Editing Sentence Structure in Essays
Sentence-level revision is one of the later steps in the essay revision process. It comes after you’ve reworked the essay’s content and structure, then fine-tuned sentence order within paragraphs. Inspecting and revising several key elements of your sentence structure can make your writing clearer and more readable. If you find yourself spending a lot of time on a particular sentence, though, don’t fear to follow William Strunk’s well-known advice in “The Elements of Style”: “When you become hopelessly mired in a sentence, it is best to start fresh; do not try to fight your way through against the terrible odds of syntax.”
Nouns and Verbs
Nouns and verbs should be the focuses of every sentence, particularly in academic rather than creative writing. Revisit the nouns and verbs in each sentence to check that they communicate the precise meaning you intend. Although adjectives and adverbs can modify nouns and verbs, the core meaning of your sentence depends on choosing the correct nouns and verbs. If you can communicate this core meaning without adjectives or adverbs, remove them. Keep a particular lookout for empty adjectives and adverbs such as “nice,” “good,” “very,” “pretty” and “quite.”
Ensure that all sentence modifiers modify the word or phrase that you intend them to modify. Modifiers, which include adjectives and adverbs, prepositional phrases, gerund phrases and infinitives as well as subordinate clauses, are left “dangling” when their relationship to the sentence’s main clause is unclear. For example, in the sentence “Inexperienced and optimistic, the job seemed easy to me,” the writer means that because he was inexperienced and optimistic, the job seemed easy to him. However, the adjectives “inexperienced and optimistic” apply to the sentence’s subject, “the job.” Possible revisions might read, “Because I was inexperienced and optimistic, the job seemed easy to me” or “Inexperienced and optimistic, I considered the job easy.”
Revising passive voice to active voice clarifies who’s performing an action, and it also cuts sentence length. In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is receiving the verb’s action: “Mistakes were made.” Someone made mistakes, but it’s not clear who. Inserting an actor without revising the sentence structure would produce, “Mistakes were made by the class.” To change passive to active voice, make the actor the sentence’s subject: “The class made mistakes.” In active voice, the subject “acts,” or performs the verb.
A variety of sentence structures and lengths can make your prose more engaging, so note areas of the essay that repeat the same structure several times in close succession. To address this issue, determine whether the repeated sentence structure is simple, compound or complex, and revise some of the sentences to use the other two basic structures. For example, even if a series of simple sentences initially seems most appropriate and clear, try combining some of them into compound sentences by using coordinating conjunctions, or use a subordinating conjunction to show the relationship between two of the simple sentences.
- The Elements of Style, 2nd edition; William Strunk and E. B. White
- Purdue Online Writing Lab: Dangling Modifiers
- Purdue Online Writing Lab: Sentences and Sentence Structure
- Towson University Online Writing Support: Kinds of Sentences and Their Punctuation
Elissa Hansen has more than nine years of editorial experience, and she specializes in academic editing across disciplines. She teaches university English and professional writing courses, holding a Bachelor of Arts in English and a certificate in technical communication from Cal Poly, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wyoming, and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota.