An editor’s notebook: Analyzing and untangling sentences

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One of the editor’s primary jobs is to make sentences say what they mean. When the prose gets in the way of the ideas, fix the prose. A focus on the subjects and verbs in sentences can help make prose clearer and reduce the cognitive load on the reader.

These examples come from a book I edited. This was a great piece of content, full of valuable information; its main problems had to do with the words in the sentences, rather than ideas or organization. (I’m grateful to the author, who I won’t identify, but who has given me permission to show some examples from the book in this space.) I found this project meaty and worthwhile, because what emerged after the edit was a very valuable document.

Something’s wrong here. What is it?

Here’s a paragraph about the value of weather data. Give it a read. If you were the editor, what would you suggest?

For example, for one national home improvement chain, their leverage of the last 5 days of rainfall data plus the forecast for next 5 days of rainfall literally transforms their marketing spend. Flooding, roof problems, drywall fixes, and buckets and tarps are all elevated dynamically in their markets in real-time by leveraging a data partnership with a major weather data company. This approach led to substantial revenue increases and was all made possible through a weather data partnership.

Reading this paragraph feels like wading into a thicket in the woods; you can get through it, and there’s clearly meaning, but the cognitive load on the reader is too high — you have to work too hard. Put enough sentences and paragraphs like this into your work and your readers will emerge tired, resentful, and not certain of the meaning of what they read. Fixing it is a worthwhile task.

What’s wrong? Well, here are some clues:

  • There are some words that ought to set off alarms. “Literally” is problematic. “Leverage” and “leveraging” are in the same category as “utilize” — they’re big words with vague meanings that you should replace with simpler words.
  • Look out for weasel words — vague qualifiers and intensifiers. These are often adverbs. Along with “literally,” this passage includes “dynamically,” and “substantial.”
  • There’s passive voice here. Buckets and tarps “are all elevated dynamically” (by zombies?).

Where to start? The passive voice should give you a clue. Look at the subjects and verbs of the three sentences. (It may take a bit of work to figure out what those subjects are, which is a clue that there’s a problem.) Go ahead, write down the subjects on a notepad. What did you find? Here’s what I found:

  • First sentence: “Leverage transforms.”
  • Second sentence: “Flooding, roof problems, drywall fixes . . . are elevated.”
  • Third sentence: “Approach led to”

In the first sentence, the subject doesn’t appear until you’ve waded through two opening phrases, and it’s an abstract concept (leverage). In the second, the home improvement products are elevated, except that they’re not, it’s the sales of those products that are going up. And in the third sentence, the subject is again an abstract concept, the approach. Abstract concepts as subjects of sentences make understanding difficult, especially when you have to struggle through introductory phrases to find them.

So, now we have a strategy for rewriting this paragraph. The sentences have meaning. They make sense in this order. We just have to rewrite them to make them easier to understand, focusing on better subjects and verbs.

Fixing the sentences: Ask “who’s doing what?”

Don’t just tinker with sentences like this; rewrite them. Ask “what is happening here; who is doing what?” Then rewrite to address.

Take the first sentence. The actor in this sentence is clearly the home improvement chain. What did they do? They shifted their market spend. How? By taking advantage of weather data. So rewrite the sentence with the chain as the subject:

For example, one national home improvement chain shifts their marketing spending based on the last 5 days of rainfall data plus the forecast for next 5 days of rainfall.

The second sentence is in passive voice. Who is the actor here? It’s the chain again. The buckets and tarps are better as the object of the sentence. Here was my suggested rewrite:

They use a data partnership with a major weather data company to elevate marketing for products that address flooding and roof problems, such as drywall fixes, buckets, and tarps.

Finally, the focus of the third sentence should be on the partnership and the results it brings.

This weather data partnership strategy has led to substantial revenue increases.

