Thursday, March 15, 2012

Minor sentence fix-- what would you do?

When I'm working with another writer, I don't have the freedom just to transform sentences I might have with my own writing. Much as I might like to, I can't rewrite the book or paper for them. Rather I need to make changes that will improve clarity without changing their voice or purpose or meaning, and without making the sort of small changes that will require big changes in the paragraphs around this sentence.

Anyway, I came across one sentence today that ended in "into," and no matter where we end up in debates about ending on a preposition, ending on that particular one (it's really two ... in and to) usually makes for an ugly sentence. So right away, I thought about how to get rid of that. Often, I can just delete the preposition and the sentence works fine, like:
That's the state I'm dwelling in.
can become:
That's the state I'm dwelling.
 without any loss of meaning. It's still not a particularly GOOD sentence, but it's serviceable, and maybe it doesn't have to be very good. Anyway, it's an easy fix to a sentence when I have more important issues, like finishing this edit by dinner.

But sometimes mere deletion of the preposition doesn't help much. Here's a sentence that's part of a biography (the syntax is identical, but I changed the details, if you're wondering why on earth anyone would put in a bio that they rented a storage closet ):
By then I had enough money and was able to rent a storage closet to put my bicycles and tools into.

That's the sort of sentence we often write when we're trying to get from point A (here, poverty) to point B (starting a bicycle repair business), just a waystation between departure and destination. And so the sentence is just conveying some information, and doesn't have to be really sparkling (save that for the great success sentences coming up). But even a waystation sentence can be comfortable. (I thought maybe I'd use "comfortable" to go with the waystation metaphor, see. A waystation can be comfortable, but it probably can't be "harmless," which was my first adjective choice.) Let's see how to make this an okay sentence, starting with the ending:

By then I had enough money to rent a storage closet for my bicycles and tools.

What do you think? Not too much in the way of change, but it's concise now, and the cause/effect is clearer when the "and" is replaced with the infinitive "to rent," and the other clutzy infinitive "to put my stuff into" is cleaned up with the nice encompassing "for."

Most important, now this waystation sentence doesn't call much attention to itself. It's not pretty, but it's not clunky. (Or rather, it's not glitzy, but it's not a dive either. Metaphor!) It's just clean and quick for a stop on the way to somewhere more important. 

But there might be better ways to clean up that sentence. What do you suggest? I must say, it's never going to be a great sentence, and it shouldn't be, because it's not expressing any great thought. I just want those types of sentences-- necessary, but not special-- to be precise and concise and quick for the reader. Your suggestions? Anyone have a "waystation sentence" to share?

And is it important to make even the minor sentences precise and concise? Is it a waste of time to focus much attention on those instead of the more important passages that can pay back big returns in reader experience? 


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

EVERY sentence is important, and EVERY word in those every sentences are important, as well.

I'd have suggested the same change you did: I was able to rent a storage shed for my bikes and tools. To paraphrase...

Unknown said...

By then I had enough money to rent a unit in which to store my bicycles and tools. ?? Maybe?

CourtneyC said...

Oh yes, it is important. This is where I myself get tripped up. I need to throw some sentences in to get to the more important scene, and so some parts of my MS end up reading like a menu. Certainly a far cry from the "gorgeous writing" I hear agents waxing poetic about.

I've heard the advice, "write the story first. Then write the sentence."

We may initially write like we would speak (telling a story and all), but revision is to clean up all the bits and bobs and make each line something that neatly moves to the next. Ending in a preposition is never neat. So, fight the good fight Alicia!

I'd go with:
By then I had enough money and was able to rent a closet to store my bicycles and tools.

Leona said...

I'm in middle of second round of edits, so paring thigns down, clarifying etc. (taking out unecessary "was, that, just" and the like) and I'd do it like this:

By then, I had accumulated enough money to rent storage for my bicycles and tools.

Sofie Bird said...

My first response was to use 'for'. I think "in which" depends on the tone of the rest of the piece - if it's a higher register (ie they're tending to use 'whom' and other 'more correct' forms), I'd go with 'in which'. If they're using a simpler/lower register, I'd go with 'for'.

I don't think merely deleting the trailing preposition is a good tactic unless it shouldn't have been there in the first place. My inner-reader stuttered over "That's the state I'm dwelling". Without the preposition, the meaning shifts, and you're now trying to "dwell a state", which isn't possible. They're not just optional decoration. A sentence that is missing required prepositions like the one above sticks out (to me) far more painfully than one that merely ends with an awkward preposition.

Edittorrent said...

My thought is that if we use "storage" in there, we don't need "to store in" or any verb like that-- it's implied in the noun. Hmm. It's sort of funny how much work even workmanlike sentences can be.


Erastes said...

My editors always change a clunky sentence, and i'd expect them to. I agree with your second change, but the dwelling sentence, no--i'd definitely argue with my editor about that.

green_knight said...

The first sentence, if I were copyediting it, I would add the 'in' back in, because in my idiom you cannot dwell something, only in (and occasionally upon) something. And I'd pass it back, because I cannot work out whether this is state as in administrative area (unlikely), physical state (clothes strewn on the floor) or mental state.

I'd look for a stronger noun - that'st the state of my home, or this is how I live/spend my time.

In the second, I like your edit- it conveys everything we need with a minimum of words. If the author continues to describe the place, that's fine. If not, I'd look for a bit more - is just big enough to squeeze them in? Does it leave room for them *and* for her to turn around without brushing the walls? Any other description of its location or size or state that I can squeeze in for a bit more grounding?

And is it important to make even the minor sentences precise and concise?

In my opinion, yes. Because the reader doesn't know whether a sentence is important until they've read it, and your storage closet could be the first triumph, the turning point in a life that had hitherto been fully of setbacks, or a setback for a greater disappointment.

Three days later, someone broke into the building and stole my bike, leaving - oh irony of ironies - my neighbour's brand new mountain bike chained to the lamp post outside.

And if you don't take time to make every sentence flow, how will you learn the skills to add sparkle to the ones that really deserve it?

Ashlyn Macnamara said...

I agree with Erastes on the dwelling sentence. That's the state I'm dwelling sounds like it's missing something.

That's the state where I dwell sounds more complete to my ear and avoids ending in a preposition.

Joan Leacott said...

Oh, yes, skimp here and splurge later. By then I could afford storage for my bikes and tools.