How to tame a wild sentence

Beautifully concise sentences don’t flow naturally from me. I seldom write a sentence that I don’t need to edit. I used to think that meant I wasn’t a good writer. But then I learnt the hard but freeing truth. Good, clear, and concise writing takes effort, time, and a magic ingredient — editing.

Without editing, my sentences are long, unfocused rambles full of half-formed ideas roaming wildly among unnecessary words. I have to tame my tangents, rein in my excesses, and give my wayward words the discipline they need.

I won’t lie to you. Editing your sentences involves serious discipline. You must be prepared to:

And when you’re sweating mentally from the effort, remember that the time will come when you can stand back and think: ‘Ahhh. That’s better!’

Here are three editing tips to try next time you need to tame wild sentences.

Start your sentences with the true subject

Watch out for ‘false subjects’ and change them to true ones. Bringing the true subject of a sentence to the front usually leads to a shorter, clearer sentence. (Hint: Delete ‘It’ or ‘There’ when they appear at the start of sentences.)

False subject at the start

There was an uncomfortable silence.

True subject at the start

The silence was uncomfortable.

False subject at the start

There were three horses that went towards the washed-out bridge.

True subject at the start

Three horses went towards the washed-out bridge.

Remove or replace wordy phrases

Use the ‘Delete’ key to get rid of wordy phrases like ‘in order to’.

Before editing

I’m going to the meeting in order to bring the issue to the table, so they understand how complex it is in terms of delivering a cost-effective solution for this client. (31 words)

Did you spot the three wordy phrases you could edit or replace?

  1. in order to
  2. bring the issue to the table
  3. in terms of

During editing

I’m going to the meeting in order to bring raise the issue to the table, so they understand how complex it is in terms of to delivering a cost-effective solution for this client.

After editing

I’m going to the meeting to raise the issue, so they understand how complex it is to deliver a cost-effective solution for this client. (24 words)

Free your verbs

Verbs are easy to relate to and understand. We ‘eat’, ‘sleep’, and ‘work’. Sometimes verbs get buried in wordy phrases (for example, ‘comply’ becomes ‘be in compliance’ or ‘agree’ becomes ‘form an agreement’). Just check words that end in ‘-ment’, ‘-ation’, and ‘-ance’ to see if you can replace them with the verbs they’re based on.

Wordy phrase

Even though we undertook an analysis of the risks, we weren’t prepared for what happened.

Wordy phrase replaced with a verb

Even though we analysed the risks, we weren’t prepared for what happened.

Wordy phrase

At the meeting, they talked about the containment of wild horses in national parks.

Wordy phrase replaced with a verb

At the meeting, they talked about containing wild horses in national parks.

Image, horses roaming free.

Editing takes time and practice to master, but you won’t regret gaining the skills. Your writing and any writing you edit will be shorter, clearer, and better for its readers.

Read more editing tips

Untangle confusing noun strings to make your meaning clearer

Be active, not passive (and watch out for wild penguins)

Delete glue words to unstick your sentences

Learn to edit

Learn to edit your writing and polish it afterwards: Editing and Proofreading workshop

Learn to edit other people’s content for government or business: Editing workshop

2 responses to “How to tame a wild sentence”

  1. Excellent advice!

    I would add that it’s okay to break up a real monster of a sentence into two or three shorter sentences. It’s not choppy. It’s clear. We don’t want our readers to read our words more than once to sort out the meaning. They won’t do it. I know I won’t, unless I’m getting paid.

    There’s no great writing, only great rewriting.

    • Lesley Hanes says:

      Thanks Michael!

      Yes, I agree with you — it’s clarity and reading ease that count. Monster sentences must be tamed!

      I love the last line in your comment by the way. ‘There’s no great writing, only great rewriting.’

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