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Writing Guide with Handbook

3.6 Editing Focus: Sentence Structure

Writing Guide with Handbook3.6 Editing Focus: Sentence Structure

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Use language structures, including multilingual structures, grammar, punctuation, and spelling, during the process of editing.
  • Develop flexible strategies for drafting, reviewing, collaborating, revising, rewriting, and editing.
  • Use composing processes and tools as a means to discover and reconsider ideas.

After writing a draft of your literacy narrative and revising it to strengthen the overall structure and content of the text, you are ready to pay closer attention to individual sentences within it. This section offers several strategies for improving your sentences to communicate meaning more effectively to your audience and to make the reading experience more engaging.

Sentence Combining

Sentence combining is an often-used revision strategy that can completely transform a narrative. When writers compose early drafts with many short sentences rather than more sophisticated efforts at varied or complex sentence construction, the writing appears choppy and disjointed. Once you have a complete draft of your essay, consider combining sentences to provide your audience with more effective and nuanced ways of reading your work. You can combine short, repetitive sentences into a simple sentence with a compound predicate or subject, as in the first example below. Or you can combine the shorter sentences into a complex sentence with a dependent clause, as in the second example. See Clear and Effective Sentences for more information about effective sentences and sentence structure.

  • 1a. I learned to play piano. I was five years old. Learning to play piano is my literacy experience. Memorizing the location of the keys is also my literacy experience.

  • 1b. Learning to play piano at the age of five and memorizing the location of the keys are my literacy experiences.

  • 2a. I learned to read in first grade. Learning to read made me want to be a teacher. I want to share my experience with reading with future first graders.

  • 2b. Learning to read as a first grader made me want to become a teacher so that I could share my experiences with future first graders.

Read through the draft of your essay, and look for sentences that are closely related enough that they can be combined for richer meaning. However, keep in mind that short sentences can be effective in your writing, especially when you want to create realistic dialogue or show action. Strive to create a balance among sentence lengths and types to engage your audience. Remember, too, that the best test of whether words are pulling their own weight and providing rhythm, balance, and emphasis is to read the passage aloud. Let your ear tell you what is sharp and clear and what could benefit from editing.

Revising Common Sentence Patterns for More Effective Communication

If you have often been told to make your sentences clearer, less wordy, or both, but you do not know where to start, this section offers some quick strategies to address some of the most common issues that contribute to unclear or wordy writing.

Defining You and This. One common pattern that makes writing less clear is the use of you to mean “a random person” rather than “you,” the audience. Here is an example, followed by a revision.

  • 1a. You must plan your document carefully to connect with your audience.

  • 1b. underlineWritersend underline must plan underlinetheirend underline documents carefully to connect with underlinetheirend underline audiences.

This sentence is stronger with the revision clearly indicating who needs to plan their writing. You might be writing a piece addressed directly to the audience, as this textbook is. If so, be careful to distinguish between the use of you to mean your specific audience—appropriate when directly addressing an audience—and a hazier use of you that needs clarification. Use the “find” function to search your document for the word you, and then replace every unclear you with a definite noun.

Another pattern affecting the clarity of written work is using the word this on its own without an explanation of what “this” is. Here is an example, along with its revision.

  • 1a. This can be confusing to the reader.

  • 1b. This underlinelack of explanationend underline can be confusing to the reader.

In the first sentence, the audience wonders, “This what?” In the second sentence, the writer simply adds a noun phrase to explain, and readers will appreciate the clarification. Use the “find” function to search your document for this, and make sure you have defined or explained this in all cases.

Revising Sentences to Change There are / There is or It is. Readers relate better to sentences that feature a “doer”—someone or something performing an action—and an “action”—the activity of the doer. For this reason, writing that overuses the sentence patterns There are . . . / There is . . . and It is . . . in place of a doer and action can seem unclear, remote, or dull for the reader. As you revise such sentences, you may find at times that you need to insert a doer or an action; one or both may be missing from the first version of the sentence. Here is one example, with a suggested revision.

  • 1a. There are many strategies to revise written work.

  • 1b. underlineAuthors employend underline many strategies to revise written work.

In the first sentence, the doer (“authors”) is implied, but the second sentence includes a doer for a more reader-friendly version.

