Further to discussions of the need for editing and evaluating writing, Robin had a great post at Dear Author on objective vs. subjective standards for critiquing fiction; the comments are also well worth reading. Inspired both by that discussion and by Carolyn Jewel’s post on what different kinds of editing offer her as a writer, I’m going to look in detail at a sentence I quoted in my last post. Again, my point isn’t to shame or attack Mathewson. Rather, I want to explore what happens in my brain when I read a book with errors, and thus why I can’t “see past them” the way some readers can.
Here’s the sentence from Playing For Keeps:
She looked so damn cute standing there with her long bronze hair pulled back into a twisted pony tail, green eyes full of fire hidden behind large glasses making her look adorable, and of course her rather tight black tee shirt with the word ‘Nerd’ written across her very decent size chest made her look hot.
When I read something like this in a book, what I consciously think is “something’s messed up there.” But as I read on, part of my mind is left behind, worrying at that sentence, figuring out just why it registered as wrong. If I keep encountering problems, pretty soon I’ve left behind so many bits of my brain that there’s none left for the story. Here’s what happens when I look more closely:
The biggest “objective” problem with this sentence is a comma splice: it’s actually two sentences, because there are two main verbs (“looked” and “made”). They shouldn’t be joined by a comma. The simplest fix is to insert a semi-colon or a period instead. I highlighted the subject and verb in each of the independent clauses, to make clear why this is two sentences.
She looked so damn cute standing there with her long bronze hair pulled back into a twisted pony tail, green eyes full of fire hidden behind large glasses making her look adorable; and of course her rather tight black tee shirt with the word ‘Nerd’ written across her very decent-size chest made her look hot.
Why did this comma splice happen? Partly because the sentence has what I’d call a “mixed construction.” It changes grammatical horses in midstream. Rather than having a list of three elements (hair, eyes, tee shirt) that are described in a grammatically parallel way (a series of prepositional clauses governed by “with”), the third element is different: “of course her tee shirt made her look hot” rather than “with . . . her tight tee shirt making her look hot.” So another way to fix it would be to revise the third element so it’s parallel and keep a single sentence.
Furthermore, this kind of mix-up often happens when a writer has too many unnecessary words in the sentence. She loses track of the grammar at the beginning by the time she gets to the end, and errors creep in. I think that’s the case here, and Mathewson is hardly alone. My students write like this all the time. I do too, in drafts.
Now we’re on to the more subjective stuff. Rather than going for the easy fixes, I think when a writer is confronted by a sentence like this, she needs to figure out how to streamline it a bit, make it really strong and clear. I really noticed the repetition: she looked so damn cute, making her look adorable, made her look hot. Those are all basically saying the same thing, plus “look” pops up three times. Pick one.
But which one? Well, this is the first scene we get in the hero, Jason’s, point of view. Readers have called him a “loveable asshole,” but so far in the book we’ve only got heroine Haley’s point of view, and right now she sees him as just an asshole. This choice goes way beyond grammar, then. Does the author want to emphasize Jason’s frat-boy mentality? Go for “hot” (and put the chest first, because he’s the kind of guy who’d notice that first). Or does she want to emphasize that he’s really not so bad, and that Haley’s perception isn’t totally accurate. In that case, she might want to downplay the hot. Other things in this scene show that Jason’s not so bad, so I’d make the latter choice.
Other issues: I don’t know what a “twisted” pony tail is, and I don’t think a guy would notice that. There’s a word that could go without losing anything. Finally, I stumbled over this bit:
green eyes full of fire hidden behind large glasses making her look adorable
This is a problem with modification. Is it the green eyes that make her adorable? the fire in them? the glasses? Is the fire hidden by the glasses, or are her eyes? I’m stuck wondering. Notice that if we cut the repetitive phrase (“making her look adorable”), half the problem goes away.
So . . . let’s keep the elements in the order they are, going for “Jason’s not so bad, but of course he’s a guy and does notice her rack” as the message of the sentence. We’re going to get something like this:
She looked so damn cute
standing there[not needed] with her long bronze hair pulled back into a twistedponytail [it's one word], and her green eyes full of fire hidden[they aren't hidden, because he's noticing them] blazing [this keeps the sense of "full of fire" but becomes grammatically parallel to "hair pulled back"] behind large glasses making her look adorable and; of course herthe generous chest under [c'mon, the tee shirt isn't the hottest part, so let's not put it first] a rather tight black tee shirt with the word[I know it's a word] ‘Nerd’ [these should be double quotation marks] written across it her very decent size chest made her look hot. generous chestwas pretty hot, too. [I don't love that last part. How would a "likeable asshole" describe big tatas, exactly? But you get the idea].
All cleaned up:
She looked so damn cute with her long bronze hair pulled back into a ponytail and her green eyes blazing behind large glasses; the generous chest under a rather tight black tee shirt with “Nerd” written across it was pretty hot, too.
This still isn’t the greatest sentence, partly because it’s mine, not Mathewson’s. An editor should help a writer decide how she can best express her meaning, not just fix things for her.
I would never do something like this to a student’s paper. It’s overwhelming to get all these detailed comments at once. 1,000 words on one sentence?! If I saw a lot of sentences like this in a paper, I’d write a comment like “You’ve got a lot of wordy/awkward sentences that make your ideas harder for a reader to understand. Try reading your drafts aloud to help you catch and correct these problems.” If a student came to office hours, I might go through a sentence or two in something like this detail to model the fixing for her.
Now that you’ve gotten this glimpse into the strange mind of an English instructor, you’re probably glad that a) you never have to take a class from me, and b) you aren’t me when a stack of papers needs marking. Because my poor brain will be doing this on one problem sentence after another. I can’t seem to help it.