Monday, December 17, 2007

Fixing Your Nasal Passages, Part One: Sentence Combining

My inner 9-year-old boy loves the title of this post. Apologies to those of you who are grown-ups. ;)

Several of you have commented that you’re going to comb through your manuscripts for instances of scents doing things to noses. I have some examples that might help you with your editing, but before we get to them, I’d like to say something about our examples.

We Protect Our People

Every day, Alicia and I work with writers to shape their manuscripts for publication. We also evaluate submissions, read our friends’ pages, give second opinions to other editors -- in short, we confront a whole lot of manuscript pages for a whole lot of reasons.

Here’s what we don’t do. We don’t -- and we never will -- pull examples directly from any of these manuscripts. The editor-author relationship depends on mutual trust and respect, and we won’t ever compromise that. We might get ideas for blog posts in the course of our interaction with writers and manuscripts, but all examples are ours, with the occasional exception of literary sources.

Now, with that out of the way, let’s roll up our sleeves and get into some edits.

Sentence Combining

How you edit a flabby scent sentence (scent-ence? nah…) depends a lot on what’s around it. When your nosey moment causes an action of some kind in the very next sentence, sentence combining might be the best editing method to use.

The scent of fresh-brewed coffee permeated her nostrils. She opened her eyes slowly. Could it really be six a.m. already?

So we have two simple sentences (subject-verb-direct object), one of which is dressed up with a prepositional phrase in the subject, and one of which includes an adverb in the predicate.

What’s the nosey moment? She smells coffee. And what action does it cause? She opens her eyes slowly.

If you ditch the flabby back half of the first sentence, and combine the smell of coffee with the action it provokes, you might end up with something like:

The scent of fresh-brewed coffee made her open her eyes. Could it really be six a.m. already?

Hmm. It’s a passable sentence, but made isn’t a very strong verb, is it? It’s not quite as invisible as a verb of being, but it’s still a bit on the flabby side. Especially because the stronger verb, open, is no longer doing the heavy lifting of the sentence but has been shoved into a lesser, object slot.

Maybe this would work better if we flipped it around so that open could be the main verb of the sentence.

She opened her eyes to the scent of fresh-brewed coffee. Could it really be six a.m. already?

That’s better. It’s more linear, less cluttered, but now I’m a little bothered by the eyes and the scent being right next to each other. You can open your ears to a sound and your eyes to a sight, but I’m not sure you can open your eyes to a scent. It feels off.

So instead of opening her eyes, let’s give her another equivalent action.

She woke to the scent of fresh-brewed coffee. Could it really be six a.m. already?
She rose to the scent of fresh-brewed coffee. Could it really be six a.m. already?

Either of these is cleaner. Tighter, too. And there’s one further advantage that has to do with impact and flow within the paragraph, but that’s a pretty complex topic we’ll save for another day.



Anonymous said...

"Nine-your-old boy"

I wonder if this was a typo or deliberate--the reason I ask, when my daughter was young, she used to reply to the questions about her age that she was "two my old." We couldn't figure it out until much later--she confused the word "year" with "your" and then transferred to pronoun to herself, using the proper "my".

Peg Brantley said...

Wahoo! I think I scent (sorry) great things emitting from this blog.

I'll be back . . . if I can remember. Reminders would be nice to those of us who are old dogs with, um, er . . . slower noses.


Edittorrent said...

Sadly, Kathy, this was just a classic case of "Editor, Edit Thyself." (chagrin)

Thanks for pointing that out so I could fix it!