Writing & Editing – Creating the Perfect Sentence
By Alexis Alvarez
I can still see the excitement in my German teacher’s face, how he radiated enthusiasm through his hands. His gestures grew like waves in a storm. “This is one of the most perfect sentences ever written!” he declared. “And you are lucky to read and understand it in the author’s original voice.”
His gray curls bobbed. “Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt.”
Light streamed in through the paned Barnard windows and I saw tiny flecks of spit hurtling like diamonds through the dusty air, and this accentuated his immense delight in the way the words moved in his mouth. He had us recite it aloud together, and we agreed on the perfection, the way it slid off the tongue, The German guttural and slick at once.
“Memorize it!” he exhorted us, and I did, the words ingrained in my brain after that one reading, my mind mesmerized with the cadence.
My German teacher’s name was Marvin Shulman. He was five feet something tall, and his energy for German, his love for words, radiated from his pores. My mental image attached to his name is this: Seeing him lean forward in emphasis, as if only by approaching us with the words could he hurl them into our souls.
He spoke about something I’d felt in small bursts while reading – the joy of finding lines where the words fit together like puzzle pieces, as if they were meant to belong in that order, and the author was the first one who discovered it.
Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for other perfect sentences, and sometimes I write them down in notebooks, so I can enjoy them later like mind candy.
“Like a cat in the dark, your whisker touched something the wrong way and you backed out.”
-Mary Gaitskill, Veronica
“In the water, a dark plume of blood blossomed by her foot; as I looked, a thin red tendril spiraled up and curled over her pale toes, undulating in the water like a thread of crimson smoke.”
-Donna Tartt, The Secret History
Every Author is a Translator
In her New Yorker article “Teach Yourself Italian,” author Jhumpa Lahiri talks about the difficulties of learning a new language as an adult, and trying to become not just proficient, but expert enough to write in the new language, beautifully. She studies Italian for years in America, but it is only when she moves to Rome that she begins to think in Italian and to reinvent herself as an author who can write in Italian. In the beginning, it’s a torturous process full of gaps and halts, but the sentences she writes to describe it are so lovely that they shine, notebook worthy.
“I write in a terrible, embarrassing Italian, full of mistakes. Without correcting, without a dictionary, by instinct alone. I grope my way, like a child, like a semiliterate. I am ashamed of writing like this. I don’t understand this mysterious impulse, which emerges out of nowhere. I can’t stop.
It’s as if I were writing with my left hand, my weak hand, the one I’m not supposed to write with. It seems a transgression, a rebellion, an act of stupidity.”
She is determined to master the language to the point where the words work for her, within her, so that she can think in effortless Italian and make beautiful, perfect sentences in this new language that calls to her heart.
She does it: She learns to write so well in Italian that she doesn’t need to think of the words in English and translate in her mind into Italian; she does the more fundamental translation, that of images right into Italian.
Because all writers are translators. We are learning the language of our own mind and soul, and finding a way to get the thoughts out in a way that other people can understand. Whether we do it in our native tongue or a new one, it’s a steep mountain to climb: how do you take the ephemeral wraiths in your brain and implant them into someone else’s head?
It’s a laborious process. Often I feel the way she did, writing in English, my native tongue. We have to translate our thoughts into words, and organize the words into something sensible and lovely; then the other person must read and interpret them.
It reminds me of Escher’s drawing of the hands drawing each other, turning from three dimensional to two dimensional and back: It’s something alive that gets flattened out, smashed into print before it’s resurrected in another body, and only the excellent writers create words that can send thoughts across this journey without being irreparably damaged in the process.
There’s no simple secret on how to do this. But it’s possible to improve any writing through editing. The more we observe our work dispassionately, the harder we strive to improve our sentences, the better we’ll become at our craft. And with practice, we can write some perfect sentences of our own.
How To Start
Stop worrying about perfection and write what flows into your brain and out of your fingers. Give your wordless images words; allow them ugly life, then you can mold them back into the images you see in your brain. You can’t edit an empty page. There are some writers who don’t revise at all, but it’s rare. Most authors find editing to be the most painful and most fruitful part of the process.
