Sentence Level Checklist

There are a lot of sentence level pitfalls we tend to make as writers. A few of those are listed below. Give your story a pass with this checklist to punch up the effectiveness of your writing.

Keep in mind that these items are not inherently wrong by any means. It is just that we tend to overuse them in situations where there is a stronger, clearer, more effective option.

Passive Voice

I am sure you have heard to look out for the passive voice before, but it is still a good idea to keep an eye out for it. Usually, it weakens sentences.

Active version: The rebels attacked the castle. (The subject, the rebels, is performing the action, attacked.)
Passive example: The castle was attacked by the rebels. (The subject, the rebels, is being acted upon, attacked.)

In the passive version, the focus is taken off the rebels and given to the castle. The intention was for the rebels to be the focus.

Also in the passive version, the castle is not doing anything. Whereas in the active form, the rebels are doing something. So, the passive form creates a weaker, more distant sentence construction. It also makes the sentence slightly wordier.

Adverbs

Often we pair an adverb with a weak verb, when one, different and stronger verb would have been better than both. For example: He moved slowly down the corridor.

Moved is a very generic verb, not very impactful. And slowly is an adverb that just adds wordiness.

Instead, one stronger verb could replace these two words: He crept down the corridor.

Crept conveys a stronger image to the reader, makes for a less wordy sentence, and conveys more accurately the intention to the reader.

Do not think adverbs are by necessity evil though and remove them wholesale. There may be times when pairing an adverb with a verb is justified or better than using one verb alone.

Filtering

Filtering is experiencing the writing through another, unnecessary layer of words. It dilutes the writer’s intention.

Let’s take a very basic example: She felt mad.

Okay, the sentence gets the point across, but wouldn’t it be stronger and more effective if we show how she is feeling? She pounded her fist against her desk repeatedly.

Other common filtering words include: seem, watch, decide, wonder, saw, and hear. Instead of using these words, consider just showing what someone sees or hears.

The Reader

For each chapter or section in your story, ask, What do I want the reader to get out of this? and What effect do I want it to have on the reader? Your goal for a chapter may be to move the reader emotionally or to scare them.

Whatever effect you desire, just keeping it in mind will go a long way in improving the reader experience. It will help guide your writing toward expressing that intention.

Clichés & Misused Words

Make your own list of clichés and misused words, then remove and fix them throughout your story.
Some common cliche examples include: The time of my life, sweating bullets, the quiet before the storm, you can’t judge a book by its cover, burn the midnight oil, sick as a dog, etc, etc, etc.

Some common misused words include: than/then, your/you’re, bear/bare, affect/effect, lay/lie, Its/It’s

Sensory Detail

Sometimes in the early drafts of a story, writers skim over sensory description and other details that really help bring the story to life. Go back over sections you consider especially weak in this and beef them up.

First pass: He ran through the garden.
After adding sensory detail: With only the moonlight to guide him, he ran over the wet grass. His feet crushed the twigs and bramble causing the faintest cracking. The only other sound was an owl hooting in the distance. The smell of lavender was heavy in the air and made him think of a past lover.

The sensory description helps bring the scene to life.

Read it Aloud

So simple to do, yet very effective. Your ear will catch faults that your eyes did not.

Customize

Maybe most important of all these tips is to personalize your own checklist, customizing it to your weaker aspects of writing. Consider prioritizing the list, as well, placing the most important aspects to work on at the top of the list. That way if you are rushing to finish or meet a deadline and you can not get to everything, at least you will resolve those larger issues.

We hope this offered some help and sparked some ideas. What are some checklist items you use? Let us know in the comments.

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