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‘Encounter your own work as a stranger might’

Start revising your sentences before you move on to structure

from Get Started in Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy by Adam Roberts


It’s good not to overthink the process of rewriting. Certainly, it’s possible to break the process of revision into many layers – to revise each sentence, to consider each paragraph and determine whether it has a pleasing shape, to revise on the level of the scene, of the chapter, of the larger structure. But it’s more important to get the revision done than it is to obsess over it, so I’m going to suggest you approach it on two levels.


1 The level of the sentence.

2 The level of the larger structure.


You may find it easier to address ‘2’ first. There’s a kind of logic in doing it that way round: after all, revising the larger structure may entail cutting out paragraphs or even whole chapters; and it seems like a waste of time to go through a passage carefully addressing it sentence by sentence, only to chop the whole thing out. That’s fine: and (to repeat myself) so long as you actually do the revision and end up with an improved final draft, it doesn’t matter what order you do it in. Nonetheless, I’m going to suggest that you start on the level of the sentence. I suggest this because this is how we encounter stories and novels as readers – we take them one sentence at a time. And the principle of revising is to encounter your own work as a stranger might.


So let’s look at sentences.



Take each of your sentences in turn. Read it and check for the sorts of problems we identified in earlier chapters, including the following.


Grammatical and syntacticAL errors

Make sure that every sentence has at least a subject and a verb, and (more often) a subject, verb and object. Make sure the sentence agrees internally as to number (‘The elf maidens was beautiful’ is wrong) and tense (‘The wizard was wearing a blue robe, and he walks briskly up the steps’ is wrong).


Structural ungainliness

In particular, watch for long, sprawling sentences. You may opt for these, of course, as a deliberate aesthetic strategy; there’s precedence for it in works by writers like Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. But it’s very easy to write this sort of sentence badly, and surprisingly hard to write it well. Broadly, you should watch out for what is called ‘comma splicing’, linking separate clauses with commas. Here’s an example of a single sentence from fantasy stylist Robert Jordan: ‘The stream of people flowing the other way was mostly Seanchan, soldiers in ordered ranks, with their segmented armour, painted in stripes, and helmets that looked like the heads of huge insects, some marching and some mounted nobles, nobles who were always mounted, wearing ornate cloaks, pleated riding dresses and lace veils, and voluminous trousers and long coats.’ This – from 2003’s Crossroads of Twilight – gives the impression of having been jotted down as it occurred to the author, ticking off the elements as they paraded past his inner eye. That’s fine for a rough draft; but it is sprawly and ugly in a finished draft.


Precision and concision

Vagueness is no good (‘Elfie looked like a hero. He rode his hero’s mount through the nice-looking landscape’). But dwelling on too much inconsequential detail can be boring – if you set out to tell your reader absolutely everything about a given scene, you are not only trespassing on her patience, you are robbing her imagination of its proper partnership in the reading experience. Better to write ‘Robert made himself a cup of tea’ than to write ‘Robert filled the kettle and flicked the switch; while it began heating the water he retrieved a black mug from the cupboard and dropped a teabag inside. He waited. When the kettle began spouting its great gouts of steam, he etc., etc., etc.’


You take my point.


Robert Jordan (him again) once wrote the sentence: ‘This fire was not at all small, and the room seemed not far short of hot, a welcome heat that soaked into the flesh and banished shivers’ (it’s in Knife of Dreams from 2005). Look at that sentence. Tell me honestly in what ways it is preferable to the sentence ‘A large fire warmed the room.’ This is not precision; it is mere finicky fussing. Quite apart from anything else – ‘the room seemed not far short of hot, a welcome heat that soaked into the flesh and banished shivers’? I ask you. As opposed to a heat that ‘bounces off the flesh and chills the very bones’? Because that’s not the sort of heat you want from an open fire. No, indeedy.


To shift genres: Robert Ludlum once wrote the sentence, ‘His eyes slid down her dress.’ If you should ever find that you have written such a sentence – don’t panic. It can happen to the best of us. The important thing is not that you wrote it, but that you spotted it during your revision. Change it, rewrite it, alter it, and above all make sure that your reader is not faced with the queasy thought of eyeballs, slimy in their own blood, slipping hideously down a woman’s dress while she (presumably) screams in horror. Ludlum means that the male protagonist glances admiringly at the heroine’s dress. If that’s what you mean – then say that.



These inevitably slip through. Be merciless with them: as Martin Amis once said, the prime job of a writer should be to wage war on cliché. Either alter your clichéd phrase for one that is more vivid or evocative (although not for one that is outlandishly trying too hard), or else mark it for later revision.



When revising your dialogue, read it aloud. You may feel a little foolish doing this, but it’s an invaluable way of testing it for falsity or clumsiness.


Make sure that your characters don’t simply decant everything that is in their (or your) mind into speech. People don’t simply say what they are thinking.


Make sure your characters aren’t ‘as-you-know-Bobbing’ one another. Character A should not be telling Character B something s/he already knows just to get the reader up to speed.