EZ Ways to Write Tighter Sentences

Who was that Masked Man?New writers can sometimes feel as if they aren’t making progress fast enough. The necessary skills aren’t likely to appear overnight–there’s that whole “10,000 hours of practice” thing. Yet there are simple and quick ways to improve your sentences. We’ll discuss three of them today and save a second set of three for next week’s post

Writing Tip for Today: Cut out the flab from your fiction at the sentence level by implementing these easy tips:

Toss Out Was Ings 

The number one blunder made by writers of all experience levels is to rely too heavily upon the “was __ing” construction. He was playing, she was walking, the dog was barking, the cat was hissing. Each of these examples could eliminate the “was” and use the simple past tense form of the ing word next to it: He played, she walked, the dog barked and the cat hissed. A was __ing sentence not only adds unneeded words, it implies the motion is continuous. Should writers EVER use a was __ing? Only you can answer, but for the most part stick to the simpler past (or if writing in present) tense.

Forget Dialog Fillers

Writers are encouraged to give dialog a natural sound. The quest for believable dialog often ends with the addition of fillers–those ums, ers, well and the like that people casually toss into their live conversations. The thing about dialog is that it sounds like real speech but it isn’t. Readers won’t stand for much reality in dialog, especially if it involves a long-winded story that goes nowhere or speech loaded down with fillers. Go ahead and draft with the uhs and ohs in the dialog. But when you rewrite, take out these extraneous words. Then read the same line of dialog. Chances are, you won’t miss those extra fillers. A better way to show hesitancy or indecision might be with body language or even the other character’s responses.

Befriend Specific Verbs

You thought I’d attack those poor ly words, the adverbs, didn’t you? In a way, tightening your sentences by choosing specific verbs is rejecting adverb usage. If you write, “He trudged,” you don’t have to say he walked slowly. If you find a verb which describes an action to a tee, you can turn your back on a host of modifiers, including those dreaded “lys.” Some verbs most often used in fiction are too general to give readers a clear picture. These include look, talk, walk, move, put, place, see, and do. Replace them with verbs that allow readers to imagine exactly what you had in mind as you wrote. You’ll tighten your sentences and keep your readers reading.

Next time: Three more easy ways to tighten sentences.


About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

9 comments on “EZ Ways to Write Tighter Sentences

  1. I agree with almost everything you said. The reason I say almost is because sometimes “ing” words add to the pace and rhythm of sentence structure. During a leisure car ride, for instance, when your character’s says “Birds soaring above our heads, singing songs of delight.” gives a more relaxed feel, relating the sentence rhythm to the character’s emotion. Rather than the clipped version of “Birds chirped.”which often relates to tenseness or urgency. Thoughts?

    • Hi Sue,
      Of course you’re right–sometimes an ing word is the better choice. I refer to the beginner’s habit of using the was __ing construction where a simpler past tense verb would read tighter. My thinking is, “It either works or it needs work.” At times you need to do what works. Thanks and keep writing!

  2. Linda, I thank you so much for this. I seriously began writing less than a year ago. My dream as a child was not to be a best selling writer. I am a speaker/teacher. These tips help me as I write. (I caught myself and almost wrote “are helping me”).
    I am off to read the next two posts.

    • Cheryl,
      Thanks so much for visiting my tips blog. As you’ll find if you read regularly, the “rules” are guidelines, not laws. If you use an “ing,” the usage police aren’t going to show up. But as a general idea, simple verbs are better than complicated ones.
      Keep writing!

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