Fort Awesome (supercheesegirl) wrote in fandom_grammar,
Fort Awesome
supercheesegirl
fandom_grammar

Answer: style options for long, wordy, repetitive sentences

Question: mirror_mirrin asks, What style options are there for sentences which repeat the same word (e.g., "the," "a," "that")? (ex. John leaned over the table at the mess hall to give Rodney a kiss goodbye before leaving for the war games planned on the Athosian mainland.)

There's not really anything wrong with repeating little words in a sentence, but there's something about it that just doesn't feel quite right, isn't there? The example sentence that mirror_mirrin gives us is a perfectly fine sentence. It's grammatically correct, it's straightforward, it tells us who's doing what and where they're going next. There's nothing wrong with it at all. But it's an awfully long sentence. If you read it out loud, you're going to have to pause in the middle to take a breath. It sounds kind of clunky with all those little words.

The issue here, fans of grammar, is wordiness. There's nothing technically wrong with a wordy sentence, but the faster the sentence can deliver its information, then the faster the reader will understand it. This is even more important for us today because of the internet--people want to get to the point even more quickly when they read online. And a long, wordy, clunky sentence can turn off potential readers, making your story seem overly long and boring. Let's take a look at some strategies for reducing wordiness and getting the point across in a way that pops.

Before we start dissecting our example sentence, I wanted to mention one of the most frequent causes of wordiness in writing: the passive voice. Writing in the passive instead of the active voice makes sentences longer and often more confusing, and it's something you should pay attention to in your writing! However, since mirror_mirrin's sentence is totally active, we're not going to cover passive voice here. Check out this feature on passive voice for ways to combat this in your writing.

So, first, let's take a look at our example sentence and see what we're working with.

John leaned over the table at the mess hall to give Rodney a kiss goodbye before leaving for the war games planned on the Athosian mainland.


26 words--that's a long sentence! Does any sentence need to be that long? Sure, sometimes. Having a long sentence doesn't necessarily mean that it's a wordy sentence. You might need that many words to make your point. But here, as our questioner pointed out, we have a lot of little words, and it sounds repetitive. I bet we can pare this sentence down a bit and make it a little more fun to read.

Non-Essential Words

First, let's look for any excess words that aren't pulling their weight, words that we skip right over as we read, and groups of words that can be replaced with smaller groups of words.

John leaned over the table at the mess hall to give Rodney a kiss goodbye before leaving for the war games planned on the Athosian mainland.


I marked a few things here. My thought is, why give Rodney a kiss when you can just kiss him? Sometimes, sure, "to give him a kiss" is a nice phrase, but here we're fighting wordiness. This is something I always look for: a perfectly good verb being used as a noun. (Anything that ends in -ation should throw up a red flag: why have a celebration when you can just celebrate?) Verbs getting nouned can make any sentence wordier.

Using "planned" here isn't really necessary; if we're in the military and talking about war games that we know will be held in a particular place, then we can assume that the games have been planned in advance (and John's not just taking a bunch of buddies for an impromptu paintball battle).

Two items that could possibly be cut are the "goodbye" and "Athosian". The "goodbye" could be superfluous: if you kiss someone before leaving, it can be assumed you're kissing him goodbye. Also, depending on your context, maybe your reader can assume that John would be going to the Athosian mainland--is there any other mainland around? If your readers are familiar with your fandom's geography, this might not be needed. But we're not in desperate straits yet, so I'll leave these for now.

So let's see what we have:

John leaned over the table at the mess hall to kiss Rodney goodbye before leaving for the war games on the Athosian mainland.


We've cut out three words, and we're getting to the point a little faster, plus we know that if we need to, we could cut "goodbye" and "Athosian" too without really hurting the meaning of the sentence. Progress! Okay, what next?

Prepositional Phrases

Next I'd look for prepositional phrases: short groups of words that together act like an adjective or an adverb. They give us information on what, which, where, when, how, and why the action is going on. There are four prepositional phrases in our example:

John leaned (where?) over the table (which table?) at the mess hall to kiss Rodney goodbye before leaving (why was he leaving?) for the war games (which war games where?) on the Athosian mainland.


These phrases give us a lot of information about where John and Rodney are--thus setting the scene for this sweet goodbye kiss--and about where John's heading next and why he's going there. However, to cut down on wordiness, we want to either (1) cut down these prepositional phrases, or (2) rearrange them in the sentence so we don't get into that wordy "DAH dah dah DAH dah dah" rhythm (read the sentence out loud if you haven't done it yet--it's sing-songy, isn't it?). So let's give it a try:

After lunch, John leaned over the table to kiss Rodney goodbye. He was leaving for the war games on the Athosian mainland.


Not a whole lot of change here: I got rid of "at the mess hall" in favor of "after lunch", as that's more specific and we can probably assume they're in the mess hall if they're eating lunch. This also cuts out a word. I moved "after lunch" to the beginning of the sentence to break that sing-songy rhythm. I then split the information about the war games into a separate sentence, which again breaks up the rhythm, and it also offers you the opportunity to give more information (How long will he be gone? Who's he going with? etc.) which you could slip in at the end there. So, even though we only dropped one more word (now we're at 22 words), we broke things up a little and added a natural place for the reader to breathe, and so the sentence feels less wordy, even if it's not really.

Another stylistic option for dealing with prepositional phrases is to try switching around the order of the words to mix it up a little--try going with some adjective-noun combinations or possessives instead. For example, "over the table at the mess hall" could become "over the mess hall table", or even "over the mess table". And "the war games on the Athosian mainland" could become "Athosia's war games" (unless it being the mainland is important). Just another option to help you break up the rhythm and cut a few words.