Here it is all together:

For example, one national home improvement chain shifts their marketing spending based on the last 5 days of rainfall data plus the forecast for next 5 days of rainfall. They use a data partnership with a major weather data company to elevate marketing for products that address flooding and roof problems, such as drywall fixes, buckets, and tarps. This weather data partnership strategy has led to substantial revenue increases.

Notice that I left in some of the words that I’d identified as problematic (one use of “leverage,” and substantial). And I’ve left in one of the abstract concepts as a sentence subject (strategy, in the third sentence). You don’t need to purge all problematic words, just reduce their frequency. It’s still worth it to identify them, though, as they provide clues about where the problems in the prose are.

Once you do this rewrite, more clarity emerges

Is this actually better? I think it makes a significant difference.

  • It’s shorter. The original paragraph was 78 words. The new one is 69. Shorter is better.
  • It’s all in active voice.
  • Two of the three sentences start with the same concrete noun as subject: the home improvement chain. It’s easier to understand a chain of stores taking actions than to unpack abstract nouns and figure out what they refer to.
  • The subjects, verbs, and objects tell a story by themselves:
    • Chain shifts marketing.
    • They use a data partnership.
    • The partnership has led to revenue.

The meaning is unchanged. But by untangling the thicket of prose and rewriting the sentence, you make it easier for the reader to follow the story and believe your point — in this case, that a weather data partnership, used properly, can generate revenue.

This is, of course, the meaning of this passage, but now the cognitive load on the readers is lower. “I get it,” they say. “They used data in a smart way to increase sales.” Having internalized this message, the readers are ready to use this meaning to understand the rest of this somewhat technical treatise, because they didn’t use up all their energy decoding a relatively simple set of sentences about weather data and sales of home improvement products.

If you self-edit, you can write better and make your editor’s job easier

It’s easy to look down your nose at prose like this and say, “Hah, I can write better than that.” But I don’t think about it that way. Everyone’s process is different. This author decided to write sentences starting with leverage, flooding, and an approach because that’s how those concepts came to them. Getting that prose down on the page is necessary.

But if you tend to write like this, you can self-edit and make things better. Once you’ve written a set of passages like this, go back and ask “Who’s doing what?” Then edit the sentences. You’ll end up with clearer subjects and simpler, more direct verbs.

Why not let your editor do that work? For one thing, editors cost money; the more you make them work, the more expensive it is. But more importantly, you’ll be smarter if you can decide what you’re actually trying to say. This type of self-edit will help you get into the soul of the writing, and feel better about what you’ve created.

As you might imagine, this manuscript took two editing passes. Some of the problems weren’t apparent immediately — they were hiding behind other problems I identified in the first pass. If you self-edit, you’ll alow the editor to find only the problems you can’t find on your own, which will allow the text to attain its best meaning more quickly and directly. (You’ll also cut down on the editor’s fatigue, which will allow the editor to do a better job of making your prose sparkle.)

I always try to improve the author, not just the text. In this case, the author has become more aware of the hidden (and excellent) meaning lurking in the prose. And once you understand that, your writing is going to be better, even in the first draft.

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  1. Great example Josh. I really like your approach. I have sent this to my students. Unfortunately far too many of them see this type of writing and think that it passes as quality. It doesn’t.

  2. If the rest of what you edited was as opaque and convoluted as this excerpt, you should be credited as co-author, not editor. You rewrote it because it needed to be rewritten.

    1. The rest of the book was NOT like this excerpt. I chose the excerpt because it was instructive from an editing perspective.

      I got paid to edit it, which was sufficient. The author’s expertise shone through on every page. I did what an editor does, which is to allow it to shine more brightly.

  3. I’m printing this puppy and putting it on my wall. I think it will help me refrain from hurling my laptop through a window. Thank you.

  4. I think of myself as a smart person and I could not figure out what the original paragraph meant. Thank you for translating into plain-speak!

    I have turned on so many people to your site. I hope they bought your book. The ROAM analysis alone is worth the money; even though you go into it on the blog, the book’s fuller explication is so valuable. Thank you, thank you, thank you for what you do.