Sentences using the It is . . . pattern need similar attention to present a doer and an action to the reader. Here is one example and revision.

  • 1a. It is challenging and rewarding to revise a composition.

  • 1b. underlineI feelend underline challenged and rewarded when revising a composition.

Again, the first sentence needs an agent to do the sentence’s actions. Use the “find” function to search your document for “there are,” “there is,” and “it is,” and replace these weaker sentence constructions with doers and actions wherever possible.

Eliminating Wordiness. To begin, look at the sentences below to get a sense of what wordiness is. Eliminating wordiness should not alter or omit information. In these sentences, the information remains the same, but the edited sentence shows a trimmed-down version. There was and that are eliminated, as is the unnecessary adverb really; was shining becomes shone; and the phrase waves in the ocean becomes ocean waves.

  • 1a. There was a really bright light that was shining on the waves in the ocean.

  • 1b. A bright light shone on the ocean waves.

In general, try to cut out words that do not add meaning, rhythm, or emphasis. Sentences clogged with unnecessary words often cause readers to lose interest, patience, and comprehension. Edit sentences to include concrete nouns and action verbs—or “doers” and “actions,” as described above. Additionally, choosing modifiers carefully will help you weed out unnecessary words. Look at the following sentences, which all say essentially the same thing. However, you will see some changes and omissions.

  • In almost every situation that I can think of, except with few exceptions, it will make good sense for you to look for as many places as possible to cut out needless, redundant, and repetitive words from the papers and reports, paragraphs and sentences you write for college assignments. (49 words)
  • In most situations, it makes good sense to cut out needless words from your college papers. (16 words)
  • Whenever possible, omit needless words from your writing. (8 words)
  • Omit needless words. (3 words)

The 49-word sentence is full of early-draft language; you can almost visualize the writer finding their way while writing. The 16-word sentence says much the same thing with far fewer words. Most of this editing simply cut out unnecessary words. Only at the end were several wordy phrases condensed: “from the papers and reports, paragraphs and sentences you write for college assignments” was reduced to “from your college papers.” That 16-word sentence was reduced by half by rephrasing and dropping the emphasis on college writing. And that sentence was whittled down by nearly two-thirds to arrive at the core three-word sentence, “Omit needless words.”

The first sentence is long-winded by any standard or in any context; each of the next three might serve well in different situations. Thus, when you edit to make language more concise, think about the overall effect you intend to create. Sometimes the briefest construction is not the best one for your purpose. For example, the three-word sentence is more suited to a brief list than to a sentence of advice for this book.

Editing for More Effective Sentences

This paragraph from a student's first draft of a narrative contains sentences that need editing. On a separate sheet of paper, revise the sentences to eliminate There are . . . / It is . . . , unclear you and this, and wordiness. For better flow, combine sentences that are repetitive or choppy.

It is now hours later. I think it is almost midnight, in fact. I have finally managed to get my paper started and studied for my exam. My eyes are very tired. I get up and leave my comfortable chair. Next, I walk out of the library. You have to walk through a glass door. I retrace the path that goes back to my apartment, where I came from earlier.

Revision: _________________________________________________________________

Since it is midnight, it is dark, and I nervously listen to footsteps. They are coming up behind me. Then they get too close for comfort. This is really making me very, very nervous. I am really very scared, but I step over to the sidewalk’s edge. I am trying to be calm, and I let a man walk briskly past. Phew!

Revision: _________________________________________________________________

When I am finally at my door to my apartment, I fumble for the key to the door. I insert the key in the lock. I open the door, put my hand on the switch to turn on the hall light, and step inside the door to my apartment. There are two slices of pizza left in the box that is on the kitchen counter. They are really cold and very congealed.

Revision: _________________________________________________________________

Possible edited version. Hours later—my paper started, my exam studied for, my eyes tired—I leave my comfortable chair in the library, go through the glass door, and retrace the path to my apartment. It is midnight now. I listen closely when I hear footsteps approaching behind me, their steady rhythm making me nervous. Scared, I step to the sidewalk’s edge to let a man walk briskly past. Phew! At my apartment door, I fumble for the key, insert it in the lock, open the door, tum on the hall light, and step inside. On the kitchen counter, I see the box with its two slices of cold, congealed pizza.

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