Monday, June 17, 2013

“Independent Body Parts”: A Defense

A few days ago I reviewed the second round of edits – what my publisher calls final line edits – for my upcoming release Challenge to Him. In general, I had no problem accepting the suggested changes to wording and punctuation. I didn't necessarily agree that the one POV problem the editor highlighted really was a problem, but if she thought it would be clearer if modified, I was ready to go along. For the most part I don't view my words as sacred, so I rarely object to reasonable changes.

I've noticed, though, that each editor has pet issues she tends to focus on. I had one editor who insisted on striking every instance of the word “that” introducing a dependent clause after a verb of sensation or thought. For example, if I wrote:

Henrietta thought that she'd never recover from Harold's treachery.

This editor would revise the sentence as:

Henrietta thought she'd never recover from Harold's treachery.

I agree the two sentence are equivalent in meaning, and the second is more concise than the first. However, sometimes the rhythm of a sentence requires the additional beat of that extra word. Furthermore, I like some variety in my sentence structures. So I accepted most of her edits, but retained a few “thats” where they seemed to fit.

Anyway, my most recent line editor really had a bee in her bonnet concerning “independent body parts”, often abbreviated as IBP.

In case you've never met the dreaded IBP, this term refers to sentences where some part of a character's body becomes the subject of an action verb. For example:

Her eyes followed him as he strode across the room.

His fingers crept up her thigh and under her skirt.

His tongue poked rudely into her mouth.

Some novice authors overuse this kind of sentence, often to the point of silliness. Because of this tendency, editors have become hypersensitive to these constructions, brandishing their red pen whenever one appears.

However, there is nothing a priori wrong with using a body part as a sentence subject in this way. This is an accepted category of  figurative language. It even has a name: synecdoche.  Synecdoche is the practice of referring to a part when you mean the whole, or vice versa.

Sentences that are labeled as IBP are not intended to be construed literally. Of course her eyes stayed in her head as he walked across the room – no reasonable reader would think otherwise. Yes, most likely he was in control of those fingers – they weren't acting on their own -  but the synecdoche focuses the readers' attention on the stealthy progress of those digits, perhaps even as their owner continues to converse in a normal way.

An occasional “IBP” sentence is not a flaw, in my opinion. When I construct my paragraphs, I do so deliberately, with an eye to diversity and flow. The alternative to using IBP is often to have every sentence beginning with a name or pronoun. This gets boring after a while.

The so-called rule about avoiding IBPs may be helpful to novice authors. The trouble is, it's really not a rule, anymore than the guidelines about avoiding passive voice are rules. English is a gloriously rich language with an enormous repertoire of sentence structures and rhetorical devices. An accomplished author should not shy away from using the ones that she believes her story needs.


Annabeth Leong said...

I'm glad to see your sane take on this issue. I, too, have run up against people who, in my opinion, were a little too obsessed with avoiding IBP.

A lot of these things are stylistic, and I think, as you point out, that the problem comes when a person starts to treat the idea as an actual rule rather than a thing to keep in mind.

Another really common one is the idea that adverbs should be avoided. Of course, it's possible to use adverbs in a dull way that deadens prose, but it's not like someone outlawed that entire part of speech. One of the best sentences I ever read described a man as "primly smoldering." I think that's a great use of an adverb, and I'm glad no editor cut it.

Stylistic suggestions need to be distinguished from grammatical rules.

Linda King said...

Interesting! I've caught myself using IBP (although I didn't know the name for it) and in most cases changed it. Great post, thank you!

Lisabet Sarai said...

Exactly, Annabeth.

Don't get me started about adverbs!

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Linda,

Each case needs to be evaluated on its own merits. Everything in moderation!

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Lisabet,
Great blog, I absolutely agree with you. There is a place for IBP, our books would be boring reads if we didn't use them. Moderation is the key, not elimination.



Tanith Davenport said...


(Deep breath)

I'm doing two sets of edits right now and both have a string of IDPs that I consider a stylistic choice, or just a turn of phrase ("all eyes were on him", for instance). It's driving me nuts.

Miahappy said...

Oh, boy. I can't tell you how many times I saw "IBP" during my very first round of edits! While most were easy to adjust, there were occasional times where the impact of the moment was lessened if I took out that IBP, and I was really stumped as to why the words needed to be changed! Glad to know I'm not alone!

I will agree with the "that" correction, however. An old English teacher of mine always stressed, if the sentence could be read without the addition of "that" and still make sense, it wasn't needed. My publisher made me add "that" in several places where I didn't think it was needed.