It’s like assembling a box of old bones into some new animal the world has never seen, not even me. At first there’s a rough scaffolding of a shape, but it’s wrong: I have too many ribs, an ankle attached to a wrist, a sad leg dangling uselessly into space, a spine that diverges into two necks, one of which I must sever. Over time, with great effort, I reassemble, remove, revise, until the beast stand firm, a shape emerged. Only then can I start putting on the skin and the color, the delicate eyelashes and the sparkling teeth, the eyes that glance and burn.
When I have the animal, I can show it to other readers and allow them to tell me where it’s still wrong. These people, my writer’s group and my beta readers, look at my creation and tell me where it’s broken, bleeding, dull, hollow.
This part is the hardest part of my writing process, because sometimes significant changes are necessary, and they are difficult. I feel like I’m doing brain surgery on most delicate tissue, trying to improve and refine without killing the host. It would be easier to pretend the thing is fine and publish, but that’s the bigger misstep, because once it’s out there in the world, ready to roar out its presence, those flaws will make me wince every time I see it.
It’s not even that the editing process makes it perfect, it just makes it better. Each thing I write, each edit I perform, I improve my skills. Malcolm Gladwell proposes in his 2008 book Outliers, and several follow-up articles, that it can take up to ten thousand hours to become an expert in many fields. He points to certain musical virtuosi, computing geniuses, and sports stars who put in significant amounts of time – nearly ten thousand hours each – before becoming the master of their craft.
He reminds the reader that a certain amount of natural skill is necessary, and passion is what will keep you interested over the long haul– but for most people, putting in the time is fundamental. People who skip past the practice right to the perfection are the exception, not the rule.
Don’t shy away from the hours your writing and editing take. Count them all as worthy steps toward your goal, although, of course, writers don’t always have discrete goals, but long, winding paths that last our entire lives.
Common Writing Rules
How do you know what to cut, what to keep? My process is this: Rules and readers. I go through my work several times first, using basic rules of thumb to shorten and streamline, then I ask others to read it and give feedback on things big and small. My writing group will pick out missing commas and redundant language as well as bigger plot inconsistencies, and my two sisters will give me gut-wrenching feedback about the story as a whole and what needs to change to improve it.
Some common rules that writers follow
- Show, don’t tell
- Avoid adverbs when modifying the word “said”
- Limit adverbs everywhere else
- Be succinct
- Alternate long sentences with short
- Use concrete rather than vague language
- Avoid passive voice
- Reduce “ing” verbs. (Ex: Use she looked instead of she was looking.)
- Don’t repeat words too often
- Cut the stuff that readers skip
- Use outside eyes to help edit
There are more. These can, and should be broken as necessary, but they’re a starting point, a good one. In the rest of the article I’ll focus on avoiding adverbs, being succinct, “ing” words, and outside eyes for editing.
Favorite Writing Rules: Avoid Adverbs — “Show, Don’t Tell”
For me, “show, don’t tell” and “use concrete language” are the most important ones; the “avoiding adverbs” –my current favorite — is part of that.
When I learned we’re supposed to be sparing with adverbs, I was sad. Obsequiously. Intermittently. Spasmodically. Unskillfully. You could assemble a list of them and it would be a poem.
When I read the why behind it, I understood. An adverb is often a short-cut that replaces details. If you force yourself to eliminate certain adverbs, you will need to fill in the gap with a specific description, and this makes your story interesting and vivid. Sometimes as the author you want and need your reader to fill in gaps, to make up their own mind about your characters, but it’s usually not in places where you’re clarifying something important about a character’s appearance, thoughts or actions.
No, you want to save that for places where they’ll catch hidden meanings or put together some clues you’ve scattered throughout the text. Let them work for the intellectual, challenging connections. But for the fundamentals of your story? Those should be crystal.
If you overuse them, adverbs hide what’s really happening. Compare the two versions below.
He shouted loudly, gesturing wildly with his hands. His hair blew crazily in the wind, and even though she leaned forward intently she couldn’t understand a single word. Below them, the ocean churned.
