The other day, in The 24-Hour Room Lounge, we ran a sentence clinic. I invited our members to bring in a sentence they'd been struggling with (and possibly the paragraph to which it belonged) for scrutiny, group close reading, analysis and editing. The format was for the writer to screen share their sentence and read it aloud, sometimes briefly setting up the context, but for the most part, context wasn't needed because people brought in their first sentences. Then we spent two hours, about 20 minutes per sentence, discussing each clause and phrase, each verb, noun and adjective. Suggestions poured in over the chat and out loud, the writers tried out various edits, and in almost all cases they came up with versions they felt were more powerful than what they had at first.
What kinds of issues came up? The power of action, the curtailment of the verb to be, clarity, the specificity of imagery, assonance, alliteration, sibilance, meter and cadence. Above all, for these beginnings, it seemed universally essential for the writer to create potential narrative energy — that they pose a question or inspire curiosity the reader.
So often in workshops, we talk about the big issues, the events that transpire and the characters that populate a story. Those things matter hugely, but now and then it's good to take out a magnifying glass and look hard at the sentence. Not every sentence should be a gem — a setting is necessary to hold a jewel in place, after all — but some should, and the first sentence of a work on any scale is one of the best positions for a remarkable bit of prose.
We'll be making the Sentence Clinic a regular monthly event at the 24-Hour Room, and now and then we may even widen our scope to the paragraph. Join us on the last Thursday afternoon of the month (ET), starting next week, if you'd like to take part.
Or try this sentence self-exam:
Identify your verbs. Are there instances – or more than one instance – of the verb to be? If so, can you eliminate without losing content or replace them with more active words?
Are there repetitions? If so, make sure they are intentional and add something (emphasis, lyricism?).
Consider parallelism. Is there any? If so, make it sing. If it's faulty (the grammatical structures in parallel words or phrases don't match), repair it.
Is there an adjective pileup? Streamline. Be exacting with your modifiers.
Are your nouns the most specific ones you can use? Should child be girl? Leg, knee? Plant, cabbage?
Look at your prepositional phrases. Can any be eliminated or simplified? Perhaps In the morning could be covered by the word early or a mention of dawn?
Do you lead with the most important part of your sentence? If not, is there a reason for that?
What will the reader want to know next, after reading this one sentence? Consider whether you will immediately fulfill their yearning or withhold satisfaction and understanding till later? If you're withholding, how will you handle the reader's possible frustration?
Great stuff. Thank you for sending this out. I can’t wait to join this next time.
Hi Elizabeth - As i get beyond structure in my new work, I have been hoping for exactly this kind of micro-editing wisdom: sentence, word choice, length, paragraph length. Thank you for this! I hope to see this group next Thursday ~