I guess it's just a matter of knowing what to fight for and what to just go along with!

Cassandra Gold said...

I agree with you 100%. Sometimes the sentence just flows better with IBPs. Most of my editors remove them entirely, which leaves paragraphs that are often a bit repetitive. A few IBPs here and there add interest, IMO. :/

Jan Irving said...

Truly good editing might focus on what is missing in a scene where an editor is caught up but feels a draft, that lack of something. I've experienced that as the best kind of editing.

But OMG yes! I write with fragments, with IBP, with a lot of things that just flow for me. They are very deliberately placed. I get very irritable when every case of something is pointed out. The problem is if the person does not write, but takes grammar too literally or if they do write and are on a crusade.

I don't always take things out. In fact, if it adds to the moment and seems harmless, then I will persist. You can over edit a work and take away feeling. Especially in love scenes which are like action scenes so sometimes short hand or fragments capture that essence.

It's like when Joseph Campbell said that we use masks to explain God/Goddess/creator because the essence cannot be known and understood with literalism. That is what you do with writing. You can imagine a moment, feel it, and use language to leap that chasm and give an impression of reality.


Gabrielle Holly said...


As my *eyes scanned* your terrific post and my *fingers spun* the computer mouse wheel, my *mind screamed*, "Yes! Yes! A thousand times, yes!"

I agree that the "rule" banning IBPs has been over-enforced. That said, I once wrote, "His blazing eyes dropped to her breasts," and THAT made it through first round edits LOL.

Great post, as always!

Hugs from the US Heartland, Gabrielle

Nancy said...

That was great!
I think I'll tuck a Synecdoche card away just in case! ;-)

Marie Sexton said...

Yes! For crying out loud, only an editor would think, "his hand is moving without his knowledge?" And in sex scenes especially, occasional IBPs are helpful. Otherwise, as you said, the sentence structure becomes way too repetitive and/or convoluted.

Ashe Barker said...

Wow, you struck a nerve Lisabet!

Thanks for giving it a name, never heard of synecdoche before but it's my word of the week. Must weave it in somewhere. I totally agree with all that's been said about stylistic use of IBPs - it can be clever, creative, expressive, adding interest and meaning. And English is constantly evolving anyway, as are all languages.

I've seen mention of a TEB styleguide here and there but never managed to track it down. Anyone know if it does exist and where it could be found? Might save lots of digital red ink. That said, I'm all for pushing back the boundaries.

One thought I did have though, and that is along the lines of being wary about IBPs as they could, just possibly, disassociate a doer from his/her actions, and that could be ethically significant given the sort of material we tend to write. A stretch, I know, but it's the only sound basis I can think of for such zealous editing.

Great post, lots of food for thought there.

Janet Lane Walters said...

So glad to read this. especially the that in a sentence. Sometimes the flow of the sentence needs that. I've sometimes taken it out only to put it back in. As to what I call is wandering body parts, yes they sometimes work. But I do remember reading in a published book His eyes dropped to the floor. Later this sentence appeared. He picked his eyes from the floor to stare at her.

Juliet Waldron said...

Only in cartoons can that happen. ;)

Juliet Waldron said...

Yes, I agree with your post, Lisabet. Especially in sex scenes, where you are, after all, not authoring a manual, but trying to bring the reader a vicarious experience of sensation.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Lisabet! I understand the editor's dislikes for IBP's, but you're right when you say they're needed sometimes. To me, it also makes a difference as to who's POV you're seeing it through. If Tom is seeing Bob's hands clench at his sides, then there's room for leeway for letting the IBP stay as is. It's hard when editor's want those IBP's to go as well.
IBP's actually bring my mood down sometimes, because I have to take that extra time to make sure I'm avoiding them instead of going with the flow.
It's a total buzz-kill when you think you've got it down perfectly just to have someone say you have to change it.

Unknown said...

Yes. Yes. Yes. I've been so frustrated by how to emphasize a particular movement or behavior without IBP.

Thank you!


Unknown said...

ME TOO! And why is it that BIG name authors write IBP's all over the place? When I read them, I think, "Sounds good in her book. Why won't my editor let me get away with just one?" lol. Frustrating. Though of course it all bears reviewing and we won't always agree with every change our editors want us to make.

Also, Lisabet - "that" is my favorite word I'm afraid. I use it too often and am always having to delete it. But sometimes it does sound better!

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