Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Writing Clearer, Simpler, Cleaner

First of all, Happy Birthday to my mom, who turned 71 today! Rah! Yes, that's me in the pink satin dress. I'm standing with my brother and sister, who always made fun of me regarding this photo because my big toe is sticking up in the air. Ah, siblings.

If you're like me when you're writing, you find passages that need to be tightened (usually later). You find sentences and phrases that can be made clearer, simpler, and cleaner. Critique partners can help you find these muddy spots. Here are some things to watch out for while you're improving your prose.

Felt or feeling (and seem) can be Telling words--and are also unnecessary and distancing. In the first excerpt below, these words don't add a thing. Compare these examples:

Marie walked out into the field where the horses stood. As she felt the long blades of grass whip her bare legs, a breeze sprang up. She approached a white mare, feeling a surge of excitement shoot through her body.

Marie walked out into the field where the horses stood. As the long blades of grass whipped her bare legs, a breeze sprang up. She approached a white mare, a surge of excitement shooting through her body.

Sometimes we need to check to make sure we're really saying what we mean to say:

His eyes darted around the room. vs His gaze darted around the room.
--The case of the wandering, unattached eyeballs. I do this a lot. Trying to cut down.

Her hands placed the flowers in the vase. vs. She placed the flowers in the vase.

He pulled the keys out of his pocket. vs. He pulled the keys from his pocket.

Grandma's head jerked up to look me in the eye. (Really? Her head looked me in the eye?)

A sticky prickling washed through me like a raging fire.
--Mixed simile and not accurate; a sticky prickling wouldn't "wash" or be like a raging fire.

My father stuffed the hat into the box with a frown.
--Does the box have a frown? Better: With a frown, my father stuffed the hat into the box. Keep the action close to the noun it describes.

She didn't have time to contemplate her thoughts any further.
--Contemplation IS the act of thinking; you don't think about your thoughts. Yep, I really wrote this line in one of my novels. *headsmack*

Gayle left her mother, retreating to her desk. (Whose desk, Gayle's or her mother's?)

I approached the barn as the sun kissed the sky with a lovely red-orange at the horizon.
Simpler: I approached the barn as the sun kissed the horizon with a lovely red-orange.

Do you write unclear sentences like the ones here, especially in your first drafts?
Do you have a doozy of a sentence from your writing you'd like to share?
When you revise, are you able to clean up your writing well?
How much do you rely on eagle-eye critique partners to help you find confusing or unclear sentences?


  1. I tend to want to say "in the floor" instead of "on". I guess because when casually talking and growing up in a rural community, it's what we say. I have left it in dialogue when I know that person will say it, but I still get hammered by critique partners.

    I clean up much better in editing than first go round. Great tips, Carol. Love the big toe sticking up. It's cute!

  2. I'd also argue in your last example retreating could apply to either Gayle or her mother-- is Gayle leaving her mother by retreating to the desk, or is Gayle leaving her mother who was retreating to the desk?

    I'm overly aware of wandering bodyparts after reading a blog post by edittorrent, so when I do inevitably write about what people's eyes/feet/hands etc. are doing I end up stopping my flow to fix it.

  3. Some of your examples are hilarious. Great post. And yes, I write lots of foggy, unclear, and sometimes LOL sentences, especially in first drafts. Thank goodness for revisions.

    P.S. Such a cute photo. And happy birthday to your mom.

  4. Happy birthday to your mum
    I enjoyed your examples. Made me chuckle as I can identify with them, too.

  5. At the recent SCBWI retreat, where I met you, the agent that critiqued my work mentioned the need for me to "tighten" some areas. It reminds me of trimming the fat! Thanks for your helpful hints Carol - they're great!

  6. I love that photo. Happy birthday to your mum.

    Great examples. It's always good to be reminded of those wordy phrases. I'm terrible with 'out of'.

  7. happy birthday to you Mom! Best Wishes all around.

    regarding prose, two words stump me; aloud or out loud.
    Very annoying.

  8. Happy Birthday to your mom! :)

    I always write unclear sentences in my drafts. And I have a tendency to overlook them when I'm editing, since I know what they're supposed mean.