He shouted, gestured, and it looked as though he were trying to shake water from his fingers. She couldn’t understand a thing. The wind tossed his hair over his face like a dancing veil. It seized his words and tumbled them down the rock wall to the sea, where they sucked under and drowned.
Maybe to you, gesturing “wildly” means waving your hands to and fro for emphasis. Maybe it means pointing a finger and shaking it, or slamming one fist into a palm. If I want the reader to see exactly what I see, I need to tell them. If I don’t want them to see exactly what I see – why not? Is there a reason?
For me, it was a shortcut. I was trying to get the pictures out of my head and onto paper, and in order to do that before the ideas faded, I used adverbs as placeholders.
When I went back to edit, I replaced them with the more specific images. This made the passage longer, which is opposite of the “being succinct” rule. To make up for it, I went through the manuscript and cut out words elsewhere that added bulk without beauty.
Sometimes adverbs are the perfect fit for your passage, and if that’s so, use them proudly and unapologetically. Authors mix in a deliberate ratio of adverbs for emphasis, perhaps because they love the sound, perhaps because they want to grant the reader poetic license to see their own vision.
Some writers have such intricate prose and vivid descriptions that an adverb here and there is good; it’s a breath between thoughts, it’s the oil that glides the story forward.
Take this example from Robert Hellenga’s The Fall of a Sparrow:
“The guitar had tremendous power and volume, tremendous resonance and sustain, more than Woody had been able to control; but the man skillfully damped the strings, now with his left hand, now with his right, so that the sound that came through was clean and penetrating, free from the resonator rattling Woody’d been aware of when he was playing. He didn’t know what to say.
‘Guitar like this can change your life,’ the clerk said when he’d finished the song. You don’t have to play it; just show it to people, let them look at it.”
When a great author mixes in a few adverbs with his or her gorgeous description, it’s almost like a compliment to the reader: “I trust you to fill in the details. You get me.” The use of ‘skillfully’ here doesn’t hurt the passage. It provides a little bit of “you figure it out on your own” help, and that’s effective, because Hellenga’s words are rich and luxurious, and the additional of a bland helper now and then works. He doesn’t just convince you that he’s heard this guitar; he convinces you that you have.
Here’s an example from Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, by Geoff Dyer:
“A dusty pole of sunlight poked in from the outside, illuminating a piece of Sanskrit written on a wall. The boy pointed at the light, which pointed at the sacred text like the finger of a slow reader moving across the page of a difficult book. I continued moving too and the boy tagged along, keeping fractionally ahead of me, thereby subtly suggesting that he was being employed to guide me.”
His style is unique, his words gorgeous. The adverbs keep us moving along so we can see more poles of sunlight and hear the bells ringing. Unpacking these particular adverbs into longer exposition would spoil the passage.
Some authors use adverbs all over the pages, tons of them, and still write best-sellers. Donna Tartt’s book The Secret History is a favorite of mine, even though she shot her adverbs at it with a BB gun. She uses Greek mythology and purple-tinged prose that hangs just on the right side of beautiful, and that makes it possible to forgive her for sentences like these:
“I know what he wants,” Charles said bleakly. “He wants us to come over to his hotel and have dinner.”
“Suddenly, his face changed. To my great surprise he cursed loudly and slammed down the receiver so hard it jangled.”
“Isn’t that interesting,” he said coolly. “I’m really not attracted to you, either.”
I don’t mind because she has glorious lines like these: “When I got to my room it was silver and alien with moonlight, the window still open and the Parmenides open on the desk where I had left it; a half-drunk coffee from the snack bar stood beside it, cold in its Styrofoam cup.”
Maybe because Tartt uses so many adverbs from the very start, and because her book is larger than life, a Greek tragedy come alive, it’s appropriate to have the characters overact their emotions. Her adverbs are like stage directions for the mind. We imagine what to see as the storyteller narrates.
Fans of J.K. Rowling may note the abundance of adverbs in her writing, adverbs which in no way hindered her stratospheric success. People love her plot and her characters so much that they care little about her adverb usage.
