Freight Train Sentences

Can you convey your thoughts in compact packages?

by Andy Scheer

How many words can one verb pull? Without discouraging the reader.

IMG_2835 cropSince I can’t judge a manuscript by its cover, I judge it by the first pages. If those don’t promise an engaging story well told, why continue?

Today I’m reviewing fiction first chapters. Soon at a writers conference, I plan to tell one writer her sentences remind me of an overloaded freight train.

Disclaimer: I like trains. For a dozen years I rode Chicago’s light rail to work. In Colorado I’ve ridden the Durango & Silverton and the Cumbres & Toltec narrow gauge lines. And I know that much of the nation’s freight is delivered economically by rail. Every time I drive between Colorado Springs and Denver, I see hundred-car coal trains.

But I’ve noticed those trains don’t use just one engine—or two. To crest the 7,300-foot summit of Monument Hill, they operate with at least two engines in front and an equal number at the rear.

I thought of those long freights when I came to this sentence:

Unable to stop the smile that thoughts of Joe always brought to her face, Nicole nudged the vase of pink plastic daisies in the middle of the table aside and swiped at a pile of crumbs with a damp cloth.


Yes, the sentence has two verbs: nudged and swiped. But it’s forty words long. And look at the number of prepositional phrases that have been hooked on like freight cars:


  • of Joe
  • to her face
  • of pink plastic daisies
  • in the middle
  • of the table
  • at a pile
  • of crumbs
  • with a damp cloth

As an agent I never rejected a manuscript because of one overly long sentence. But if I soon encounter many of its friends, I’ll rightly conclude this author is not a master of direct prose.

 Nicole smiled. She nudged aside a vase of pink plastic daisies and swiped at a pile of crumbs.

About Andy Scheer

With more than 30 years in publishing, Andy Scheer has provided freelance editorial services since 2010. He has edited fiction and nonfiction for publishers including Moody, WinePress, and BelieversPress, as well as for clients including Dirk Cussler, McNair Wilson, DiAnn Mills, Heather Day Gilbert, and Sammy Tippit.

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