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Chopping down your sentences

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

She loaded up her word processor on her laptop and began writing her blog. It increases the word count, but does showing every movement of your character's action necessary? Or are you hand-holding your reader through the action in fear that they won't picture it exactly as you intended?

Let's start that again. She began writing her blog.

A wall of old-timey metal scissors hung on the wall. Most are out of focus.

What is critical?

Writing tends to lead us lost into our own imagined worlds, sat with our characters, trying to capture everything that we're conjuring. This might be one of the reasons why we fall into the habit of describing each detail of an action. Don't stop doing it if it's what gets you in the flow. Thinking, feeling and being our action can help us find our stories.

But we need get a firm hold on our descriptions when we're writing. Take the example above. "She opened her word processer on her laptop and began writing her blog." Almost all of this sentence isn't critical to the story. The details we need are that she began writing and that it was a blog. "She began writing her blog." shows us the action without dragging the reader through the process. It needn't be a cinematic experience because your reader can fill in the gaps.

Making the chop

Slowly pick through your work, line-by-line. Where a character has an action, consider how it is described. Does he take a sip of his tea? Or does he raise his mug to his lips to take a sip of his tea? The latter can come across as bloated text. It doesn't add to the narrative. Readers feel condescended to. We have to trust our readers to assume that he isn't hovering his face over the mug to sip from the tea that sits on the table. Just cut it. Keep it simple, trust your readers!

Showing us all in your sentences

Don't cut all lengthy descriptions of action without question. Of course, take a pair of scissors to the superfluous. But where it is used intentionally, to create an effect, it can be powerful.

When the action described is interrupted

She opens her laptop to write her blog. The blank screen glares in her face, a sad metaphor for the ideas she has.

Here, her action (to start her blog) is interrupted by the all-familiar writer's block. It walks readers through her opening her laptop with intent, only to fail. Show your readers what your character is about to do, and then show that process being interrupted. You might choose to leave this explanation in. You could even choose to expand on it to show the laborious process of getting started to write.

When you need to show emotion or create suspense

The scratching noise had started up again in the little attic. They pushed down the door handle to push open the door.

Here the added detail adds to the suspense. By not skipping straight to "They opened the door.", we have shown the character's apprehension. If the explanation adds to the emotion of the scene, keep it.

As a note, this sentence might also be phrased to draw on the senses. Suspense and emotion are so intrinsically linked to our senses that they shouldn't be shied away from in writing. You could write "The door handle creaked under their trembling hand.", which goes back to simply implying that they open the door. In this instance, either example is better than "They opened the door." which skips the suspense all together.

When your character is acting in unusual ways

He took a sip from his tea.

If he really is hovering his face above his tea to slurp it where it sits, "He took a sip from his tea" isn't going to cut it. Hold as much scrutiny to your simply stated actions as you do your fully explained actions. Is the character really doing the simple thing? If not, this the time to get descriptive.


Also always, when you're line editing consider the context and impact of your sentences. What meaning do you want to convey? What emotion do you want your readers to be feeling? Make sure every decision you implement is intentional.


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