Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Quick Sentence Revision Tip: Subordinate "IT"

Every now and then, we stumble across a manuscript that overuses a certain type of sentence. As with any sentence structure, the issue is not use so much as overuse.

She removed his shirt, pulling it over his head.

Okay, that's a really crappy example but it will serve to illustrate the point. Those of you who've been reading the blog for a while will probably expect a rant on present participial phrases now, but that's not where we're going. Ignore that problem for the moment. (No, aliens have not taken over my body. Promise.)

Focus instead on the word it, a weak pronoun that might signal some flab in the sentence. Which is the tighter, cleaner, more linear sentence?

She removed his shirt, pulling it over his head.
She pulled his shirt over his head.

Frequently, when we see this construction, it's because there's some weakness in the verbs. Remove and pull are both perfectly serviceable words, but it may be that the writer wanted a bit more emphasis in the moment. Perhaps she started by penning the clause, She removed his shirt, and then realized it lacked pizzazz or power. So she "fixed" it by slathering on that participial phrase, pulling it over his head, which adds detail and length but still reads a bit flat.

You see the problem? Instead of making the sentence punchier, we just made it longer. We're listing two instances of the shirt coming off, first removing it, then pulling it over his head. It's repetitive.

When I'm editing, the it is the trigger word for me. As soon as I see it laying there in the subordinate phrase like a tiny dead guppy, my eyes jump to the verbs. Are the actions identical? Do we need both verbs? What's the goal of the sentence?

If we're trying to build resonance into the simple act of removing a shirt, think about stronger verbs and companion actions that enhance without duplicating the main action.

What are some companion actions?

- unbuttoning the collar buttons
- sliding fingers over a bare chest under the cloth
- experiencing the feel of the fabric, scratchy, smooth, etc.
- tugging the hem free of the pants
- if he's very tall, stretching to complete the removal
- or coaxing him to bend
- you tell me! Name a companion action in the comments

After the shirt is off, we get loads of other options, too, like seeing the muscle move under the skin, feeling the prickle of chest hair, and so on.

What are some stronger verb choices? Flex your revision muscles now. Think of three vivid, dynamic verbs to describe this action. Strip, peel, what else?

Sometimes the verbs are better, but the sentence still feels flabby.

She pinched the cookie dough, squeezing it between her fingers.

Pinch can be defined as squeezing between the fingers, so even though these are decent verbs, they're duplicative. And again, for my eyes, the it is the trigger. I see it in a subordinate phrase, and the response is automatic. I compare the verbs, pick the stronger one, and excise the weaker.

She pinched the cookie dough.
She squeezed the cookie dough between her fingers.

This isn't a (*ahem*) cookie-cutter fix. But add it to your toolkit, and use it well.



Leona said...

OH boy, am I in trouble. LOL I think that is a sentence I would write, thinking I was continuing the movement versus repeating it. GRRR But, that's why I read this blog. It helps put things in perspective :D

Since I'm trying my hand at comedy, I don't want to weaken it by repetition. *sigh, back to the manuscripts...

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I totally first-draft these sorts of sentences, just to block out the action. Then I tighten 'em up.

btw, I see pinching cookie dough and squeezing it as two very different activities. Pinching is almost austere. Take a bit. Snip it off -- it's almost violent, too -- and put it where it belongs.

But when you squeeze it, there's a sensuality there. Think of mud oozing between your toes, of chocolate chips scraping against your wedding rings, of the squelch, of the ...

Yeah, I know you ladies edit romance and it's probably okay that I don't stop there. But the kids are home.

Besides, pinch v. squeeze is technically off-topic. But I couldn't resist.

Livia Blackburne said...

Haha, those are some pretty hot alternative examples.

Riley Murphy said...

I love this and in honor of my 20+ words per sentence, Jami, this one's for you... :D

She pulled his shirt over his head and threw it aside, before she leaned forward on tip toes to whisper in his ear, “Are you getting the cookie dough or shall I?”


Jordan said...

What a great point. (Dead guppy, LOL.)

I recently read through a book with a lot of "of it"s in it. Like:

He grabbed the bag of gold, the mere weight of it intoxicating in his hands.

Some of them would have been easily revisable to "its weight" or "her scent," but some less so. And one or two of these wouldn't have bothered me, but there were many, many.

Any thoughts for that one?

Edittorrent said...

