Writerly Wednesday: That Awkward Sentence When . . .

This week, I thought I’d get into some mechanics. This post is about syntax. Exciting, I know.

Awkward sentences pop up all the time. They lead us (the reader) astray, make us wonder who is doing what, or force us to re-read them just to make sense of them. Awkward sentences are annoying to a reader. They’re even more annoying when they’re your own sentences and you don’t know what went wrong.

Why exactly are sentences “awkward”? What’s the flaw in them that makes them difficult to read? In my experience, there is one root cause: trying to do too much in one sentence.

Too many propositions: We start with one idea and eventually, with the aid of a few too many prepositions and/or conjunctions, we end up halfway to China. The sentence in question doesn’t necessarily break any grammatical rules. It just wanders here and there, using “through” and “by” and “before” and “after”. These are usually the sentences where you have to go back and reread it because somebody is “xing the y of the thing that was once in the z and now is with m until after p, when m and n may coincide, if only t would listen”. Yeah, see the craziness?

Too many subjects: By this, I mean grammatical subjects (it could be the same person acting in different ways). When you have several grammatical subjects in one sentence, it’s a decent sign that you have too many actors performing too many actions. Go back to grade school and remember what your first-grade teacher said: a sentence conveys one idea. You can have more than one actor (subject) doing more than one thing (predicate) per sentence, but make sure they’re intrinsically linked. Breaking apart the subjects of a complex sentence might lessen the impact of what you’re trying to say. But it also might clarify what you’re trying to say. Some writers seem to substitute complexity for emotional impact. Here’s a clue: just because you’re packing a lot into one sentence doesn’t make any of it mean more. The more you pile on, the less weight each word has. Some of the most devastating and memorable sentences are the simplest.

Too many actions and bad parallel structure: There are related. One of the most common problems made by enthusiastic young writers is faulty parallel structure. By this I mean a list of things or actions that, when broken down into its component parts, doesn’t make sense. This can be a grammatical error. But a lot of times, a tortured use of parallel structure isn’t wrong, it’s just tortured. Please, leave that poor sentence alone. Don’t weigh it down. Pare it back to its most basic structure. Make sure the same subject is performing each action, make sure each action is in the same tense, make sure each verb has the same number of adverbs, etc. If possible, sum it all up with one, strong verb and leave off the parallel structure altogether.

My experience is that these issues are common to newer writers who are not confident yet with the craft. They’re overreaching themselves a bit in an attempt to sound “writerly”. My, they say, that is a spiffy, complex sentence! It makes me sound smart. But if you don’t have a grasp on it, it’ll get right away from you. And what’s more, syntactical complexity is not a virtue. Good writers are like good parents: firm and in command, but never overbearing.

That said, I’ve written more than a few of my own awkward sentences. My advice to others and to myself: Words are just words, and they can move anywhere and do anything. Break those suckers to pieces and put them back together with loving care. Don’t be afraid of them.

Before I start sounding preachy, here are a couple examples from a recent editing pass of my own writing:

1. The beauty was there still, but time had used up and dried out that beauty so that it was something arid.

Became:

The beauty was there still, but time had used it up and dried it out into something arid.

Because: It was wordy and upon re-reading, it didn’t work.

How: I collapsed the sentence by reducing “beauty” to “it” and thereby getting rid of a few prepositions.

2. Or maybe he was remembering wrong, and he’d asked the question and he had been the one to be slapped.

Became:

Or maybe he was remembering it wrong, and he’d been the one to ask the question and feel the sting of its consequences.

Because: It was a little confusing.

How: I collapsed the second part of the second sentences from “he’d x and he had been the one to x” to “he’d been the one to x and x”. Much simpler.

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