Saturday, July 06, 2019

Revising isn't science; it's art.



(1) The car smelled of Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat.

(2) The smell of Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat assaulted her nostrils.

(3) The car reeked of perfume and sweat.


Which sentence do you think is better writing and why?
Or would you part out the sentences to create a fourth choice?


Post your answer in the comments column. (points for brevity!)

Do the work BEFORE reading what other folks said, ok?

82 comments:

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat, the whore had used my car for a motel room again.

french sojourn said...


He recoiled as he got into the car thinking, why would someone spray Chanel No. 5 on a filthy wet Rottweiler.

Carolyn Haley said...

The car reeked of Chanel No. 5 and sweat.

Kitty said...

(1) The car smelled of Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat.

It's pithy.

Sherryl and Meredith said...

The car reeked of Chanel no. 5 and stale sweat.

PattiBuff said...

4. The car reeked of sweat and Chanel No. 5.

NLiu said...

The car stank: perfume, sweat. D.I. Warden sniffed harder. And blood. Definitely blood.

julie.weathers said...


The car reeked of Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat, like lust in a Louisiana afternoon. (Or wherever this is taking place or reminds the person of.)

Roger Mohajir said...

#2. Though longer, it has an active verb and describes impact on a character (I am assuming that the car itself is not a major character, as in "Christine.")

E.M. Goldsmith said...

The competing odors of stale sweat and Chanel No 5 assaulted her as she slunk into the seat of her car.

KDJames said...

It's a matter of voice and context (which we don't have).

#3 if I had to choose.

But I'd rewrite it:

A stew of cheap perfume and rancid sweat permeated the car's interior, making her regret the decision to eat breakfast.

CynthiaMc said...

I like Chanel No. 5 so that was a pleasant impression. I don't go for sweat, so that made me go "Eeew."

If I were writing a romance, I would go with #1. If I were writing a mystery I'd go with #3.

Leslie said...

I'd do a mash-up of 1&3 -- The car reeked of Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat

Megan V said...

Of the options above I like #1.

I’d probably take it a step farther :

His Beamer belched Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat.

nightsmusic said...

#3

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

#1 is superficial third. It gets the job done but with no impact reported by the narrator.

#2 revised: Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat. Granny getting it on in the backseat? Expensive perfume for a parking lot tryst.

Where There's A Quill said...

The car reeked of Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat.

- Chanel No. 5 is specific; it characterizes both the wearer and narrator (who's able to recognize it).
- "Reeked" shows us how she feels about her observations
- "Stale" : IMO, the sentence needs that extra beat

Lance said...

Brevity, named for her father, jerked back at the stench of Chanel No. 5 and the sweat it had inspired.

PurpledWater said...

It depends on the POV character I suppose.

My MC: The Nizard’s metallic chariot reeked. Dried sweat and dead perfume snaked up his nostrils. *Was the chariot sick? Or sickly?* It’s “eyes” were nictating. He moved away.

My MC’s mentor: The non-magic transportation contraption was malfunctioning. Body odour and something that might once have been pleasant mingled in the air. He sniffed, and smiled kindly at the contraption.

My MC’s mentor’s wife (a wizard automobile engineer-equivalent): The 2014 Vena Civica was in need of a thorough cleaning. It smelled like (MC’s mentor)’s underpants, after a first wash with too little Fabrifixer Draft. She hobbled to the car and slammed the door shut.

I write fantasy, and develop selective aphasia whenever words like “brevity” are mentioned.

This was fun, and sorry about breaking the rules!

Ryan Neely said...

Edit number one with one modification. Swap smelled for reeked.

SDC said...

I would use all three to vary the sentence structure and change the word choice depending on the effect I'm going for eg reeked suggests unpleasant. Smelled (smelt) can go either way. Aroma is generally more pleasant.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

(4) The car reeked of perfume and stale sweat.

