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Writing more powerful sentences


Fred the Barber

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Last time I talked about trade-offs in editing and high-level motifs; macro-scale stuff. This time, I want to talk about a micro-scale topic: how to make an individual line better. As before, I'll be demonstrating this with examples drawn from recent editing experience. Before writing this post, I went around looking for other people talking about similar things, and I found this reference: http://kristensguide.com/Writing/powerful_sentences.asp. Frankly, it's great; probably better than what I have, especially in terms of breadth of topics. Give it a read and get your editing learning on. For this post, I'm going to deep dive into one single topic mentioned there, though, for which I've been saving up examples: putting the first and last words of your sentence to good use.

The first and last words of a sentence are powerful. They're memorable. Forgetting the middle of a sentence is natural, so put a word at the end of a sentence when you really, really want that one word to be remembered.

Okay, so what did you get from that last paragraph. I hope it was "first", "powerful", "memorable", "forgetting", and "remembered", because that's the point of this blog post.

Anyway, let's look at some examples from my recent edits to Majo Koi Nikki, some to the prologue patch we're about to release, and some later. I'll point out other things that I changed as well and why, but this one point is going to be the running theme.

 

Original:
  Looking in the mirror, she pondered for a second and answered with a shy smile on her face.

Potential problems:
- "on her face" is extraneous
- that extraneous phrase is squatting on valuable real estate at the end of the sentence.

Mine:
  Looking in the mirror, she pondered for a second, and then she answered with a shy smile.

Changes:
- drop "on her face" (for both reasons above - it's less verbose, and now I get "smile" as the last word in the sentence, which is great)
- the comma after "she ponders for a second" is intended to give the reader that same mental pause as "she" has, to better set up the last part
- "then she" somehow pushes you out of that mental pause and into the most important part: that shy smile, lingering at the end of the sentence.

 

Original:
  Tokeizaka-san irritatedly flips through the book, but her hand stops suddenly.

Potential problems:
- With the benefit of spell-check, "irritatedly" => irritably
- "suddenly" is often overused

I actually really like the original; if you left it alone, aside from the spell-check correction, I wouldn't fault you for it. The verbs are great, "irritably" is a good use of a modifier, and the sentence communicates multiple events very concisely. But there's always room for improvement.

Mine:
  Irritated, Tokeizaka-san flips through the book, until her hand suddenly stops.

Changes:
- Drop "suddenly." "Stops" is strong enough to carry that feeling of suddenness on its own, so "suddenly" is only making things weaker. I've also noticed a tendency for raw JP translations to overuse "suddenly", which makes me especially biased to remove it. It's the typical problem of overuse: if everything is happening suddenly, it might as well all be happening normally.
- Move those good words, "irritably" and "stops" to the memorable points of the sentence. "Stops" we got for free, "irritably" requires a small bit of juggling. Unfortunately, Tokeizaka-san's family name is a bit unwieldy at best; better to bury it in the middle of the sentence and let the nice, emotive words take pride of place.
- Swapping "but" for "until" made for a clearer plot to the sentence, I thought.

 

Original:
- The colorful beauty article are displayed neatly.

Potential problems:
- Engrish
- Passive voice
- Not flashy enough

Mine:
- Iridescent beauty products dot the shelves, arranged with flawless precision.


On that last potential problem: normally my style is pretty spare. My typical goal is to drop adjectives and adverbs, and make verbs and nouns stronger to carry the weight of description, without going overboard on vocabulary. More often than not, I'm trying to make long sentences shorter and punchier.

I didn't do that here.

For context on why, it would help for you to hear the ridiculously high-brow BGM accompanying this scene and see the gorgeous background art. So, here:

Background:

2016-07-04_zpsap3o8481.png


BGM:

 

Equally important for context, you need to know about the surrounding narration: basically, the narrator is currently marveling at just how amazing this beauty parlor is.

One of the benefits of generally being spare with your adjectives and adverbs is that they then work a lot better when you actually do pull them out. A good mental model is that you have a budget: don't spend your nice words if you don't need to. Only pull them out when you're going for the razzle dazzle. The analogy breaks down fast, but basically, if you're constantly using flowery language and overdecorating the ordinary scenes, nobody's going to be impressed when something extraordinary happens, just like the overuse of "suddenly" I mentioned earlier. Since this actually is an extraordinary moment for our narrator, I'm spending a few nice words now.

