Fix-It Friday: Fixing overstuffed sentences

Two weeks ago, we looked at a couple overstuffed sentences—sentences where I was putting too much information in, and tripping up my readers. fifI learned my lesson about overstuffed sentences from editor & RITA-award winning author Alicia Rasley, when she line edited four sentences for me (emphasis added):

Don’t make your reader work so hard to figure out what you’re getting at. Try writing it plainly first, to make sure you’re getting it across, then embellish. But really, I think you’re trying to do too much for one paragraph. This might not have bothered me in two paragraphs or three, if you took your time and really explored what was happening . . . . If that’s too attenuated, see what’s important to keep and make sure everything is clear.

As I’ve said before, sentences should work hard for us as writers and serve several purposes. But there’s a limit to how much you can pack into a sentence or paragraph and still be intelligible to readers.

Another really important point here is that dense (= packed) writing isn’t always better. Sometimes it makes the reader feel dense (= stupid). If something is really important to the story action or the character, often that weight should be matched by the amount of real estate that event gets.

Or as Alicia put it,

If it’s worth stating, . . . it’s worth developing or exemplifying or showing. . . .

I know I’m always saying, “Take it slow.” But don’t try to compress too much.

So, how should we fix our examples from last week?

#1: blow up the emotion

How must the buildings that were so familiar she hardly noticed them look to Father O’Leary? Three years ago, she compared the Gothic chapel, its stone façade flanked by blazing maples in a carpet of lawn, to her parents’ church in city center. At the time, St. Adelaide seemed a suburban oasis; three weeks ago she was disabused of that notion.

“I’m sure it’ll get to feelin’ like home soon enough,” she murmured.

Along with other excellent feedback from editors Alicia & Theresa and other commentators, the passage in question eventually grew—the first paragraph (three sentences) expanded into three paragraphs (eight sentences):

He scanned the whole scene, as if surveying the squat brick school, the rectory, the Gothic chapel’s stone façade flanked by blazing maples in a carpet of lawn. The dismay in his expression dissolved with his satisfied nod. St. Adelaide must seem like a suburban oasis to him.

Three weeks ago, Molly had been disabused of that notion. Now the idyllic scene carried a sinister undertone so strong she couldn’t bear to look at it anymore. She hadn’t even noticed when the maples turned red.

Father O’Leary sighed and looked to her. How could she tell him the truth and shatter his illusion? “It’ll get to feelin’ like home soon enough,” she murmured.

I agreed that this event was important enough to give it more real estate in the book—but it’s not like I devoted an entire chapter to this. Just a few more sentences here made the passage clearer and gave it greater emotional impact.

Note that I decided the reference to the past (three years ago) was not actually worth including, since it distracted from the present—it wasn’t important enough to explore, and thus it probably wasn’t important enough to include.

But you don’t always have to blow it up quite that much. Sometimes, breaking up the action and simply fixing the sequencing is enough.

#2: sequencing and clarity

This is an actual sentence from the first draft of my WIP:

I slip onto the back porch, but the door latch I’m expecting to hear behind me doesn’t come by the time I reach the stairs.

My problems with this:

  • Awkward wording, especially “the door latch I’m expecting to hear behind me doesn’t come”
  • Is the door latch an object? “I’m expecting to” doesn’t tell us right away
  • Most of all, the sequencing is all over the place. She leaves, we don’t see her shutting the door, there’s a sound (or object?), she’s expecting the sound—oh, wait, there’s no sound, stairs?
  • Seriously, where did these stairs come from?

Here’s how I actually fixed it:

I slip onto the back porch, letting the door swing shut behind me. But by the time I reach the stairs down to the yard, the door still hasn’t latched.

The ideas are all still there, but now I’m explaining what happens in order, without skipping steps. She goes onto the porch and shuts the door. She reaches the stairs (which go somewhere that makes sense now) and realizes the door hasn’t latched. Voilà.

And the word count difference? Five words.

Neither of these are going to win a Pulitzer 😉 but perhaps the serviceable lines should be even more smooth to keep your reader moving on to the big stuff, right?


#3: breathing room

Those fears and feelings, raw and vulnerable, echoing through me, must be why I finally have to pull back to wipe away my tears.

Also a line from my WIP, this is just a few paragraphs after the above. Kind of a lot to digest all at once, isn’t it?

Again, the change is really simple here, and right to the point: that’s just too much for one little sentence to handle, so we make it two. My fix:

Those fears and feelings, raw and vulnerable, echo through me. Finally I have to pull back to wipe away my tears.

Is it less powerful as two sentences? I don’t think so. In fact, there are some things I like about it better. Instead of stuffing everything into one thought (for what reason?), we give the two important thoughts there a little more room to breathe. It gives each of them a little more time to make an impact.

Oh, and the word difference? -3.

What do you think? Have you found any overstuffed sentences in your writing? How do you fix them? Come share!

Photo credits: tools—HomeSpot HQ; overstuffed beef ravioli—George Hatcher