Why?
Unlike (2), it has a setting and I'm tired of the phrase "assaulted her nostrils."
Unlike (1), it has a stronger verb and Chanel No. 5 means nothing to me.
To (3), I added stale because alliteration plus there's a difference between fresh and stale sweat!

RosannaM said...

What's more important? That we know the perfume's brand, or that the sweat wasn't from a recent workout?

If neither matter, I vote for choice 3. It is short and to the point.

ACFranklin said...

My answer changes based on the larger context and flow of the surrounding paragraph. Is this a brief scene? Is it an important one? How important are the details? Is it a third person limited perspective, and if so does she have particular feelings about the Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat? Or would they be the sort of character to recognize a specific perfume brand? How fast or slow do I want the pacing to be? Does the entire paragraph flow? How frequently have I used each of the words in the given sentence?

Personally, I'm not fond of number two. I'd probably switch smell for scent, because it has a harsher feel than smell and there's a definite negative connotation to the sentence. But again, context dependent.

julie.weathers said...

Where There's A Quill My thinking exactly.

Of course, it depends on context. Sweat isn't always stale and unpleasant.

He smelled of leather and sea and rum . . . and man.

No matter how clean he was, and Gio was fastidiously to the point of foppish, there was always a tang about him. The clove cigarettes he smoked and sweated out his well-groomed pores she supposed. There was something new today. The smell of fear.

The sweat after lovemaking.

Anyway, interesting little take on perfume and sweat.

StackAttack said...

I'm torn between (1) and (3). I have the frustrating ability to rewrite a single sentence a thousand times (usually ending up where I started), so I'm tempted to part out the sentences and create a fourth option.

I like the specific perfume reference in (1) ("The car smelled of Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat.") Depending on the narrator, I can see this word choice revealing character (i.e., his or her familiarity with specific perfumes). However, "reeked" is a strong word choice in (3) ("The car reeked of perfume and sweat"). (I don't care for (2) at all. It just seems like a longer version of the others, and "assaulted her nostrils" feels unnecessary when "smells" or reeks" gets the job done.

So, assuming the narrator knows Chanel No. 5 from Dolce and Gabbana Light Blue, I propose a fourth option: "The car reeked of Chanel No. 5 and sweat."

Brenda said...

#3 of those three. The verb trumps the nouns.

I can’t escape revisions even when I’m procrastinating online!

Anyone care to join me in the chum bucket? I’m doing an R&R for Janet and I could use some betas/bait.

Kat M said...

Other - "The car reeked of Chanel No. 5 and sweat."

Why?
It maintains the simple sentence structure. (Although if it were in context I might need a longer sentence for better flow.)
"Reeked" is stronger than "smelled."
Since perfume varies widely, a specific perfume is stronger than generic perfume (but this also depends on context—some characters wouldn't know Chanel No. 5 from synthetic fruit from Bath and Body Works).
"Sweat" doesn't need an adjective.

Just Jan said...

(4) The car reeked of perfume and stale sweat.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

I would probably start out with something like #2 in drafting, then modify it to #1 in revisions. Parallellism.

#3 is good too. #2 is really the weakest.

Mike Hays said...

Chanel No.5? A definite whiff of sweat. Smells like trouble.

Steve Forti said...

Lance, I'm guessing Brevity was named after her father's bedroom prowess.

Steve Forti said...

Deadbeat father that is.

Lance said...

Steve Forti, that was everyone's understanding. You know, a brief encounter.

MaggieJ said...

I'd change it: The car reeked of Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat. Strong verb, specific nouns, and an interesting pairing of a fairly good perfume with an odour most people find unpleasant. I'd likely have been more specific about the car if it had not been mentioned before. A VW beetle is quite different from a Porche.

Kelly Hannon said...

The smell of Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat permeated the car.

Still gives the location but puts the scent first.

Kamikaze said...

I think the first sentence is the best of the three, although I'd modify it and swap out "Chanel No. 5" with something else--it feels cliched. There are other popular scents that don't get mentioned nearly as much, but even then--why not add in a specific smell that a reader can connect with? What does Chanel No. 5 smell like? I have no idea (uncultured British swine that I am).

