What do you do when your sentences tangle themselves up in knots? It’s a common problem. Writers often discover awkward sentences strewn across their first drafts. That’s one reason good writers make a point of editing their own work. It’s during editing passes that writers can discover and fix any awkward sentences that snuck in during first-draft writing.
The quickest fix
Sometimes all you need to do to untangle an awkward sentence is to ask yourself, “What is it that I am REALLY trying to say here?” Then say the answer, either out loud or inside your head. If it sounds good, write it down.
This works because speech and writing seem to tap into slightly different brain functions. Sometimes, if you are stumped about how to write something clearly, you can solve the problem by accessing the “speech” part of your brain. When this works, it’s an elegant, quick solution. When it doesn’t, you’ll need to try more analytical approaches, as described below.
Check for inconsistencies
Often, inconsistencies can make sentences awkward. Check your messed-up sentences for the following:
– Plural and singular: Make sure your verbs match your nouns – singular verbs with singular nouns, and plural verbs with plural nouns.
– Voice: Make sure you haven’t arbitrarily switched point-of-view, for example, by starting the sentence addressing the reader as “you,” then switching mid-sentence to “we” or “I,” without having a specific reason for doing so.
– Items in a series: When you have items in a series, each item should have the same grammatical structure. For example, if you have a list of nouns, don’t throw in a verb – don’t write “She likes apples, pears, and to swim.” If you have a series consisting of phrases, make sure each one has the same basic structure.
– Dangling modifiers: When detangling awkward sentences, check to see that your modifiers are attached where they should be.
– Vague pronoun references: Is it clear what your pronouns refer to?
Often solving these kinds of mechanical problems can go a long way towards making your sentences less awkward and more elegant.
Use strong verbs
If your sentence seems convoluted and weak, check the main verb. If it’s a form of “to be” or a similar verb that does not convey action, you may be able to dramatically improve your sentence by using a stronger verb.
Ask yourself: what is the action that this sentence describes? Often, when the main verb of a sentence is weak, the real action of the sentence is trapped inside nouns. Rewrite the sentence, using verbs to convey the action.
Good writers know that writing is a two-step process – first you write a draft, and then you go through one or more editing passes. It’s in the editing phase of your work that you can best fix awkward sentences. While writing probably relies to some extent on inborn talent, editing seems to be primarily a learned skill, and the more you do it, the more skillful you become.
“Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing” by Claire Kehrwald Cook. This book will turn you into a champion self-editor.