The art & craft of the sentence as a unit of measurement
Updated: Mar 27, 2022
I hope this goes without saying, but I definitely don't consider myself an expert on any of the elements of writing I'm writing about in this blog. These are all just questions or thoughts I have that I hope will be useful or interesting to others. This idea I've been having lately, of the sentence as a unit of measurement, has been helping me with my own revision process so I thought I'd share.
I edit a lot of novels (both my own and as a freelance editor and an associate editor for Darling Axe) and often I find that I am suggesting to writers that they create a new scene to show how a character responds, add a beat to smooth out the rhythm, construct a bridge between one emotion and the next. (I also make a lot of suggestions about cutting information too, but that's a whole other ball of wax.)
Sometimes the writers I work with respond to these suggestions with a tone of worry or overwhelm. Which I can empathize with. You've just completed a manuscript, which is a major accomplishment, producing all the writing you can manage to create, squeezing out every last drop of creativity for months or years — and then your editor or your instructor or your writing friend tells you to write more. Super great. Thanks a lot, friend.
I care a lot about the mental well-being of the writers I work with, so I try to make my suggestions manageable. I've learned that one of the most helpful things I can do for a writer is to quantify a suggestion. For example, I'll tell them, 'Add one sentence here which brings this character from elation to disappointment.' Or 'Write three sentences that show, in flashback, how she was bolstered by her mother.' And sometimes, 'Craft a short paragraph that shows how this character responds to the house.' I've even created maps for my writers where I'll write out that chapter 1 needs 3-5 more sentences, chapter 2 needs 1, and so on. I don't intend for those numbers to be strictly adhered to; it's more that I'm trying to get the point across that if a piece is missing something, it is probably just a very small something. In the context of a whole manuscript, a sentence is pretty tiny and manageable. It's not a whole house; it's just a brick. You're missing a brick here or this one is broken and not quite doing its job. Don't wrecking ball the whole wall, just replace this one brick here and add two new ones over there. Then move onto the next section and add a brick on the top. If the wall still isn't supporting the house, then yes, it might be time for the sledgehammer but don't underestimate the potency of a single sentence.