And again, I want to call attention to the first and last words of the sentence. Those are strong places in a sentence (or, especially in the case of a VN, a line). Previously there were pretty weak words there ("The colorful" and "neatly"); now we've got "iridescent" and "precision". Good words in good places.

 

One last thing to mention. I wrote each of these up in the middle of editing, and then later edited that up into a blog post. I made changes to the edited line itself in the process of writing all this stuff up, which made it better. In fact, I even noticed a problem while writing up this blog post and further refined the line. You'll never know what it was (probably). The point being, simply spending time reflecting on an edit, and especially writing down your observations and motivations for certain choices, will help you do better work. You don't have to be this thorough all the time (I certainly am not), but every time you do an exercise like that, you'll learn from it, and then you can write up your own blog post and teach me something.

 

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Quote

Mine:
  Irritated, Tokeizaka-san flips through the book, until her hand suddenly stops.

Changes:
- Drop "suddenly."

A small slip, but you didn't actually drop suddenly in your version. It's right there :P 

Great pot tho. I've considered editing bad fantranslations for a while, and your simple and organized format is a good way to go about it. Looking forward for more to see more :D 

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2 hours ago, babiker said:

A small slip, but you didn't actually drop suddenly in your version. It's right there :P 

Great pot tho. I've considered editing bad fantranslations for a while, and your simple and organized format is a good way to go about it. Looking forward for more to see more :D 

And this, my friend, is why we have QC. :wahaha:

Yeah, I must have decided to just reorganize it to put the words where I wanted them when I first edited it, and then when I was putting this blog post together my eyes skipped right past the word and I assumed I'd dropped it. Now I have to go decide which version I like better...

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The VNTL community is lucky to have you as an editor. I was already interested in picking up Majo Nikki before I saw this post, but your edit work has added quite a bit to that. One of my many motivations for learning Japanese is the general lack of quality in translation, so your blog entry is rather refreshing.

Even though it'll be several years before I start it, I'm more interested in translating than I am in editing (I'm still only partway through the Japanese grammar guide), but I'll still try to keep these things in mind so that I don't have to rely that much on an editor.

Good luck on the rest of the project, pal!

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Quote

Original:
  Tokeizaka-san irritatedly flips through the book, but her hand stops suddenly.

Mine:
  Irritated, Tokeizaka-san flips through the book, until her hand suddenly stops.

I don't read the same into both sentences. In your version she flips through the book until she casually stops. In the original, she flips though the book and stops suddenly because she spotted something in the book. Sure I might be biased because I know the context of the entire scene, but I view that as a bonus.

Quote

My version:

Irritated, Tokeizaka-san flips through the book, until her hand suddenly freezes.

Alternative version: (a bit more liberal, which might make more sense given the context)

Irritated, Tokeizaka-san flips through the book, until she suddenly freezes.

I think this will bring it closer to the meaning in the original line. The key difference here is that the stop comes very suddenly and completely unexpected to everybody, including herself. I agree that suddenly should be considered in each case. In this case it fits well because it's a very sudden event like "suddenly a loud bang could be heard and the lights died". The word suddenly tells that something happened without warning and likely quite unexpected.

 

Other than that I really like the post. I will also add that I had the luxury of reading the VN when it was translated (the start that is. It's not done yet) and then again after Fred edited it. It was an amazing experience. The contents is more or less the same, but the reading experience and enjoyment have been significantly improved. I expected it to be an improvement, but not to the scale that it turned out to be. In fact when I read it yesterday, I realized that despite being aware that editing is a really good thing, I had still underestimated the importance of it. Reading the edited version compared to the unedited version was like... wow. Just wow. I think that's the most accurate description of my immediate impression.

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I'm glad to see your enthusiasm for editing continue after cutting your teeth on my project. Just like translating, you will keep getting better with every editing task you do, and then you'll look back on your earlier works and be disappointed by what you did. In your case, it's clear how much you've been thinking about this based on your further research towards improving your editing and I'm glad to have had you as an editor. The community should welcome any competent volunteer and be even more grateful when they're as thoughtful as you're being about the process.

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