As writers, everything we read and write develops our ear and eye. We learn how good writing sounds, how it leaps off the page, how it sends a thrill or a chill through us. A good line has bite. And we develop an eye—an eye for glaring spelling, punctuation, or grammatical errors, so that those, too, pop off the page.
Reading a lot is a given for a writer—it develops your ear. And editing and critiquing—whether it’s a friend’s cover letter for an employment opportunity, judging for a writing contest, or the in-depth work we do for our critique partners—develops both our ear and our eye.
I’ve found a few sentence constructs that pop up in writing (my own included) that diminish the strength of the prose. When revising, we can find phrases with more “pop,” replacing weaker sentence constructs with those that have more “bite”.
1.) There is/are/was/were. What is “there”? It’s not a character, not a meaningful object or place in the story. “There is” is one of the weakest sentence constructs I can think of, especially in fiction, when we have so much poetic license to be creative. “There is” can generally be replaced with a stronger, more vivid construct. “There is a tree deep within the forest…” can easily become “Deep within the forest, a tree stretches out its great, wide arms…” Because “There is…” really doesn’t mean much at all. But “A tree stretches…” takes us right to the heart of the sentence. When I revise my work, I try to avoid this sentence construct as often as possible. It’s too easy, it’s often telling not showing, and it’s just not powerful enough. “There is” is okay every once in a while. It’s just best in very minute doses.
2.) I felt/he felt/she felt. If you’re in first-person or in third-person close, “felt” can be useful but highly overused—especially in a first draft. When revising, we can note these places in our writing. If we find this structure frequently, it’s time for a change. Why? Because, like “there is,” “I felt” can often be cut, leaving us with a stronger sentence. “I felt my heart thumping in my chest,” becomes the much stronger, “My heart thumped in my chest.”
3.) Overuse of rhetorical questions. “How was Blake going to get out of this one?” “What was Cassie going to do?” I find these phrases peppering my first drafts—often because I honestly didn’t know how Blake was going to get out of this one, or what Cassie was going to do. They were more for me as a writer (clues to myself that I needed to figure something out) than for my reader. Every once in a blue moon is okay. In subsequent drafts, I try to delete these phrases as much as possible. If we’re not careful, such questions can start annoying the reader. Don’t you think? 😛
What weak phrases do you find in your own or others’ writing? How do we vanquish weak sentence structures so we can make our stories really sing?