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Editing at the Sentence Level Help (page 4)

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Updated on Apr 25, 2014

Use Modifiers to Add Precision

Modifiers make your point clear while adding meaning and originality to your writing. Consider how powerful, specific adjectives and adverbs work in these sentences:

    • Sentence A: My grandmother put on her sweater.
    • Sentence B: My grandmother put on her cashmere sweater.
    • Sentence A: The football team practiced in the rain.
    • Sentence B: The football team practiced in the torrential downpour.

In both cases, sentence B allows you to hear the voice and impressions of the writer, giving a more accurate and interesting picture of the action.

The right modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) can also get your message across in fewer words. This is critical in an essay with a specified length. You don't want to sacrifice unique details, but sometimes, one word will do the job better than a few. For example, Chihuahua can take the place of little dog; exhausted can take the place of really tired; and late can take the place of somewhat behind schedule.

Vary Your Sentence Structure

The repetition of sentence patterns is not only boring, but in some cases, it can reduce your grade. The SAT essay, for example, is scored by readers trained to look for, and reward, variety in sentence structure. They can deduct a point or two for an essay filled with sentences that follow the same pattern. When you're editing your essay, check for monotonous sentence structure. Here's an example:

The plasma membrane is the outermost part of the cell. It isolates the cytoplasm. It regulates what comes in and out of the cytoplasm. It also allows interaction with other cells. The cytoplasm is the second layer of the cell. It contains water, salt, enzymes, and proteins. It also contains organelles like mitochondria.

Notice how each sentence begins with a noun or pronoun, followed by a verb. The rhythm created by this repetition is boring. A successful edit should vary the sentences:

The plasma membrane, the outermost part of the cell, isolates the cytoplasm. It regulates what comes in and out of the cell and allows interaction with other cells. The second layer, the cytoplasm, contains water, salt, enzymes, and proteins, as well as organelles like mitochondria.

The edited version combines sentences and uses introductory phrases and appositives (descriptive words and phrases set off by commas) to vary sentence structure. The result is a much more engaging paragraph.

In Short

Wordiness and ambiguity often prevent ideas from coming across clearly. Edit your sentences to eliminate clutter and unnecessary repetition. Revise sentences that use overly informal or overused words, and exchange the passive voice for the active. Clarify ambiguous words and unclear pronoun references. Finally, improve your writing by using precise modifiers and adding variety to your sentence structure.

Skill Building until Next Time

Try writing some bad sentences. Use unnecessary words and repetition, jargon, pretentious words, unclear pronoun references, and ambiguous words. Avoid exact words and phrases, and repeat the same sentence structure. By trying to write poorly, you'll get a better sense of what to avoid in your writing.

Exercises for this concept can be found at Editing at the Sentence Level Practice

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