Getting Jiggy with the Nitty Gritty, or, Improving Your Sentences

As writers we spend most of our time torn between needing to write and needing to market what we’ve written. Then, when we’re writing, our focus is often on improving our characters or the big picture story and characters’ arcs. But one of the fastest ways to improve your writing (and therefore your story) is to get jiggy with the nitty gritty, and by that, I mean honing your sentence level quality.

So here are five tips to help you improve your sentences.

1) Filtering

Filtering is when you, the author, add in unnecessary narration, causing the reader to be removed one step from the character. For example:

  • I heard
  • They saw
  • She felt
  • He thought

Filtering words like these add in an extra layer, and instead of the reader looking through the eyes of the protagonist, they look at the protagonist. They’re observing the scene. For example:

I heard the owl hooting in the trees and saw the leaves rustle in the canopy.

The reader doesn’t need to read heard or saw because it’s implied in the description of the sound. Those words also put the reader at a distance, where they’re stuck watching what’s happening instead of experiencing it along with the character. Remove those filtering words to bring readers in closer to the scene, so they can hear and see things for themselves:

As the owl hooted in the trees, the leaves rustled in the canopy.

You don’t have to remove every instance of filtering, if, for example, removing it will affect the meaning. But where possible, remove these words to tighten your sentences.

contrast, juxtaposition in writing stories

2) Juxtapositions

One of my favourite quotes is a juxtaposition that pits perfection against failure.

“I think perfection is ugly. Somewhere in the things humans make, I want to see scars, failure, disorder, distortion.” (Yohji Yamamoto)

Using a juxtaposition in your description can add depth to both your writing and your characters because they’re symbolic and often produce metaphors and similes, which create vivid imagery.

“The screams continue, some only a few feet away, some so distant and forlorn you could mistake them for something else, for owls, maybe, hooting peacefully in their trees.” (Delirium, Lauren Oliver)

Pitting the horror of screams in the night against the peaceful hooting of owls creates a vivid description that is unexpected for readers.

3) ‘Sense’-ational Sentences

Stories are often compared to pictures; you can produce a simple pen-and-ink drawing or a mixed media, full-color piece of art. If you want to produce the latter, one of the best things you can do is include the senses in your descriptions.

Pen-and-ink: As the night draws in, he puts his arms around me and kisses me.

Full-color: I lose myself in his arms, as the forest, the chirping of night insects, and the rustling of the undergrowth, disappear as his lips touch mine.

By reaching beyond the visual to incorporate sounds and textures, the description becomes more tactile, engaging the readers’ senses and pulling them more fully into the story.

4) Captain Obvious: Crutch Words, Wordiness, and Clichés

Crutch Words

These are the words we habitually sprinkle throughout our text, and most of the time, they can be banished from the story without losing any meaning. Examples include words like but, just, then, so, shout, etc, but everyone’s crutches are different.

If you don’t know what your crutch words are, ask a friend to read a few chapters and look for any pesky repeats. You can also use a word frequency checker or phrase counter to find them.

Wordiness

Next, rid yourself of unnecessary wordiness and adverbs. How? You can streamline your sentences by eliminating any word that, when removed, doesn’t impact the meaning of the sentence.

Bad habits: But then as he gritted his teeth, he realised whether he liked it or not, he really ought to rescue Analise.

Good habits: He gritted his teeth. Whether he liked it or not, he ought to rescue Analise.

Likewise, strengthen your verbs by swapping bland ones for words that help a reader to visualise the scene.

Bad habits: Even though his arms were weak, he held the baby and sang to her.

Good habits: Even though his arms were limp, he cradled the baby and whispered a dreamy lullaby.

Clichés

Clichés are over-used describing phrases: fit as a fiddle, brave as a lion, head over heels. They’re wasted words in your sentences that readers have seen a million times.

She picked up the sword and sliced through his armor just in the nick of time.

The cliché can be removed to tighten the sentence without losing any meaning:

She picked up the sword and sliced through his armor.

5) First and Last Lines

I’m an obsessive sentence collector. When I see a sentence I love, I highlight it (on my kindle, I’m not committing sacrilege on physical books) or I copy it down into my notes. One of the best places to find amazing sentences is in a book’s first line:

“Joost had two problems: the moon and his mustache.” (Six of Crows , Leigh Bardugo)

Why is this good? Because it’s unexpected, and using the unexpected in a sentence (especially your first sentence) surprises the reader and will hook them straight into your book.

Likewise, there are hundreds of famous last lines, often capturing the theme of the book or giving a teaser hook into the next book

Last line (book theme): “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” (Animal Farm, George Orwell)

The final part of the last sentence, showing that the animals can no longer discern between their original human rulers and their new ‘thought-to-be-better’ pig-rulers, is the essence of the book’s moral, political, and philosophical debate. Ending with this thought reminds readers of the idea that’s been reinforced throughout the story.

Last line (series hook): “But now our friendship is gone, replaced by the one thing we still have in common. Our hatred for Maven. I don’t need to be a whisper to know we share a thought. I will kill him.” (The Red Queen, Victoria Aveyard)

Why does this work? Because for one, two people who hate each other are now teaming up due to their mutual dislike of another. Mor importantly, the words I will kill are a statement of action. As the reader, you’re now desperate to know if she succeeds.