The second option sounds hacky ("assaulted her nostrils" is over the top and used too frequently by new writers; see also: "slammed into her nasal passage" as if the perfume is some kind of psychotic serial killer with an icepick).

The third sentence is nice (I prefer "reeked" to "smelled" but that depends on the effect you're trying to create -- the character might like the mixture of Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat, or might only find it mild and inoffensive).

Fourth sentence: The backseat of my wife's Audi reeked of a vanilla-scented perfume mixed with stale sweat. It's like she was trying to cover the smell of her old yoga clothes and accidentally tipped a bottle of KKW Gold over the seats; if I didn't see the used condom twisted on the floor under the steering wheel, I might even have believed it.

Pen Name said...

The car reeked of perfume and stale sweat.

Colin Smith said...

AC Franklin's thoughts echo closely my own. So much depends on the broader story and the characters. Would the narrator know it was Chanel #5? Why? If it was me, I'd smell perfume and sweat. What does Chanel #5 tell us about the sweaty person who was in the car?

I would also back away from "assault." If the smell is offensive, in what way? Does it make narrator's stomach churn? Does it bring back a sour memory (plot relevant)? Sometimes simple is best (#3).

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

Dammit, the car stank. Stale sweat and...was that Chanel No. 5?

Timothy Lowe said...

The car reeked. Chanel and day-old sweat. Fucking nuns, she thought as she hot-wired the ignition. What are you gonna do?

KariV said...

They are all examples of good writing, just a matter of personal preference/voice.

C is probably the sentence I'd use in my novel, but that comes from a lot of practice with POV and deliberate attempts to cull my word count.

I like A (it's how *I* would speak) and B is still a good example of showing v telling, so it really just depends on the scene and type of writing you do as to which one is best.

Lennon Faris said...

condensed #2:

Chanel and stale sweat assaulted her nostrils.

Michael Seese said...

Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat fought for air supremacy in the confined cabin of my tired Buick Regal.

C. Dan Castro said...


I don’t think you can answer this question well without knowing the context. Some quick thoughts:
1. Avoid “stale sweat”; too cliché, plus I’ve never quite been sure if there’s really a difference between the smell of stale sweat and fresh/new sweat. Just use “sweat.”
2. Is the smell of the Chanel No. 5 THAT powerful in the car (i.e., it “reeked” or “assaulted her nostrils”)? Did someone spray it on the interior? Or is there just a strong trace left behind?
3. Do we need “car” and/or “her”? If either is a YES, then you’ve already eliminated one or more of the 3 proposed sentence choices.
4. I like Chanel No. 5 better than perfume. I don’t know what it smells like (nor does my wife), but I know it’s perfume, it’s a very concrete detail, and it may say something about the protagonist for recognizing it.
5. “Assaulted” is a powerful word; to be used if that’s part of the mood, if you want to suggest something violent happened in the car, if it relates to theme, etc. Might be the wrong word otherwise.

Erin Parisien said...

I do like Number 1 because it's short and to the point. Here's my take on a revision:

The stench of stale sweat in the car turned her Chanel No. 5 into cheap perfume.

c. sciriha said...

(3) The car reeked of perfume and sweat. It's less wordy, reeked is stronger and more evocative than smelled, and perfume and sweat complete the cadence, ending with the stronger word that calls back to 'reeked'.

Adele said...

I'd go with sentence #3 because reeked is a more evocative word than smelled. Also, you could identify sweat and perfume quickly, but I don't think a normal person would know right from the first sniff that it was Chanel #5 as opposed to any other of the hundreds of common perfumes.

I would deliberate changing sentence #3 to "The car reeked. Perfume and sweat." which lets you see the time lag that exists between the first unpleasant reaction to a strong smell, and the identification of it. Whether I made the change or not would depend on what the rest of the sentences were doing.

