Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
When we look at sentences and paragraphs with the intention to tweak them, we often fall back on familiar changes. But there are always multiple ways to change a line or two of text.
Whether you want to change the rhythm or the tone, or maybe mix up repetitive sentence structure, consider more than the typical—your typical—changes.
I’m going to include a list of options for making changes at the sentence and paragraph level. Not all will work for every sentence or paragraph, but I want to remind you that you have options when a line doesn’t seem to fit or doesn’t seem to do enough of what you want it to do.
Keep in mind that once you change one bit of text, you may have to change other sections as well. But there’s nothing wrong with that if the result is a stronger impact or a more memorable scene.
Reordering and changing words, sentences, and paragraphs can make a great difference in terms of emotion and resonance. Explore ways to change your text at every level.
Never assume that even the best sentences can’t be changed.
And guard against growing fatigued with making changes to your middle chapters. We often focus on the opening and closing handful of chapters, neglecting the middle of the story. Take the time to make your middle chapters and story events just as compelling as those that begin and end your stories.
Sentences and Paragraphs
~ Cut out the sentence or paragraph. Maybe it doesn’t belong at all.
Just because including it once seemed like a good idea, that doesn’t mean you have to keep any sentence or paragraph. This is especially true once you start making changes. Sentences and paragraphs may no longer fit meaning or flow after you start fiddling with your story.
~ Move the sentence or paragraph to another section of text, to another page or scene.
Maybe you introduced something in a line of text but then developed the thought in another section of text and now need to move the introduction and the development closer together. Move sections when you need to. Just be sure to adjust both the sections where you make cuts and where you insert text.
~ Move a sentence forward or backward. See if it works better coming sooner or later in the same section of text. See if it works to better introduce a thought or action before another thought or action. See if a sentence works better as a hint, to foreshadow. Or see if it works better as an afterthought or a conclusion.
~ Reorganize sentences within a paragraph. Highlight a different sentence by moving it to the beginning of a paragraph or to the end, using it as the last sentence. Nestle a clue in the middle of a paragraph, hiding it, to give it less prominence.
~ Move a paragraph up or down in a scene. See if doing so doesn’t stir you to make even more changes.
It’s easy to write paragraph after paragraph with the same feel or pattern. It’s easy to write scene after scene with the same pattern of paragraphs, the same buildup to a climax. Shake up characters and readers by offering them something different. Not all scenes have to develop in the same way. Not all scenes have to be the same length or have the same overall feel.
Not all chapters have to be of the same length.
~ Split long paragraphs into several short ones. Allow single sentences to serve as paragraphs. Allow single words to serve as sentences.
~ Use more sentence fragments.
~ Use fewer sentence fragments.
~ Join short paragraphs into longer ones occasionally. Yet it’s not likely that you want long paragraph after long paragraph. No matter how intriguing the text, the visual of long unbroken paragraphs can be a negative for readers.
~ Change sentence formats so not all sentence elements are always in the same order—subject-verb-direct object or dependent clause-independent clause or participial phrase at the beginning.
Check paragraphs to make sure that they, while featuring a variety of sentence patterns and formats within each, don’t repeat the same group of sentence patterns from one paragraph to the next.
~ If you use participial phrases or absolute phrases, make sure that sentence after sentence doesn’t begin with these phrases or doesn’t contain these phrases. Think variety.
~ Change word order. Clauses can be reversed; phrases can be moved within a sentence.
~ Change the first and/or last word(s) of a sentence or paragraph.
~ Make a sentence longer or shorter. Change the rhythm of the sentence. Change the rhythm of the paragraph.
~ Change the use of commas. Use repeated coordinating conjunctions rather than commas to change the rhythm or effect.
Charles packed his binoculars, his new boots, three pairs of gloves, and extra socks.
Charles packed his binoculars and his new boots and ten pairs of socks.
~ Use periods rather than semicolons to break up sentences, or use semicolons rather than periods to connect sentences.
~ Reduce lists containing descriptions to a single standout element if you want readers to actually see and remember that one element.
~ Add sentences or paragraphs where you discover a gap. It’s likely you’ll have to make changes to surrounding text when you insert new sentences.
Words and Phrases
~ Cut out words and phrases that add nothing to meaning or mood and that aren’t needed for rhythm.
