When editors talk about polishing sentences, making them smoother, what do they mean? Have sentences become planes or aerodynamic cars?
How do you ‘streamline’ prose with a line edit?
Let’s examine a passage in Lucy Reevely’s manuscript, Alone With All of You.
Lucy “knew the prose needed some reworking”, but she didn’t know what her editor, William, would do – exactly.
In the Editorial Memo, William explains in broad terms what Lucy should look out for in her prose. He focuses on the usual culprits, adjectives and adverbs:
"A lot of the word choice issues are with adjectives that you can generally cut out entirely without losing much meaning. Doing so can really tighten your sentences up, help them flow better in a reader’s mind, and cut a little bulk out of the word count. The same is usually true of adverbs. That’s not to say that you can’t use descriptive language where appropriate, but try to make your default not using adjectives or adverbs, and only use them where they are really effective."
Let’s look at a quick passage from when Lucy’s protagonist, Arnold, first arrives in a new world:
Arnold lay facedown. His rearranged limbs sprawled out over the cold, hard ground. His heavy eyelids lifted as he stirred awake. Every bone and muscle in him was emitting a paralyzing tenderness. He tried to take a big breath, but it was useless; the rocky surface pushed into his sensitive chest. Gulping hopelessly, he rolled onto his back, and a desperate gasp for breath was finally fed. The smell of damp shot into his nostrils as he sucked in every last bit of air.
Take out the adjectives and adverbs, and we end up with:
Arnold lay facedown. His limbs sprawled out over the ground. His eyelids lifted as he stirred. Every bone and muscle in him was emitting a tenderness. He tried to take a breath, but it was useless; the surface pushed into his chest. Gulping, he rolled onto his back, and a gasp for breath was fed. The smell shot into his nostrils as he sucked in air.
Reading two of those passages next to each other, the only adjectives William decided to put back in were “rocky” and “damp.” However, he felt it might be even cleaner to replace “the surface” with “rocks.” “The smell of damp” can be streamlined by changing it to “A damp smell.”
Arnold lay facedown. His limbs sprawled out over the ground. His eyelids lifted as he stirred. Every bone and muscle radiated pain. He tried to take a breath, but it was useless; rocks pushed into his chest. Gulping, he rolled onto his back, and gasped for breath. A damp smell shot into his nostrils as he sucked in air.
From the original 82 words, we are down to a leaner, clearer 59. There are still changes Lucy could make to that passage, but this is a good start as far as establishing a good, smooth descriptive voice.
As Lucy says, “The difference it makes is amazing considering you’re only getting rid of a few words here and there, but it reads so much smoother.”
If you feel your own sentences might be too wordy, try working on a single passage as an exercise. Follow these steps:
1. Find a passage that seems convoluted. Read it aloud to yourself. (Reading aloud will show you how it sounds, how well the sentences flow.)
2. Copy and paste the same passage.
3. In the copied passage, delete all the adverbs and adjectives. They disguise themselves, so read carefully.
4. Read the new passage aloud.
5. Compare it to the old passage. Decide which adjectives or adverbs should be added back. It may be because a word is necessary to convey a mood or information (such as a damp smell) or you may feel the tonality of the sentence benefits from a word.
6. Take a moment to admire your streamlined passage.
7. Keep copy, pasting, and removing adjectives and adverbs until your entire manuscript is as smooth as a G6 jet plane. Bonus: You’ll cut a significant chunk of your word count.
8. Double bonus: Your readers and/or agent will love you for it.
Do you want to rant about adjectives and adverbs? Let it all out in the comments below.
If you have any favorite tips or suggestions about streamlining your prose, be sure to share them!