More about Adverbs: Don’t Let Them Mar Your Translation
If you use too many adverbs, you don’t thoroughly describe the images in your mind, and the reader misses the path you worked so hard to create. Yet if you unravel every adverb with a long explanation, you can end up with unwieldy text, top heavy and boring. Sometimes it’s necessary to rewrite an entire passage when you eliminate adverbs.
Here’s a paragraph I wrote after interviewing a provocative local artist.
This is how I felt when I saw his shop
His art workshop was impeccably organized and obviously styled; more like a gallery than a place of labor, it was instantly obvious that he was abundantly in need of praise, as much from himself as from others. The works of art in progress were discomfiting and strange, everything designed to provoke unease. Even the way he organized his books spoke to his need for grandiosity.
Arranged as they were in shelves, in such a fashion that a single book could not be extricated without sending the rest tumbling, his organization let any guest know that he was so incredibly smart about art that he’d never need to read such a book again. They were not worth his time. It reminded me of a person so rich that he had no use for the dollar bills that we peons coveted. There was nothing humble about his space.
Soup-can-shaped containers waited in silent precision. Four feet tall, wiggly and large enough to hide a crouching human, they rippled at a finger touch. A white, powder-coated body exposed wires from a leg, a thigh, the torso, dripping them onto the shiny steel table across from his desk. This view was equally intimate and disturbing: his signature. A hundred glossy hard-cover art books, arranged in an intricate pattern of piles and floating shelving from which a single volume could not be extricated without disrupting dozens, were themselves an exhibit.
I once saw a picture of a wealthy man who lacquered an entire room in gold and hundred dollar bills, and it struck me that Tonnesen had a similar narcissistic arrogance; so convinced was he of his superiority that books on the subject, with nothing left to teach him, were best used as self-congratulatory décor.
The thing with adverbs is to use them with intent — verify that they’re the best option to make your sentence complete. No published author has a perfect manuscript, so don’t use their mistakes and shortcuts as a justification for your own. Make your writing as strong as you can. In the long run, it will serve you well.
Be Careful With “ing” Verbs
Renee Rose, USA Today best selling author of romance and erotic fiction, gave me an example of a before/after paragraph from one of her best-selling novels.
“No,” he said and then had to lunge to catch her as she tried to escape. He wrapped both arms around her and held her tightly against his body. “No, Celia. I would never do that. Angelina was talking about you because she’s jealous.”
He could feel the shape of her firm breasts pressing against his chest through her thin robe and the image of their naked glory rose in his mind. His eyes strayed down to her lips again. She was looking at him full in the face, studying him as if to determine whether he spoke the truth.
“No.” He lunged to catch her as she tried to escape. With both arms wrapped around her, he held her tight against his body. “No, Celia. I would never do that. Angelina was talking about you because she’s jealous.”
Her firm breasts pressed against his chest through her thin robe and the image of their naked glory rose in his mind. His eyes strayed down to her lips again. She looked at him full in the face, as if to determine whether he spoke the truth.
Renee did a few things to clean up the passage. She eliminated several “ing” words (progressive verbs). By replacing “She was looking” with “she looked” she made the sentence crisper.
Sometimes the sense of motion or time passing is necessary to the story, or to your character’s voice, and if that’s the case, don’t hesitate to use an “ing.” However, many times authors use it as a habit. Be aware of when you’re using an “ing” instead of an “ed” and make it a deliberate choice. Overuse of “ing” words makes a passage fuzzy – a matted dog that needs a haircut.
Authors use “ing” words because they worry that time will snap by, sharp, and slingshot the action ahead of itself. That’s not the case. Readers know to extend or compress time using context. They don’t need a constant flurry of “ings” to remind them about it.
Too many “ing” words:
She kept looking out at the sea during her coffee break while she was eating her sandwich.
Revision without “ings” makes it stronger:
During her coffee break, she ate the sandwich without taking her eyes from the sea once.
Beta Readers Provide Valuable Input
My sisters are my two best beta-readers. They read my entire novel from start to finish. Because they see the whole manuscript, they can give me overriding feedback about a character’s development and where it falls flat. In addition, they give me detailed critiques of sentences and paragraphs that should be fixed.
