Revising Sentences I

Today’s topic is revising sentences…or perhaps I should say that this week’s topic is revising sentences. There will be two more posts with this theme.

I started thinking about revisions when I came across a short story that I thought I would enjoy – but I stopped reading after a few paragraphs.

The writing was grammatical, and the story was interesting. So what was wrong? The story lacked powerful sentences to drive the action along.

I’ve selected four sentences (and disguised them in case the author happens to visit my blog!). Today I’ll talk about the first sentence.

An inmate is describing an incident in his corridor: Two other inmates – Tony and Cal – have been carrying on a loud conversation that annoys Bert, another inmate who’s trying to sleep.

Here’s today’s sentence, adapted from the original story:

I was standing next to the door of my cell, watching what was going on in the corridor, when Bert, one of the inmates, rose from his bed and calmly approached Tony.

Here’s my feedback. (I’m sure that many of you can come up with better revisions than I did! I’d love to hear from you.)

1.  Although the story is about an inmate, there’s no prison feeling here. I worked in a prison for three years: it was crowded, and there was a lot of tension.

2.  The inmate narrator doesn’t have a personality and a voice. He’s not reacting to where he is or what’s going on. He could be standing in the front yard of a suburban house, looking at his neighborhood.

3. There’s too much information crammed into the sentence. The story would be more interesting if we could watch the action unfold, a step at a time.

My suggested revision:

When you’re in prison, peace and quiet are hard to come by. It was “free time” (hah!) when cell doors were open and we could roam the corridor, but I was trying to avoid the hubbub outside.

I was working on a poem for Kathy when I heard a commotion in the corridor. It was Tony and Cal again, talking much too loudly about something that had gone wrong in the prison kitchen that morning. I didn’t mind them talking. Hell, you need friends in a place like this. But did we have to hear every word of it?

I went back to my poem. I was just finishing the last line when I heard a clang from the iron door in the cell next to mine. Bert was on the move.

Bert did shift work in the prison, and sleep was hard for him to come by. I’d seen him flip out when the sleep deprivation was too much to bear. He once told me he welcomed the occasional trips to the detention block where inmates were sent for breaking the rules. “You get to sleep for eight hours,” he said.

Hands gripping bars of a prison cell


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