Literary Triage

Contributed by David Kent on 28 March 2008 at 08:58

Students often remember that Thomas Edison said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% desperation”. While you undoubtedly write best when under pressure, many students, myself included, simply use this delusion to justify our procrastination. We become like one desperate for a date; as the night draws on, we begin to dictate our thoughts, sacrificing beauty for availability. However, if we are to still respect ourselves in the morning, we should take preventive measures to avoid receiving a rash of red marks a week later.


When we become tired, our writing becomes bloated; this is often an attempt to artificially increase the length of our sentences. Powerful sentences are succinct. But they are not choppy. One must first untangle a sentence before it can be pruned and allowed to flourish. Here is a typical twilight sentence:

Wars come and go, and, as such, different periods in history arise, because few things can cause such a change as a major war.

This sentence can quickly be made clearer by making the main subject (currently Wars) the same as the main actor (different periods):

Different periods in history arise as wars come and go because few things can cause such a change as a major war.

The sentence now flows logically, but the thought it expresses is a bit elementary, which was partially disguised previously by awkward wording. Seemingly simple concepts need not be suppressed, but should not parade as profundity. This same idea could be expressed in fewer words:

Every epoch is defined by its war.

The above revision is concise, but a bit enigmatic. We could achieve a different tone by intertwining this thought with a metaphor:

Historical eras are born of wars, nursed by the blood of the fallen and the ink of historians.

This revision has imagery the original lacked, but creates a tone that might be difficult to maintain throughout the essay. Usually, the easiest and most appropriate method to improve an exceedingly simple sentence is to combine it with another simple sentence from the same paragraph:

In order to study different eras, historians will often examine the wars that defined them.

This revision may be considered ideal because it sounds the most natural. In general, make sure the number of words in a sentence is justified by the number of concepts expressed.


The composition of an exhausted author bores the reader into sleep. However, appropriately polished prose will persuade the reader more than tired truths. As you edit your essay, critically examine each sentence. Experiment with alternate wordings and see if a better sentence evolves. Speak it out loud and hear if it sounds natural. Above all, never forget that sound logic is often indistinguishable from that which sounds logical.

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