Final Quick Tips

Collecting sentences is a great way to deconstruct and learn from them. If you don’t want to wait until they pop up in the books you’re reading, try searching for them in other places, such as famous quotes, song lyrics, poetry, and moments of epiphany in films where the protagonist has a realization linked to the theme.

We have to get our story and character arcs right to hook our readers and create a tension-fuelled plot. But remember that it’s the sentences that get read and contribute to a reader falling in love with your characters. Next time you’re editing your manuscript, spend a little time focusing on the nitty gritty, and I promise you your readers will thank you for it.

Sacha Black is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, 13 Steps To Evil – How To Craft A Superbad Villain. Her blog for writers, www.sachablack.co.uk, is home to regular writing, marketing and publishing advice sprinkled with dark humour and the occasional bad word. In addition to craft books, she writes YA fantasy, and her first series, Keepers, is due out in November 2017.

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25 Responses to Getting Jiggy with the Nitty Gritty, or, Improving Your Sentences

  1. Every time I read a post from you Sacha I always learn something a little more, not surprising that you’re a writing coach 🙂

  2. Ritu Bhathal says:

    Great tips Sacha! When I finally finish that dang WIP ill be rereading with these in mind!

    • Sacha Black says:

      Hey Ritu, thanks for coming over and supporting here, and I hope they help when you do finish. I can’t wait to read it, so hurry up! <3

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  4. Yvette says:

    Thanks Sacha for these tips! I love words, so my writing at times suffers from wordiness. For me, writing poetry helps me to distill down to most important words.

    • Sacha Black says:

      Hi Yvette,

      Thank you so much for commenting. I totally agree. Poetry is a wonderful way to test your skills. A real exercise in precision.

      🙂

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  6. Seems like the ABCs of good writing. Your examples are very apt too. This article made me pause and rethink my writing style.

    • Sacha Black says:

      Hi Radhika, thank you for the comment. I’m glad the article made you stop and think, I hope it helps 😀

      Best

      Sacha

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  8. :Donna says:

    I love stuff like this, Sacha. I’m SO into line editing and playing with words on this level—literally, it’s an “addictive” part of the writing process, getting the words “just right” or at least as right as I’m capable. And Congrats and Good Luck with your book release next month! 😀

    • :Donna says:

      …and thank you for the links to the Word and Phrase Frequency counters! 😀

    • Sacha Black says:

      Hey Donna,

      Thank you for the lovely comment – you’re most welcome for the links 😀

      haha, it really is addictive, I have to force myself to let go sometimes or I’ll never publish!

      Thank you so much for the well wishes 😀

  9. Great post, Sacha. For me, story, characters…that I’ve got pretty down, but I struggle sometimes with the writing itself, the nitty gritty task of word placement. I tend to write too lean sometimes (especially first drafts) and then I have to go back and add all the meat on my story bones. 🙂

    • Sacha Black says:

      Hi Angela,

      Thank you. Interesting – I definitely write lean in some ways – while I write the emotion into the first draft, I tend to leave out the scene setting so I have to weave that back in during second drafts. But the nitty gritty always comes in the last draft, sort of the hardest but most satisfying!

  10. Joy Pixley says:

    My nitty gritty bugaboo is repetition. I don’t mean crutch words, but using the same uncommon word too close to the last usage, so that it sticks out. Often I don’t see it on the page, but I hear it when I read the chapter or story aloud to my critique group. I circle the word and then go back later and run a search. If I described someone as “smoldering” in one paragraph and then again in the next paragraph, that’s a wasted opportunity to tell the reader something new the second time around. (Having said that, I want to defend the use of deliberate repetition within the same sentence for emphasis, which I like to do, but sparingly.)

    • Sacha Black says:

      Hey Joy,

      Thank you for commenting. Ahhhh yes, I’ve read a couple of books where that’s happened – the first usage always has that wow factor, but I know what you mean about the second, then it does stick out.

      Totally agree on the repetition for effect though. Afterall, rules are made to be broken.

  11. Mark Marderosian says:

    Hi Sacha,
    Really good items of interest and helpful hints. The crutch words section got me thinking in good way. I probably do use the word ‘sighed’ a bit much and use ‘turn’ a lot in second novel. I guess like everything it depends on the context. My latest has a lot of people ‘turning’ because conceptually, they’re not comfortable dealing with each other directly in the beginning of the story. Still, you got me thinking about other ways to indicate that physical motion. THANKS!

    • Sacha Black says:

      Hi Mark,

      Thank you for commenting. It’s funny where these crutches appear, I’ve just had a manuscript back from my editor and I thought I’d picked up all my crutches, but she picked up one more it wasn’t on that list: ‘long’. I’ve no idea how that crutch appeared, but there we are!

      Glad I got you thinking anyways 😀 and I hope you find different ways to indicate the motion 😀

  12. Love all the suggestions! Thanks.

  13. Sacha Black says:

    Thank you so much for having me on, I hope this first post helps other writers. I’ll be interested to hear everyone else’s tips for improving their nitty gritty 🙂

    • This is such a great compilation of tips. One I’ve found invaluable (that I’m sure people are tired of hearing me say) is to read your work aloud. You catch so many of the problems you mentioned when you have to slow down and you hear your words through your ears. That process takes longer but it totally pays off in finding all these little issues that make the writing drag. Thanks for sharing, Sacha!

      • Sacha Black says:

        Thanks Becca,

        That’s SUCH a good one. SO often I forget that, and then inadvertently find myself reading a sentence out loud to myself and I find the problem.

        Great tip 😀

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