right, that’s another problem with the original — the literal reading does suggest waking up five times at the same time. So that’s another reason it had to go. The reader can deduce the meaning with common sense, but it’s still a distraction from the story.

      I think “the thunder grumbled” is good. 🙂

  4. This was truly inspiring. Best writing lesson I’ve ever had.

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