Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Editing: Sentence Diagramming & Highlighters

I know you're probably hoping that I'm kidding, but no, I'm not. I diagram sentences.

Here's the deal. When I'm editing, I have a regular...and thus regularly annoying...realization that I'm eight pages past where I was looking for typos. I get caught up reading; the more it happens, the more I miss. I don't mind admitting that January Black went through SEVEN complete rounds of editing before I read a blog post on structural repetition.

The author, Anne Mini, my very favorite person on the web, suggested a process to find this issue across pages of manuscript: Use different colored highlighters to mark different types of sentence structures. There should be a good mix of colors on the page when you're done. If there isn't, you got work to do.

Thing is, I can write complex sentences, but it's been a few years since I've had to work through the various parts of them. (Try So, to try out Ms. Mini's highlighter exercise, I had to research sentence structures. For your reference, I'll put them here.

Simple = one subject, one verb, one complete thought

Compound = two subjects, two verbs, two complete thoughts, joined by a coordinating conjunction
(FANBOYS = For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So)

Complex = two subjects, two verbs, one complete thought, one subordinate clause

Compound/Complex = a complex sentence, joined to another sentence with a coordinating conjunction
Diagram of the US Constitution's Preamble.
Now, I will confess to the English teachers that may be reading this, I do not completely diagram sentences. I'm up for tedious, but I'm not up for 375 pages of that.

My diagrams are inline. Quick and sketchy. Like this:

A folded (sheet) [of paper] lay [on Matty's pillow].  (Iris) cursed and kicked off the covers. (She) didn't bother reading the note[;] (she) knew [what] it would say. (I)'m sorry. (I) love you. (Someone) has to do it. (Fearing [that] she had lost him again), this time forever maybe, (she) pulled [on the clothes] [nearest to her] -- his shirt and boxers -- [and] tore barefoot [through the hallways] [of his dormitory].

Perfectly Greek to you, I know. I do this on hard copy, with pencil or pen, and I have a few more marks. It's all to identify the components so that I can highlight them.

A folded (sheet) [of paper] lay [on Matty's pillow].  (Iris) cursed and kicked off the covers. (She) didn't bother reading the note[;] (she) knew [what] it would say. (I)'m sorry. (I) love you. (Someone) has to do it. (Fearing [that] she had lost him again), this time forever maybe, (she) pulled [on the clothes] [nearest to her] -- his shirt and boxers -- [and] tore barefoot [through the hallways] [of his dormitory].

The pink sentences are simple...they have one subject, one verb, and one complete thought. The yellow sentence is compound...two subjects, two verbs, two complete thoughts joined by a semi-colon. The green sentence is complex...a simple sentence combined with an infinitive phrase that contains an implied "that." The important's balanced. There's short sentences and long sentences. There's variety. (The original of this particular paragraph didn't.)

Structural repetition isn't the only thing this exercise can sort out, however. The focus on identifying in individual components of each sentences, looking for conjunctions and semi-colons, it kept me from reading the text. I actually did perform this exercise on all 378 pages of the manuscript. I removed several thousand unnecessary words. I found dropped words and even single dropped letters from words that survived seven previous edits.

I used highlighters to circle all of the instances of "then," "that," "but," "and," and proper names on the page and found patterns sure to drive professional readers crazy. I located and worked my way around gratuitous adverb use.

I'm certainly not suggesting that this trick is for everyone, but I would recommend to anyone who reads when they should be editing to try it. And, run...don't Anne Mini's blog.


  1. The English minor in my loves this approach. As I successfully completed my first #NaNoWriMo and now have a manuscript to edit, I'm thinking this will definitely help me since it is my own story. Breaking things down to the technical level will help me separate myself from the story for a bit. I'll still need other eyes on it, but I'm going to try this first before I embarrasse myself before others.

  2. wow.. i love this post! I am glad I happened upon this via Twitter. :)

    I also have a NaNo manuscript to edit.. this I think will be a great (and fun) way to do so.

    Thanks again.


  3. Oh drat, now I have to follow your excellent cues, but not until the wine has worn off. Thanks for the exercise. -Kelly

  4. Sentence diagrams were the hardest part of english for me. I loved that class. But sentence diagramming was beyond me...too mathy I think :)
    But this is great! Thanks!

    And I love Author! Author!