Worst. Paragraph. Ever.

For my day job I work as a translator, but I also moonlight as a proofreader/editor for Dreamspinner Press. Here is an example of the sort of manuscript some people submit for publication (not an excerpt, just a simulated representation):

George thought that sounded like an excellent idea, and he took off his jacket. They stripped where they stood, and they grinned at each other. Geronimo pointed to the washing machine for George’s clothes and produced a robe for him. It was a soft, dark purple robe that was now for George’s use when he came to stay, and George was very pleased to wear it. His skin was covered in goose bumps, and he was shivering. Geronimo slipped on his own burgundy robe, and his clothes ended up in the machine with George’s. Their fingers greedily grabbed each other’s ass as they came together, and their lips met in a hungry kiss.

There are 7 “and”s used in the paragraph above, often with a comma to join what would otherwise be two sentences. In fact, every single conjunction is an “and” – as though the writer couldn’t think of any other way to join two thoughts together. However, if you read it over, you can tell how bland and boring the whole paragraph is. This is because everything is given the same importance. Compare it with the rewritten version below:

George thought that was an excellent idea, so he took off his jacket. They stripped where they stood and grinned at each other. Geronimo pointed to the washing machine for George’s clothes before producing a soft, dark purple robe that was now for George’s use when he came to stay, which George was very pleased to wear. His skin was covered in goose bumps and he was shivering. Geronimo slipped on his own burgundy robe, his clothes ending up in the machine with George’s. As they came together, their fingers greedily grabbed each other’s ass and their lips met in a hungry kiss.

In this paragraph there are only 3 “and”s, with the other ones getting substituted or eliminated altogether by a slight rewording. Let’s take a closer look.

In the first sentence, the “and” is replaced by “so,” thereby indicating the cause-and-effect relationship of the clauses. George took off his jacket because he thought it was a good idea.

In the second, the comma is deleted as well as the second “they” so the sentence flows more quickly. Consider every comma a pause in the reader’s cadence; the more commas, the slower the reader’s speed, which will make the story seem to drag on forever.

In the third, “before” is used to show the sequence of events. Presumably, Geronimo did not point to the machine and simultaneously bring out the robe (it’s possible, of course, but it’s not that critical to the story). It’s tempting to use “then” to indicate the sequence of events, too, but it’s very easy to use too many of them. Mixing it up with “before” or “after” helps keep the sentence style from getting stagnant.

Also, in the edited example, the third and fourth sentences are combined since the last topic in the third sentence and the subject of the fourth sentence are both the same: the robe. By creating a longer sentence in the middle of shorter (and similarly constructed) sentences, the sing-song pattern can be broken up to produce more variety – the spice of life.

The “and” of the fourth sentence is also reworded with a “which,” keeping the focus on the robe instead of shifting the subject back to George again.

[Actually, even the edited paragraph goes back-and-forth with its subjects too often: George, they, Geronimo, robe, George’s skin, George, Geronimo, Geronimo’s clothes, their fingers, and their lips. It’s enough to give the readers a mental whiplash!]

The comma has been deleted in the fifth to show that both halves of the sentence are equal. The original is not incorrect since the second clause has a subject of its own, but if you consider every comma a slap in the face [if you remember the movie “Chariots of Fire” you’ll get the reference] it’s a valid way to remove one and make the prose flow more smoothly.

In the sixth sentence, a slight rewording made the “and” unnecessary.

The seventh sentence has been reworded since “as they came together” applies to both of the clauses, thereby making the two equal and eliminating the comma from between them.

Now that was as much as a proofreader could suggest changing, but as I mentioned in the brackets, the subject switching is still excessive. Here’s how I would rewrite the paragraph altogether:

Thinking that sounded like an excellent idea, George began stripping and throwing his clothes into the washing machine with Geronimo following suit, both of them grinning all the while. When Geronimo produced a soft, dark purple robe for George to use now whenever he came to stay, George was touched. He started shivering so much that his skin became covered in goose bumps. He watched as Geronimo slipped on his own burgundy robe, then stepped closer to his lover, greedily grabbing his ass as Geronimo did likewise. George closed his eyes when their lips met in a hungry kiss.

Not only is there only one “and” but the lengths and cadences of the sentences are mixed up to make it more interesting to read. Also, the minor point about putting their clothes in the washer (which was described separately for the two men in the original) has been combined into one little note. Most importantly, George is the main subject on a consistent basis now: George thinks it’s a good idea, George strips and throws his clothes, Geronimo produces the robe but it is George who is touched, George shivers (his skin is a minor detail describing how much he’s shivering), George watches his lover and then steps closer to him and grabs his ass (Geronimo reciprocates, of course, but is following George’s lead), and George closes his eyes and enjoys their kiss. By focusing on what George does and feels, the paragraph becomes more coherent.

A lot of stories are written from the omniscient author’s perspective in which the reader is told what both main characters are feeling more-or-less equally; however, it still helps each paragraph to stand out and have a clear focus if the subject (or point of view) is consistent. The paragraphs can even alternate between the two lovers, but then the reader already has a visual cue to tell them, “This is what George is feeling” versus “This is what Geronimo is feeling.”

I hope this little rant might help some of you aspiring writers to clarify your thoughts as well as your writing!

T


 

ADDENDUM

Here is another revision by Petra Howard:

Thinking that sounded like an excellent idea, George began stripping of his clothes while watching Geronimo do the same. He threw their clothes into the washing machine, cold shivers shaking his body as his skin became covered in goose bumps. He was touched when Geronimo produced a soft, dark purple robe for him to wear whenever he came to stay. George shrugged the robe over his shoulders as Geronimo slipped into his own burgundy robe. George stepped closer to his lover and greedily grabbed his ass. George’s eyes closed as Geronimo grabbed his ass in return and their lips met in a hungry kiss.

Taking it a step further, I would suggest:

Thinking that sounded like an excellent idea, George began stripping of his clothes while watching Geronimo do the same. He threw their clothes into the washing machine, shivering as his skin became covered in goose bumps. He was touched when Geronimo produced a soft, dark purple robe for him to wear whenever he came to stay. George shrugged the robe over his shoulders as Geronimo slipped into his own burgundy robe. George stepped closer to his lover and greedily grabbed his ass, then closed his eyes as Geronimo grabbed his ass in return and their lips met in a hungry kiss.

By changing “cold shivers shaking” to just “shivering,” I kept George as the subject/focus. The same for the last sentence which I combined with the previous by a “then” so that “George’s eyes” did not become the subject of a sentence.

When people’s body parts start taking center stage and doing things on their own, they’re called ABPs — Autonomous Body Parts. It’s always best to keep the whole person as the subject! So “Andrew touched Benjamin” is better than “Andrew’s hands touched Benjamin” since it’s implied and understood that he used his hands to touch him.

Sometimes you have to work over a paragraph many times before it’s just right, or you may even have to scrap it altogether and start anew. Don’t give up! There are many ways to say the same thing. Just remember that the simplest way to deliver the message to your readers is always the best.

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  1. Dangling Modifiers « Thea Nishimori

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