~ Cut out prepositional phrases that can be easily inferred by what has already been reported.
For example, if you’ve already noted that papers were scattered across a table, you wouldn’t have to say: She rearranged the papers on the table.
~ Reduce the use of adverbs and adjectives, especially if you tend to pile them into a series in one sentence or use them in many sentences in the same paragraph. If you’re using a group of modifiers for a special or intended effect, that’s different. But you wouldn’t want to repeat that effect again and again.
~ Cut adverbs or adjectives if they’re redundant—he raced speedily—or if they’re otherwise unnecessary.
~ Change an adjective to a more pointed or fitting one. Change an adjective to a more unusual one, maybe one that will redirect the feel of the paragraph or scene.
~ Cut common actions—he walked across the room—or rewrite them so they contribute to mood or the emotional impact or so they reveal something of the character in motion and/or of the viewpoint character reporting the action.
~ Choose, cut, or rearrange words to create a different rhythm.
~ Use a longer word or a shorter word.
~ Choose words for a different look on the page.
~ Choose different word combinations to create a different effect or feel. Choose words for their sounds as well as their look on the page or their look or sound when paired with other words.
Choose the sounds of words to enhance mood, tone, or the emotional effect. Or use the sounds of words for contrast. Be deliberate in your choice of words not only for meaning, but for effect.
~ Combine words that aren’t normally paired. Replace common phrasing with arresting combinations.
~ Change to common words when you don’t want to draw attention to a sentence or overplay the words.
~ Choose a different verb to give readers a clearer picture of what’s happening. Or choose a different verb to hint at a character’s personality.
~ Reduce unintended or excessive word repetition.
~ Employ deliberate repetition in word or sound or rhythm.
~ Substitute names for pronouns or pronouns for names.
~ Reduce references to names.
~ Reduce use of expletives. Not the cuss words but phrases such as there is, there was, and it was.
~ Cut clichés.
The Big Picture
To change the feel or meaning of a passage of text, you may need to change the focus or an element of the bigger picture first.
A word might not work because it’s the wrong word in terms of meaning. On the other hand, it might not work because it doesn’t create the emotional impact you need it to, and it might not do that because what has come before isn’t exactly right.
Don’t assume that the problem is always a problem at the word or sentence level. Sometimes the problem arises from the setup.
~ See what happens if you give a character a different response, whether in thought, action, or dialogue. Reveal your characters by showing how they differ from one another and from characters in other stories as well as from people in general.
Rather than have a character run, have him skip. Rather than have a character laugh, have her break into song or hiccups. Rather than have a character frown at the words of another character, have her slap the other character.
~ You can change not only typical responses but typical stimuli. Think beyond the common and the familiar. Rather than an alarm clock waking a character every day, maybe it’s the revving of a neighbor’s motorcycle.
~ See if a sentence, paragraph, section, or scene might not be enhanced by a change in focus.
Could a different event be used to jump-start a scene or a section of dialogue? What would happen if a different character initiated the response to an event?
What would happen if an event happened in a different location? What if the story’s entire setting were different?
Ask Some Questions
When you start making changes, have a plan. Ask yourself some questions about scenes and paragraphs and even sentences and words.
~ Does a word fit the surrounding words? the intended tone or mood? the character? the genre?
~ Does a phrase, sentence, paragraph, scene, or chapter meet its intended purpose? If not, make changes.
~ Does every phrase, sentence, and so forth even have a purpose? Although each sentence and scene won’t have the same purpose, each should still have a purpose. Preferably more than one. If any of these groupings of words—phrase, sentence, paragraph, scene, or chapter—serves no purpose, cut it.
~ Does the word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph add or enhance? Or does it detract from what you’ve created with other words, sentences, and paragraphs? Does each word grouping contribute without being a hindrance or distraction?
~ Is the meaning of every phrase or sentence clear?
I could add more questions, but you get the gist of these—to discover whether or not each word or word grouping is useful, relevant, appropriate, and necessary.
Cut or change words that don’t fit the story that’s emerged once you’ve got the story events put together.
Use word choices to enhance and to direct your story. Use them to refine. Use them to create a believable story world, characters that readers want to spend time with, and events that capture the reader’s attention.