Here are some examples that Maria did for my novel in progress, Boston. She highlights the comments that need help, and puts her thoughts in a comment to the right. I usually take all of my sisters’ suggestions, because they make sense. (Don’t worry; many adverbs were harmed in the making of this story.)
She points out places where the language is clunky or offensive.
Writing Groups Are Golden!
My writer’s group provides feedback on a chapter by chapter basis. During a typical meeting, each person takes a turn reading their segment aloud while the others follow along on hands-outs and take notes. The written-up hands-outs go back to the original author, who can use the comment to make improvements.
I’ve scanned several hand-outs with comments from my group. In each case, I used the feedback to make changes. Some of the changes may seem small. Added together, these comments work together to make a book streamlined and sleek.
Bren commented on my excessive use of the word “I”. My book is written in the first person, and it’s imperative to break up the “I-fest” and come up with creative ways to tell the story without inundating the reader.
Angela always gets on me for my excessive use of semicolons. What can I say; I love the dang things. She pointed out my over-reliance on the word sex(y). When I edited, I found new words and maybe even got rid of a few semicolons; a sad process, but critical.
We point out things that work with a smile or an LOL, and are honest about things that don’t work. Jill gave me a smiley for a good line, and suggested eliminating an entire paragraph, which I did. She gave me an idea for a better phrase, and I used it.
Adriana asked for more detail on perfume; when I rewrote, I added in the exact scent (Light Blue, by D&G.) She suggested ways to streamline and I took many of them.
Kacey pointed out that I used a lot of run-on sentences, something I want to fix. Her reminder stayed in my head while I edited, and I was careful to mix it up — some long sentences, some shorter, for variety.
Group members are honest when they find a phrase that sounds out of place or awkward.
Make Your Editing Process Your Own
Your editing process might not involve beta readers or friends from a writer’s group, but no matter what you do, it’s critical to revise and improve your work. Sometimes, time itself is a wonderful editor. Let the manuscript sit for a week or a month, then re-read. After some distance, you may be able to make changes that would have scared or hurt you the first time through. The point is to do what it takes to make our work better, to turn it into something that captures readers.
My favorite books are ones where I read something and exclaim, “Yes! She gets it. I feel this way. I am this way.” Or, “This is really what life is like.” When you find an author who shines a light into your soul and illuminates something, not just in you but across humanity, showing you that a part of you which you considered fundamentally different is actually intrinsic to a greater population, it’s better than any magic trick in the world. Words are finite, but some authors make them sing.
Franz Kafka, author of The Metamorphosis, supposedly said about writing:
“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”
The interesting part is that sometimes our writing comes out muddy and watered down, and it’s only through editing that we get it clear and perfect. Jhumpa Lahiri used all of Italy, the country, as her editor, while she was in the process of learning Italian. We, too, can use everything at our disposal here at home: Writer’s groups, beta readers, and self-reflection.
Lahiri never stopped; just like Malcolm Gladwell’s “ten thousand hour” experts, she pushed on, day after day. So do that.
The more we revise and edit, the closer we come to making perfect sentences of our own.
Bibliography / Credits
Kafka, Franz with Ian Johnston. Die Vervandlung – Metamorphosis (German-English Parallel Text). London: JiaHu Books, 2014.
Gaitskill, Mary. Veronica. New York: Vintage Books, 2005.
Tartt, Donna. The Secret History. New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group, 1992.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. “Teach Yourself Italian.” The New Yorker Magazine. December 7th, 2015 Issue. (With translator Ann Goldstein.)
Gladwell, Malcolm. “Complexity and the Ten Thousand Hour Rule.” The New Yorker Magazine. August 21st, 2013 issue.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers. The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008.
Dyer, Geoff. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. New York, Vintage Books, 2010.
Hellenga, Robert. The Fall of a Sparrow. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1999.
Quote by Parmenides: https://faculty.washington.edu/smcohen/320/parm1.htm
Photography: All pictures are owned and copyrighted by Alexis Alvarez.