The best class on writing I have ever taken -- bar none -- was called "Sentence Power." It was taught by a man named Ed Perlman in the part-time graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins and it changed the way I think about revision.
Ed's class was all about understanding the power of individual sentences. I can't even begin to do the curriculum justice, there was so much amazing material, but one of the key points was the power of the final revision. He had us pick individual sentences and paragraphs we had written and then revise them to add power and resonance to our work.
Revising the Sentence Power Way
In practice, it looks a little like this: You've (mostly) finished your article or your marketing piece or whatever and are ready to submit it. But wait. Go through it one more time and, depending on length, pick a few places where revising a single sentence or paragraph could potentially take your work to another level. This is my favorite part of revision, the final polish. (This is where I also have to go through and really prune my sentence fragments. I have a problem with sentence fragments, but that's a whole other post).
A couple of examples from my own work with the original material first and the revision second.
(The opening paragraph of a fundraising fact sheet) Dominica's Morne Trois Pitons National Park is considered a natural wonder of the Caribbean and one of the most amazing sights on an island already rich in wonder and beauty. The Valley of Desolation, with its many hot springs and its aptly named Boiling Lake, is especially stunning. The sulfur waters of Boiling Lake make the whole valley smell like eggs rotting beneath a baking summer sun.
(Revision) Visitors to the aptly named Valley of Desolation in Dominica's Morne Trois Pitons National Park must feel as if they've somehow stumbled out of paradise and into the heart of an angry volcano. It's the smell they notice first, the unmistakable stench of rotten eggs, the burning scent of sulfur that grows stronger as they hack their way along slippery, narrow trails. Finally, lush tropical rainforest abruptly gives way to a barren, rock-strewn landscape, a vision of hell where steaming hot springs bubble from the earth and the dark sulfur waters of Boiling Lake roil and hiss beneath a high, pale sky.
The key to this kind of revision is finding the places in your work that lend themselves to something a little extra. (Usually the intro and the conclusion, but you can delight your readers by sprinkling unexpected metaphors and unusual sentence construction throughout your piece).
We learned to do this by imitation, by pulling individual sentences and paragraphs out of works by other writers (Orwell and Didion and Chatwin and on and on) and looking at the way the sentences were constructed: the use of metaphor and diction, similes and followups, extended metaphors and personification, hyperbole and summative modifiers.
Try this at home
Like many writers, I keep a notebook when I read. Whenever I run across a sentence that makes me go, "Wow." I copy it down. I pull it apart. How did the writer do that? Why do I find it so powerful? Can I use it myself? (I'm not talking about plagiarizing specific words, I'm talking about understanding the underlying structure of a sentence.)
From George Orwell's "Why I Write": So long as I remain alive and well, I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.
It's a parallel structure with infinitive phrases acting as direct objects (at least that's what it says in my notes). I am no grammar maven. I listen to the rhythms and look at how it goes together. So when I use this structure in my own work, it looks like this:
I kept saying the word "blue," savoring it over and over on my tongue, feeling the taste of it full in my mouth, chanting it aloud in the dark of my bedroom until its meaning finally dissolved into pure sound.
Not even the barest whiff of plagiarism. The bones of the sentences are the same, the flesh is different. And that makes all the difference.