Barbara Etlin said...

4. The car reeked of Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat.

"reeked" is a more evocative verb than "smelled"
I like the specificity of naming the perfume.
"assaulted the nostrils" is too over-the-top, unless the voice is that of a hard-boiled detective or other tough character

Bonnie Shaljean said...

The car was stifling. Chanel No. 5 and sweat.

Rosemary Boyd said...

The car smelled of Chanel #5 and stale sweat! It brought back so many memories of rolling around in the back seat.

Amanda said...

I like sentence 2. Sentences 1 and 3 seem vague. Though, I get the gist of "reeked". I would add another sentence afterward: I felt like I could vomit.

Jenn Griffin said...

No amount of fancy perfume could mask the tang of sweat and fear that wafted from the car's cracked window.

Fearless Reider said...

#3 is my pick. The rhythm’s spot-on. As with everything else, though, context matters. I’d need to see the paragraph, the chapter, the novel... what a fun exercise!

S.E. said...

#3. #2 tries way too hard, #1 doesn't try hard enough.

#3 is the most concise and evocative.

Beth Carpenter said...

#2 I think, but it would depend on what else is going on.

Barbara said...

3. The car reeked of perfume and sweat.

It's succinct, simple, and straitforward.

Smells assaulting nostrils is cliche, and as old as the hills. And nostrils being assaulted has always seemed silly to me.

1 is a bit contradictory because 'smell' could be a pleasant snell, but then it's followed by sweat, which generally doesn't smell pleasant.

There's no mistaking what sentence 3 means.

Lucy Crowe said...

Stale sweat and Chanel Number Five flooded her nostrils, choking her.

Miles O'Neal said...

I've seen all of these used to great effect- depending on the story (style and character's voice).

Chanel #5 and stale sweat fought for dominance in her nostrils; the stench of her own vomit won.

Again, specific to a story.

Craig F said...

The car held the odor of eau du sweat, with an undertone of Chanel #5.

Cecy H said...

Without context it's difficult, but I liked 1 best. looking at the sentences in isolation I find 'assaulted' a bit overwritten (but again, it could be the perfect word in the right context). Also, naming Chanel No. 5 gives it a bit more punch because it's contrasting a classic Parisian perfume with a smell with much baser implications. Maybe change smelled to reeked?

Anyway, my quick take: The car window slid down, releasing a fug of stale sweat and... was that Chanel No. 5?

John Davis Frain said...

The car reeked. Chanel No. 5 with a base note of stale sweat.

Lennon Faris said...

After reading the phrase over and over, "assaulted her nostrils" is increasingly annoying. #3 isn't. So after reading through all these a few times, I'd re-edit mine to "The car reeked of Chanel and stale sweat."

I think the smell of fresh sweat is invigorating. It reminds me of working outdoors, like baling hay with my dad. Good connotation. Stale sweat is a dirty locker room. Disgusting!

Now I'm going to stop procrastinating and get back to my edits. Fun exercise though.

Elissa M said...

A miasma of stale sweat and Chanel No. 5 enveloped her as she scooched onto the Honda's vinyl seat.

Matt Adams said...

I like the first one, but you need to reverse the order. "Her seatbelt smelled of old sweat and Chanel No.5.

The perfume is the contrast that tells you something but it's not the primary sensation.

D.H. said...

Honestly, I see each of these working in different genres.

(1) The car smelled of Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat.
Thriller story, maybe from a detective's POV. This works fine. Maybe she'd have reason to identify the Chanel No. 5, and most people get what stale sweat smells like. Or it could be women's fiction and she's familiar with Chanel No. 5.

(2) The smell of Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat assaulted her nostrils.
Suspense. The moment is tense. The assault on her nostrils evokes danger around the corner.

(3) The car reeked of perfume and sweat.
Can fit most other types. It's simplistic, but gets the information out of the way so the story doesn't drag. Maybe this character has no reason to identify Chanel No. 5. Maybe they don't wear perfume but know what it's like to walk past the mall kiosk that reeks of it.

