Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sentence simplification

Here's another thrilling editing experience (we editors do have exciting jobs!):

"I mostly make dinner at home. I'm not that great a chef," she said, "but at least no one has to tip me."

I made up the sentence, but it's modeled on one I came across in editing.

Now I probably wouldn't edit this in someone else's copy, but I would in my own story. I want sentences that are clear and decisive. And the "no one" clumsily adds another "character" to the line. There's "I" the cook, and presumably "no one" is a reference to the family who is eating that mediocre meal. But the family isn't in there. Not a big deal, but if I'm going for clarity (that is, any ambiguity is intentional, not accidental), the subjects and verbs should match up and the pronouns especially (and "no one" is sort of a pronoun here) should have an antecedent earlier in the paragraph.

How would I fix this? I'd probably make the whole sentence about "I"--

"I mostly make dinner at home. I'm not that great a chef," she said, "but at least I don't expect a tip."

That way, the sentence is unified-- it's all about "I", and there isn't the introduction of someone (okay, "no one") else in the second clause.

Just a minor point. But sentence-consciousness is a valuable approach to self-editing. What does your sentence SAY? And what might trip readers up, if only momentarily?


Edittorrent said...

I always feel the urge to switch,
I'm not that great a chef

I'm not a great chef.

Seems cleaner. More focused. But I usually let it go without alteration, unless the sentence needs tightening in general.


Edittorrent said...

But say I am a great chef, just not THAT great a chef? :) She's self-deprecating, but only to a point.

Also colloquial in dialogue. But "that" would be a good cut if we had to cut words.


Dave Shaw said...

Uh-oh, we're moving up from arguing about grammar to arguing about editing! ;-)

Interesting post and discussion.

Clare K. R. Miller said...

Hmm, I was thinking I'd move the "she said" to be between the sentences, rather than in the middle of a sentence--the "no one" didn't trip me at all!

And I think I agree with Theresa, but I probably wouldn't actually edit that... Depends on the character.

Edittorrent said...

Not that great a chef = a good chef

I get your point, and the colloquial feeling is definitely subdued by the edit, but it's an awkward construction. It grates on my ears, but I usually leave it stand when I run across it.


Leona said...

I missed this blog somehow, but I find it interesting. It gave me pause.

I'm getting ready to write a query for my thriller I mentioned a week or so ago. I probably will bill it as a romantic thriller.

Anyway, I've been diligent on reading about queries how to write them and taylor them to each agent. I read all of Janet Reid query sharks as well as anything else I could get my hands on online. I thought I was more comfortable - NOT.

I'm nearly finished and I decided to write a rough draft of the query. I blanked and had a panic attack.

My question here is, if you had a choice between colloquialism in a query, say it's part of the voice of the story, and streamline which would be better.

All of my research has shown me many conflicting rules. Some say write in the voice of the stories other say keep it strictly professional.

My story has a lot of military-type elements in it. Should I apply that to the voice of the query? That would mean involving military jargon, which I see as a kind of colloquialism.

I was looking for old posts to help me get started. Your post took me from frantic and panicking to unnerved but able to think and ask questions.

Jami Gold said...


Everything I've seen says that it's okay to have the paragraph about your story in a certain voice, but the rest of the query (intro, word count, genre, author bio, etc.) should definitely be strictly professional.

Hope that helps!
Jami G.