What is a good sentence? What’s the difference between good writing and not so good writing. This is the question that haunts every writer until the moment they find themselves drowning in critical awards – and sometimes even then. Beyond simple mechanics, what makes good writing?
The classic (probably apocryphal) story is that a friend came to visit James Joyce while he was working on Ulysses and, seeing that the author was troubled, he asked, “James? What’s wrong? You look so forlorn.”
Joyce looked up from his work and said, “I’ve written seven words today.”
“Seven? But, James, for you that’s wonderful.”
“I know,” Joyce said, grabbing his hair in agony, “but I don’t know what order they go in!”
I’ve been pretty vocal on this blog arguing against sending out first drafts. One of the reasons this is such a bad idea is that on your first pass, you’re just trying to capture the story as fast as it’s unspooling in your mind. But go back and take a second look at your perfect prose and you’ll find sentences like this:
He clapped Paul on the shoulder and passed by him on his way to the opening of the cave where he paused and said, “Don’t come around the cottage tonight. It’s going to be loud.”
Technically, that’s a valid sentence. It gets the information across. But it’s a TERRIBLE sentence. Why? Say it out loud. Go ahead, I’ll wait. You see? You ran out of breath on the way, didn’t you?
TMI. Too much information. Too often, writers feel compelled to cram too much into one sentence. Sometimes it’s all valid information that just needs to be delivered in two separate sentences, but very often, as in the case above, the information is unnecessary or redundant and can simply be removed:
Clapping Paul on the shoulder, he made his way to the cave opening, pausing only to say, “Don’t come round the cottage tonight. It’s going to be loud.”
Most of my drafts revolve around working out character definition and plot issues. Very often, I will simply run into a wall in the story I can’t get over or around. That’s when I stop, put it away, and come back to it in a few months with a page one rewrite. But the last draft of anything I write is a polish draft dedicated to finding sloppy prose and fixing it as best I can.
This is a classic amateur sentence I just pulled out of a first draft:
Noticing that many of the other players had turned to take note of him, Paul decided it would be best if they didn’t overhear anything he had to say with his new business partner.
Passive construction. Opening with a subordinate clause. Too much information. Violation of the prime directive to omit needless words. Here’s the better version:
Paul decided it might be better if the other players weren’t able to overhear a discussion about selling his vector. The practice might not be strictly illegal but it was most likely frowned upon.
I was able to provide more information and a more natural read by breaking it into two sentences and eliminating the passive construction. Again, the glaring red flag that indicates amateur writing is that need to cram too much into one sentence. This, along with flawless characters that never fail and using the word “boobs” in a sex scene, are the hallmarks of bad storytelling.
So the admonishment to read your stuff out loud during a polish draft is a well founded one. Even if you’re not on a first draft, reading in your head can lead to mental edits that fix poor sentence construction automatically as you read. Reading out loud, however, you’ll find yourself stumbling over these sentences. Image in what they would do to your readers.