Saturday, July 5, 2008

Sentence element order -- edit instinct analyzed

Sometimes we edit on instinct, just knowing that a sentence would be better with a different order. Here's an example (modified from a real sentence):

She didn’t look healthy now, though
Tasha was normally a fitness nut.

Without much thought, I flipped the order there, and then went back and considered why. Here's my edited version:
Though Tasha was normally a fitness nut, she didn’t look healthy now.

So why did I do that? When I tell you, you'll probably tell me to go back just to doing it by instinct, because puzzling it out takes too long. :)

First, while I think the majority of sentences should be (or maybe that's too strong... maybe "are allowed to be?" "can be?") in the declarative order-- Subject, verb, object-- that sets up a need for the occasional non-simple sentence, just for variety. So whenever a sentence can start with an element other than the subject and verb, I like to try that, just for balance.
Second, when there's a pronoun replacing a noun, especially a name, I like to see the antecedent (the noun) first. "Ante-" means "before," and of course if there's a "replacement," that would suggest that the replacement comes "after." So name first, pronoun second. That can be done either by flipping the clauses, or by just flipping the subjects:

Tasha didn’t look healthy now, though
she was normally a fitness nut.
Which option I choose depends on all the other factors that go into sentence order, but it's something to consider.

Third, logic would suggest (not require) that in a sentence like this, where the two elements are the exception and the rule, the rule would go before the exception. You know:
Three strikes means you're out (rule), except when (there are at least three exceptions to this rule, so I won't list them).
Rule, then exception. You don't have to do it that way, but I'd say if you don't do it the logical way, you should be able to articulate a good reason, or don't bother arguing the point. :)

Fourth, the main clause, that is, the independent one, usually (but not always) goes last, because the most important thought is usually (not always) put in the main clause, and the most important thought usually (but not always :) goes last.
What if you think both thoughts are equally important? Well, don't put one in a subordinate (dependent) clause. Almost all subordinating conjunctions (though, since, because) have a corresponding coordinate conjunction (and, or, so, but, then). So try that, transforming the sentence from a complex one (dependent clause + independent clause) to a compound one (independent clause + independent clause), and ensuring that the two clause-thoughts are read with equal weight:
Tasha was normally a fitness nut, but she didn’t look healthy now.

Fifth, and I did warn you, didn't I, that instinct was quicker? As with "rule first, exception second," the logic of our earthly insistence on the centrality of time indicates that, all other things being equal, most human minds are most comfortable with sentences that proceed in a chronological order. The observation here is -- what was true in the past, and what is true now-- so the chrono-logic would be past (normally a fitness nut) and then present (now not healthy). It doesn't HAVE to be that way, and there are going to be instances that the present --> past order works better. But ordinarily, I'll go with time order.

Finally, sentences (and especially paragraph-ending sentences) should, if possible, end on the most emotionally significant note. Tasha doesn't look healthy now... that has emotional resonance. It forces the reader to end with a question (usually a good thing if you want her to keep reading). Is she sick? Is she depressed? It's immediate because of the "now", while the past is interesting but, well, past.

As I said, there are many times when these considerations get discarded because of some other factor. But "other factors" tend to predominate with important sentences, those that begin and end paragraphs, for example, or especially act as a pivot point in a scene, or a conclusion. And the wording of those sentences especially have to be seen in context of the entire passage or scene. Maybe you WANT to focus on the past, not the present, because you decided my hatred of flashbacks is irrelevant and this sentence introduces a flashback (past, that is), so you're really moving from the present to the past. If you feel strongly that a sentence should be structured in the order you structured it, see if you can puzzle out why-- that might actually tell you how to develop the rest of the scene, or revise the passage to set up for this important development.

Journeyman sentences, those that convey some information but are not pivotal, should generally (but of course not always) follow the conventions of structure. Why? Because then the structure itself adds meaning to your sentence. If you remember to end the sentence on the most emotionally resonant phrase or word, then the reader will get that, will get a deeper sense of the emotion there. You don't want to undercut that meaning-amplification by ending on something confusing or unimportant.

Now... it's taken me a half hour to think through and type all this. Keep that in mind when an editor revises a few of your sentences. If she's a good editor (never assume ), she's got reasons for changing the sentence order. However, while revising the sentence might take her 20 seconds, articulating those reasons could take a half hour. If you go through the line-edited copy sentence by sentence, comparing against your original, and demand an explanation for each change, you're going to take up a lot of time the editor doesn't have. (If you must do this, do it on the phone... talking takes less time. But you should pay for the call, if only to keep you mindful of the time-expense therein. :)

And what happens to the next submission of writers who take up ten times more time than the editor gets paid for? I'll leave that to your imagination.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't explain why particular sentences should be structured a certain way. But pick your battles here. If you pinpoint four sentences out of 200 pages for such defense, you'll have a much better chance winning the argument than if every single blasted change has to be debated.

And no good editor would object to a request like, "I see you've taken out a lot of my participial phrases. Could you explain why? I really want to learn how to improve my prose."


Anonymous said...

Alicia, I've used your 'put the punch last' idea a lot recently. I admire your ability to think through the reason for these structures, and aspire to have that intuition kick in as well. Thanks for the half-hour.

Edittorrent said...

Thanks! And I like your phrase "punch last".

Unknown said...

Thanks for the great post. I've linked my blog with yours because it pays to come back and visit often. I just used the quote from your site about using the noun before the pronoun on my yahoo group. I gave you full credit for it and the link to your blog. :) We share hints and tips for improving our writing and you provided the one today. Thanks so much.

Ginger Simpson

Wes said...

Makes a lotta sense!!!

I realized a few months ago I had the tendency to open a sentence with the most significant part. Hopefully I've broken myself of that habit.

Edittorrent said...

Ahhh. Lovely post. Especially the bit about subordinate and coordinating ideas. I find that I have to correct for that in almost every manuscript. (Almost.)

who looks forward to writing a post of her own again someday....

Edittorrent said...

Wes, sometimes, esp. in dialogue, it works to put the important thing first. I mean, that's often the way we talk. "John! The house is on fire! No, you don't have time to finish this level." When we speak, we often say what seems most urgent first.

But in narrative, I think we're trained to assume the last part is usually most important-- that's what lingers, for example, over a paragraph or chapter break.

Edittorrent said...

Ginger, that's great--I'll check out your place. :)