And this might be enough for your sentence--you could stop here and feel better about things. But maybe you're thinking, eh, it's still kind of long, what else can we do?

Just Re-write The Darn Thing

Yes, this is a tried-and-true tactic for reducing wordiness in your writing. Consider what information you're trying to deliver in this sentence, and think about what you're really trying to say and the greater context of the piece. Don't forget to consider your audience and whether you're delivering information that they need.

For example, does the reader need to know that they're in the mess hall? If this kiss is the culmination of a whole scene taking place at mealtime, then maybe the reader can safely assume that we're in the mess hall, or maybe we can mention it earlier, at the beginning of John and Rodney's lunchtime conversation: as they enter the mess hall together or meet in line to get their trays of food.

Similarly, we might discover something different if we find out where John's going by having John tell it to Rodney--reveal it through dialogue. Then instead of you telling the reader where he's going, John gets to tell it, and by showing how he tells it, you can reveal how John feels about going (is he excited for the war games, bubbling over with the urge to tell Rodney all about it? Or is he annoyed that he's got to go to yet another stupid war games?), or reveal how Rodney feels about him going (does he say "See ya, sucker" or "Don't go, my love"?). Consider the following:

After lunch, John leaned over the table to kiss Rodney goodbye.
"Where are you off to?"
"War games, remember? I'll be on the mainland for three days."
Rodney sighed. "Well, I'll just be sure to have a warm welcome waiting when you get back."


For me as a reader (and, admittedly, knowing nothing about these characters), a conversation in which we find out something about these war games is much more intriguing than being told that war games are happening. Doing this adds a lot more words to our content, but they're more invigorating words to read.

But okay, maybe this story isn't going to be about John and the war games at all but rather Rodney's bad day without him, or maybe as soon as this sentence is over we're going to get back to our actual protagonists, two guys who happen to be sitting at the same table who are about to go do something completely unrelated to lunch or kissing or war games. In that case, then we want to deliver this info about John and Rodney and get on with things, right? So try cutting out anything extraneous that doesn't relate to this exact moment:

After lunch, John leaned over to kiss Rodney before he left.


11 words and we're done, John's out the door, and we can find out what Rodney's going to do next, or what Steve and Walter or whoever else is at the table have to say.

Summary

If you have a feeling that something's not right in your sentence, and there are a lot of small repetitive words like in our example, now you have some strategies to use to try to cut out some words or change things up:

1. Identify and remove any non-essential words.
1a. Look for verbs that have been nouned, and reverb them!
2. Identify any prepositional phrases.
2a. Cut down the prepositional phrases.
2b. Rearrange the sentence to break up the rhythm.
3. Re-write the darn thing.
3a. Does your reader really need all this info--are you over-explaining?
3b. Consider having your characters deliver the information through dialogue.
3c. Try cutting out anything extraneous that doesn't relate to this exact moment.

You don't have to do all of these things, or do them in this order--they're just some tools in your toolbox. The pared-down 11-word version of the sentence above isn't better or worse than the 26-word original; neither is the 44-word sample dialogue version. Each one is just a different way to get the information across, and your job is to find the best way to do it for your story.

Let's do one more example, quickly, to put some of these into practice.

One More Example

It didn't take Buffy too long to find the bald, brown-robed monk's location, since the town of Sunnydale is only a few miles wide and everyone knows when someone new comes to town--all she had to do was visit Willy's, the run-down bar out on the edge of town where all the vampires go, and beat up Willy again for the news.


I stopped counting after 30 words. Yuck. First the non-essentials:

It didn't take Buffy too long to find the bald, brown-robed monk's location, since the town of Sunnydale is only a few miles wide and everyone knows when someone new comes to town--all she had to do was visit Willy's, the run-down bar out on the edge of town where all the vampires go, and beat up Willy again for the news.


Almost everything marked is either unnecessary (we can assume "the town of" by just saying "Sunnydale") or would be known already to anyone who knows anything about the show (how many flowing-haired monks in jeans come to Sunnydale? and we've visited Willy's since season 1). Plus, why find a location? Better to just locate it (re-verb that noun), and we've already got "find" in the sentence and that's a faster word anyway. We'll cut that stuff out and move on to prepositions:

It didn't take Buffy long to find the monk, since Sunnydale is small and everyone knows when someone new comes to town--all she had to do was visit Willy's, the run-down bar out on the edge of town, and beat up Willy again for the news.


OK, we'll cut some of that and rearrange some of it:

It didn't take Buffy long to find the monk, since Sunnydale is small and everyone knows when someone new arrives--all she had to do was visit Willy's run-down bar and beat him up again. He told her everything he knew.


That's a little better, but the part in the middle is still troublesome. Any time you say "X is Y", you can pretty much find a better way to say it, right? Let's rewrite it and see what we get:

In the small town of Sunnydale, it didn't take Buffy long to find the monk--she just beat Willy up. He told her everything he knew.


Most of that long description of Sunnydale and what people know in small towns can be assumed by just calling it a small town and from the context. And since a regular Buffy fan can be assumed to know who Willy is and why we beat him up, we can skip the description of his run-down bar. Now we have a much shorter, more action-oriented sentence. If we were writing a different story, we could rewrite the sentence a different way, turn it into a whole paragraph and go into detail about the drinks she spilled, the vamps she threatened, the noise Willy's head made when it hit the bar and how he cried for mercy--that would be a perfectly fine way to go and would add a lot of nice detail. But for our purposes here, we want to get moving and find that monk a little quicker, so mission accomplished!
Tags: !answer, author:supercheesegirl, dialogue, pos:prepositions, pos:verbs, structure:sentences, style, style choice:grammar, writing tips, writing tips:style
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