Jordan, I routinely edit those constructions when I see them, and I do it exactly as you've described. It's not mere weight. It's dead weight. A possessive pronoun lightens the load.

Murphy, that sentence makes me want to cry a little. lol


Jami Gold said...


Thanks for focusing on this issue. It's a great thing to watch out for. (And I'm sure I'm not immune to this problem either. Yikes!)

And I'm with you on Murphy's sentence. I weep... LOL!

Jami G.

Steena Holmes said...

Gee thanks, another thing to add to my list to look for now! LOL

Seriously, a little pointer like this is fantastic advice! I hope you don't mind that I'll link this on my blog?

Eva Gale said...

Lol, Murphy, that sentence is...brimming.

Edittorrent said...

Steena, feel free to link to us. The more writers learn these tricks, the easier my job becomes. :)


Jami Gold said...


Uh oh, you want me to fix that sentence, don't you? :) I think Theresa and Alicia would agree with me when I say that this is one of those sentences that tries to do too much. Too many thoughts that don't need to be in the same sentence (and I'm ignoring the comma issue with 'before'). Now, they might disagree with me when I say that I think the "it" here is fine because it goes with a separate action (it's not a subordinate clause as with Theresa's examples). Nevertheless, with a bit of creative license, I'd end up with:

She pulled his shirt over his head and threw it aside. With a mischievous grin, she rose up on tip toes to whisper in his ear, “Are you getting the cookie dough, or shall I?”

I probably just mucked that up even worse, but I have a 102 temperature so my brain isn't all here. :)

Jami G.

Riley Murphy said...


Yeah, yeah, yeah! Quit making excuses there Kemo Sabe! The point to this terrifically long honker? I can't be trained. Let's keep that in mind for next time, shall we? And remember, I need very little encouragement to revert back to my ‘old’ ways. Actually, with little or no provocation I’ve been known to do this - ask my honey. So tread lightly. Otherwise, Tuesdays might be the day for the oxford comma and Wednesdays not so much. You think you have a headache now? Try reading a couple of chapters of that... hehehe Oh, and btw, if I had written this for real? I would have taken the ‘it’ out - go figure! :D

Go feel better, would you? What's with the added mischievous grin, though? If the guy's got his shirt off, and she's whispering in his ear, do you really think we need to qualify the mischief???


Jami Gold said...

Murphy said: What's with the added mischievous grin, though? If the guy's got his shirt off, and she's whispering in his ear, do you really think we need to qualify the mischief???

a) Yeah, yeah, I admitted to a bit of creative license. :) b) It depends on what her plans are for the cookie dough. LOL!

(and I'm not touching your threat with a 10 foot pole... :) )

Jami G.

Anonymous said...

I liked this post, and thought it was helpful. I shall keep it in mind while editing, and use it frequently...

Edittorrent said...

I'm wondering what they're going to do with the cookie dough. I think I don't have a very good imagination. :)

Riley Murphy said...

Hi Eva! *waves* You think that's brimming? Girl, you have no idea. You need to stick around for the log lines! I do have some serious whoppers then! It's a whole lot of fun, and hopefully, we'll be doing some of those soon. :)


Riley Murphy said...

Alicia, shame on you! Our poor hero stood in front of 15 alter boys when a packet of chocolate frosting for their cookies exploded in his hands. Our heroine saved the day. She quickly pulled his shirt off, as it was laden with goo, and tossed the garment aside. They needed those cookies for their church party, so logically she quietly asked him, if she should she could get the premixed dough or if he wanted to... Sheesh! What were you thinking????


Edittorrent said...

lol@ Simon

John H said...

Well I feel pretty pleased with myself. I read the first line and thought 'thats not good' but then needed you to explain why. But I fully understand straight away how to fix and why (doesn't always happen), so thankyou!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Alicia, really? No ideas for the dough?

Carla Gade said...

Wonderful tip! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Punchier, yeah. But less clear, too. The edit changes (or at least obscures) the meaning of the sentence. The original sentence tells you that she removed his shirt and how she removed it. In the revised version, it's not clear that the shirt actually came off. The shorter sentence leaves me with the comical image of the guy half out of his shirt with his arms tangled up around his shoulders.

Jami Gold said...


You have a good point. So much of editing is making sure that your words say what you mean them to say, isn't it? What about adding "off" to the sentence:
She pulled his shirt off over his head.

Does that help?
Jami G.