“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” ~Arthur Polotnik
As an editor, the bulk of major problems I encounter are at the sentence level. Yes, sometimes the entire submission is off (doesn’t follow instructions, lacks direction, etc.), and sometimes the word choice or punctuation makes me sad inside, but most often it’s those infernal sentences.
And what, precisely, is the problem with these sentences? They never get to the damned point! And by “point” I mean both the core idea of the sentence and the actual period at the end. So, rather than ranting and raving about general rules, I’m going to walk you through a sentence workshop. Here’s our example:
When your old computer system is starting to see a suffering performance and you’ve saved up a sufficient amount of money to replace your old system then it’s a good idea to explore the possibility of creating a custom-built system for yourself, as it can be both more affordable and additionally provides a system that more effectively and fully meets your needs.
I know this may seem like an exaggeration of how muddled sentences get, but my editorial experience has shown me much worse.
Let’s break down this sentence. What is the real point? It can be summed up as “custom-built systems are better for your needs and they cost less.” The other points covered are “your old computer sucks” and “you have some money.” So, let’s start at the beginning.
When your old computer system is starting to see a suffering performance
What’s our actual subject? It’s an “old computer system” that’s “starting to see a suffering performance.” The point, however, is that the system isn’t really working anymore. So, what words can we eliminate to make this more clear? There are several options, but let’s go with this for now:
When your computer’s performance starts to suffer
Same meaning, only the second version is more concise. Moving on:
and you’ve saved up a sufficient amount of money to replace your old system
The point here is saying that you also have to save up enough money for a new system. We’ve got several words that are unnecessary. First, “sufficient amount of” is very weighty, and can be made more direct by just saying “enough.” We can also trim “saved up” to just “saved.”
Then we have “to replace your old system.” Do we need “your old system”? Didn’t we just talk about the old system a few words earlier? Let’s go for “it” instead.
and you’ve saved enough money to replace it
Okay, moving along:
then it’s a good idea to explore the possibility of creating a custom-built system for yourself,
First, we don’t actually need our “then.” It’s implied, and we can instead add a comma. This also clarifies that we’re getting to the core point of the sentence.
Our next point is that you should look into creating a custom system. What verbiage is unimportant for that? “Explore the possibility of creating,” is – what’s the word? – nauseating. Let’s trim that down to “look into creating.” (We could also do “consider creating,” but I don’t like how those words sound when paired.)
And finally, we have the new subject: “a custom-built system for yourself. ” If you’re creating it, and it’s replacing your old computer, I think we can safely assume that “for yourself” is implied. Our new fragment now reads:
, it’s a good idea to look into creating a custom-built system
as it can be both more affordable and additionally provides a system that more effectively and fully meets your needs.
First, the word “it” in this context is ambiguous (could refer to either the “idea” or “system” from above). We could say “system” or “computer” again (or find another synonym), but there’s another option: swap out “as it” with “which.” From there we can either keep the “can be” or switch for a stronger “are often” or “are generally.” Let’s go for “are often.” So we start our fragment with “which are often.”
Our next word is “both.” That doesn’t add much of anything, since it should be evident at a glance that we have two advantages here. So let’s cut that. While we’re at it, let’s remove “additionally,” which is redundant to the “both” and, again, is evident from the sentence’s nature.
Now let’s look at this second advantage of “providing a system that more effectively and fully meets your needs.” First, we really don’t need to reiterate that it’s the system doing this. Let’s go ahead and say “which” instead (it’s not perfect, but we’ll live). Next, is there a different between effectively meeting your needs and fully meeting your needs? I’m going to say “fully” covers it. So that trims us down to this:
which are often more affordable and which more fully meet your needs.
Are we done? Well, not really. We’ve hacked a lot, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. So now we go through the same process with our revised sentence. Here’s what our current sentence looks like:
When your computer’s performance starts to suffer and you’ve saved up enough money to replace it, it’s a good idea to look into creating a custom-built system, which are often more affordable and which more fully meet your needs.
It’s better. It’s shorter (39 as opposed to 62 words). It’s clearer. But we can do more.
First, let’s examine some of these points to see how necessary they really are. Is there a way we can set up our scene (getting a new computer) more efficiently? Let’s try this:
When you’re ready to replace your current computer
Might this work? Well, the real question to answer is, does it change the point? And honestly, no, it doesn’t. The idea of replacing a computer already implies that the old version needed replacing. Further, having saved up money for the system is implied in the act of purchasing.
Next, we have the idea of “it’s a good idea to look into creating a custom-build system.” Can’t we just say something like:
consider building a custom system
Yes, I think we can. And then we have the advantages of custom systems. What we really mean to say is it’s cheaper and better. So let’s just say that:
as they often cost less and will more fully meet your needs.
You can toy with the details, but the core point remains the same. Our new sentence looks like this:
When you’re ready to replace your current computer, consider building a custom system, as they often cost less and will more fully meet your needs.
Any other words we can trim out? I see “current” as unnecessary, and even the entire “you’re ready” sentiment as being implied in the action. So we could say, “When replacing your computer, consider building a custom system.”
When replacing your computer, consider building a custom system, as they often cost less and will more fully meet your needs.
Hmmm. We’re really close to strength here. I’m still not satisfied with the second half of the sentence, though. Part of the reason is that we’re working with two separate ideas: 1) Look into custom systems, 2) the reasons why. We can use some fancy punctuation to make it all into one beautiful thought.
When replacing your computer, consider building a custom system: they often cost less and will more effectively meet your needs.
You could, hypothetically, use a semicolon or dash there instead, but I like the colon in this case; the question implied by our first thought (the why? of look into custom systems) is quite evident. In any case, what we now have is a 20 word version of the 62 word train-wreck originally presented. The new version is far more clean, concise, and powerful.
We could also divide the sentence in two and accomplish the same effect.
When replacing your computer, consider building a custom system. Computers built from scratch often cost less while more fully meeting your needs.
It’s two words longer (22) in total, but it divides down to two sentences of nine and thirteen words. The two sentence version, in my not-so-humble opinion, is also more clear and effective. In either the colon or two sentence version, we’ve gotten the exact same point across in a third of the space – which for our readers means less time wasted and less need for potent headache medicine.