  9. Excellent examples. Yes, I write unnecessary words, sentences, and even paragraphs. I'm getting better at tightening things up. :)

  10. I'm sure I've made most of these mistakes; but I usually catch them myself. Still, I hope my crit partners point them out when found :)

    Good examples


  11. Great advice, Carol! Jeez, there are always SO MANY THINGS TO THINK ABOUT with writing.

  12. I often think about my thoughts! :-)

    Great post, I especially appreciate it after three days of plowing and replanting a manuscript that was severely inked in a recent critique. I make the mistake of repeating words - I remember Kelly mentioned that as a common occurrence in the mss she reviews.

    But I also keep using "had" i.e. "I had looked earlier" or "He had told us" when it should just be "I looked earlier" and "He told us." Keep it active! Oh as you can see, I write in 1st person. Never knew what was preferred; it just felt right.

    Thanks much!

  13. An excellent reminder, Carol. I'm guilty as charged. I don't catch most of these til edits, and sometimes not til the third or fourth round. When I critique I pull out lots of "I feel" sentences... so I think we're all guilty of it. :)
    Love your pic! Your mom is just beautiful .... and you look just like her.

  14. I make these mistakes a lot. It's nice to be reminded how our words can take on many different meanings. Thank you for this.

  15. Love the big toe! :)

    Great tips! I'm an offender when it comes to extra words. It takes me lots of time to pare down my language.

  16. Yay, I was able to pull up your blog!

    Um, heck yeah I write stuff like this. All the time. I try not to worry about in draft 1, or else I'd never finished. But draft after draft i keep catching it.

  17. Some of your examples made me giggle. My own goofs are a constant source of entertainment! LOL

    I definitely have an issue saying what I mean sometimes. Usually it's when I try to get clever that I muck things up. I've been learning that direct and simple are all some sentences need.

    Happy B-day to your mom. :D

  18. Oh I'm so glad to see you post this. I was starting to feel like a bully with my new critique group, most of whom love making things do what they don't or can't.

  19. "Cleaning up" my ms this way is one of my favorite revision activities, because it's so easy. It's one of those semi-mindless jobs, like washing dishes, that doesn't take a whole lot of brainpower but yields sparkling results and a sense of accomplishment! I'm definitely guilty of using "feeling" or "felt" too much, so I always do a search for those words.

  20. I have a lot of trouble with prepositions, like Jessica said. It's because I'm not a native speaker, and I just can't seem to get it, lol. So my sentences look pretty much like your pocket example, haha.
    Anyway, nice hints. And in a timely fashion, since I'm revising now.

    Btw, it was so nice to see you on my blog. I hope things have been going well with you! <3

  21. Happy birthday to your mom. And I love the pink dress. :) I have tons of sentences like the ones you described. I can usually sift through a bunch of them and make the necessary changes, but critique partners have come in so handy in the process. Have a great weekend. :)

  22. such great tips, Carol. It's amazing how you can just slip certain words out of the sentence and the whole thing just flows and sounds so much better. Great work, and happy b'day to your mom! :o) <3

  23. Very good stuff here. I think when I first write it comes out in a jumble and it takes serious editing to get it all smooth and purty. I wish I could do it well in the first draft, but I think it will take many more years of writing until I can.

  24. your toe is sticking up. that's cute:)
    good writing is the result of revision. the initial barf of words is just that. my training is less is more, and that is helpful, both at the sentence level and general conceptual level as well.
    excellent post.

  25. GREAT Tips! Hope your mom had a wonderful birthday!

  26. CPs definitely help with the tightening. Sometimes I say something in ten words that could be said in 5.

  27. I always need to clean up this stuff after my first draft. I do all of that stuff.

    That picture is so cute! So what if you're giving the "big toe up" sign in lieu of a thumbs-up?

  28. Love the photo and Happy Birthday, Mom!

    I'm going through a first draft as we speak and finding all sorts of sentences that need to be cleaned up. :)


Hi, bloggy buddies! I respond to all comments via email if you have an address linked to your profile. Sorry, I have had to turn OFF comments from Anonymous users due to Spam.