I feel like these may be copout answers, but I don't think any are wrong depending on genre and tone set.

If forced to choose, the third one is easiest to work into a paragraph, but the first evokes a stronger response. The second implies very specific circumstances.

Claire said...

(1), without a doubt. The verb is cleaner, the specificity of 'Chanel No. 5' tells us much more than the generic 'perfume' would, there are no tired cliches. (1) could open a novel; neither of the other two sentences could do that.

Kate Higgins said...

I don't like any of them:
1) smelled - too past tense
2) smell too much tell, not enough show
3) reeked - trite
And it would take a really educated nose to tell if it was any Channel, there are at least 20 of them with No. 5 being the best known.

My suggestion:

"Pine-shaped air did not greet her nose when she yanked open the car door; only a smog of expensive perfume mixed with cheap sweat confessing an old story with an unknown plot.

Uncompliant said...

Without reading the other comments: context and story matter. Each sentence is fine without revision depending on what comes before and after. #1 could fit a story, maybe, about buying a used car. "John slid behind the wheel of the 1998 Taurus while the salesman prattled on about price and good value. This is what John could afford. The car smelled of Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat. No "new car smell" for me, John thought to himself."

#2 could fit a story about a bad first date. #3 could be a police scene from a murder mystery.

Theresa said...

#1 for its odoriferousness.

LynnRodz said...

#2, but I'd leave out nostrils, it's redundant. The smell of Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat assaulted her.

theblondepi said...

#1. Because brevity.
Let the reader fill in the blank that the smell would be an assault.

Laura Stegman said...

Here's my, er, part:
The car reeked of perfume -- Chanel maybe? -- and sweat. Combined, their assault proved my undoing.

Craig F said...

Her right hand ran the slim jim, her left opened the door. A slide, a twist and the ignition switch was out. Her left hand connected the black and white wires, her right bumped the red until the starter caught.

She cranked on the air. Instead of cold, she got an overwhelming smell of stale sweat with hints of Chanel, maybe number 5.

Oh well, she had to get out of California. Two earthquakes in a week topped it off. Four uncredited parts in two years was just disgusting for Miss Ohio.

dave wolf said...

#3 it's the most immediate, and says all that needs saying.

Will MacPhail said...

The smell of Chanel No. 5 and stale sweat punched her in the face.

The Mysterious Pi said...

The interior smelled of perfume - Chanel No. 5, if he wasn't mistaken. But with the reek of stale sweat from the seats, it came off more like No. 2.


For serious:

"The car reeked of stale sweat and Chanel No. 5."

The perfume brand is a telling character detail (and possibly also plot-essential), so it should be kept. But, as a specific detail, it should go to the end of the sentence, where it will have the most impact. "Reeked" gives sufficient reaction.

Sunnygoetze said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sunnygoetze said...

I like #3 the car reeked of perfume and sweat. Unless there is reason to specify the name of the perfume, then #3 is short,sweet and to the point.

tcMoore said...

The sickening fracus of sweat and Chanel No. 5 assailed her nose, like a supermodel wrestling a pig.

c.d. monson said...

The car reeked of designer perfume and sex.

Casual-T said...

The only way to figure out which of these is "good" writing, is if the sentences were stories in and of themselves. As it stands, it would have to be a judgment based on personal preference. Not a particularly objective measure.

Context determines how much information NEEDS to be in a sentence (the generic "perfume" vs. the quite specific "Chanel No. 5," sweat vs. stale sweat). And voice, me thinks, is a question of writing style, and, therefore, a matter of taste. Which, arguably, can't be argued about.

Brevity for the point of brevity alone, is like saying: "Here's some salt and pepper. Now go cook!" That approach often produces something tasty, but sometimes you want to add that pinch of Bat's Blood, or half a dash of Dead Man's Hair, to make the recipe pop (and the spell work).