Words are the building blocks of language and the means by which humans express their thoughts and feelings. Expressing thoughts and feelings is what writers do. We search for the perfect word, and we try to be precise. Why say, “She was really, really happy” when you could say “She was thrilled?” Why settle for “It was cold and raining hard,” when you could create atmosphere by writing “The rain fell in icy torrents?”
Fortunately, English speakers have lots of words to choose from: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, interjections. We also have foreign words we’ve adopted and sounds like aargh or eek. How many actual words are there in the English language? More than a million is the best guess. An embarrassment of riches.
Words all by themselves conjure up images and emotions. Words such as jubilant, agonize, ghoulish, and gloom create atmosphere and tone. But to move a book along, those words must be strung together into sentences that mean something. Does it matter how we string those words together? Yes, it does.
MY TOP FIVE TIPS FOR CRAFTING BETTER SENTENCES
TIP #1: Smooth Out the Speed Bumps
Think of reading like driving a car. You can get where you’re going in a shorter time and with greater pleasure if the road is smooth. Bumps and potholes slow things down and create frustration. The same is true of reading. One of our goals as writers should be to smooth out our sentences so readers keep turning the pages. Here’s an example (disguised to protect the guilty):
- Annie and Beth followed the tall man, their former track coach, down the road and past some shops and then they crossed over the street at some traffic lights where the cars stopped obediently for them to cross at their leisure though Beth quickly strode across with long steps. Annie remembered how her friend had always won the 100 meter sprint at school, over 30 years ago. She wondered whether she too had happy memories of their days at school. For Annie, they had truly been some of the best days of her life. She could have gone to the reunion a few months ago but he had decided not to in the end because she was going on holiday with her sister and her kids, her niece and nephew, who were aged two and three years.
How could we smooth that out?
- Annie and Beth followed their former track coach, a tall man, down the road and past several shops. Cars stopped at the traffic light to let them cross. Beth, who’d won the 100-meter sprint thirty years ago, strode ahead. Did Beth have happy memories of their school days, Annie wondered? For her, they’d been some of the best days of her life. She’d wanted to attend the high school reunion a few months ago but had chosen instead to spend a week at the beach with her sister’s family. After all, her niece and nephew, ages two and three, wouldn’t be toddlers for long.
There’s always an exception to the rule, of course, and that exception is dialogue. You may want to give a certain character bumpy, less grammatical speech patterns to reveal his or her background and personality. Another character may speak so elliptically that others will constantly misunderstand him. A little of this goes a long way. In general, smoothing out your sentences will keep your readers turning pages.
TIP #2: Use Punctuation as an Invisible Guide for Readers
Some writers think of punctuation as rules just waiting to be broken. In reality, punctuation exists as an invisible guide to comprehension. By “invisible,” I mean that readers don’t notice punctuation until it becomes a problem. Commas, for example, have two basic purposes:
The first purpose is to separate words in a way that clarifies meaning. We’ve all read the classic punctuation jokes:
- I’d like to thank my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa.
- Let’s eat Grandma.
Commas save lives. Seriously, using commas properly eliminates confusion.
The second purpose of a comma is to tell readers when to pause. A sentence consists of words that form a complete thought. There are four ways to indicate a pause in a sentence.
- A comma signals a brief pause: “Carol drove the car, and Susan sat in the back seat.”
- An em dash indicates a slightly longer pause: “He’ll be fine. He always is—in his own house.”
- A semi-colon (currently unpopular) signals a longer, more significant pause: “Bears hibernate in winter; squirrels ride it out in their nests.”
- A period is a full stop. Full stop.
What you don’t want to do is signal a pause when you don’t mean it. Here’s an example:
- “She, and seven other people, including her husband’s entire family, went camping in northern Wisconsin.” Why the comma after “she?” You want the reader to read it as a complete phrase: “She and seven other people….”
That’s why the rules exist—to aid comprehension. Punctuation is the writer’s invisible friend.
TIP #3: Remember the Sentence Power Positions
The beginning and the ending of a sentence are often called the power positions. The beginning of a sentence introduces the topic the sentence will cover, gives the reader an idea of where the sentence is going, and helps the reader make a connection to something she already knows. The end of a sentence is the place of greatest emphasis and impact. Here’s an example:
- Charity finally won after buying over a hundred lottery tickets at the store.
- Charity bought over a hundred tickets before finally winning the lottery.
In the first example, the stress is on the store. The store isn’t the most important detail in the sentence, is it? In fact, it may not even be necessary. The most important detail is the fact that Charity finally won the lottery. Put that at the end of the sentence, in the power position.
You can also use this tip in the opposite way—to hide the most important thought. Readers tend to remember the first and the last items in a list. But maybe there’s something you don’t want your reader to remember. For example, your amateur sleuth might view the scene of a crime, noticing a number of details. Hiding the real clue in the middle of a list of red herrings is a good way to play fair with the reader while temporarily throwing him off the scent.
TIP #4: Vary Your Sentence Structure
When children first begin writing stories, they tend to begin every sentence with the subject, and they connect the sentences with the words “then” and “so.” My older son, Dave, wrote a three-page story in fourth grade that consisted of one very. very long sentence: “Eric went there, and then he did this, and then he did that, and then this happened to him, so he had to do this, and then….”
Even seasoned writers can fall into repeated patterns. Here’s an example of a paragraph in which every sentence has the same basic structure.
- At the front door, Paul took off his muddy boots and carried them inside. In his stocking feet, he padded across the pine floor and set his boots on the stone hearth to dry. Next to the hearth was a rack filled with logs and a box of fire starters. Across the room was a tattered sofa, flanked by two armchairs covered in faded chintz. Along the wall beside the door was a galley-style kitchen with mismatched cabinets, a compact refrigerator, and a two-burner hot plate. Laying on the floor was a jacket Eric had never seen before. Picking it up, Eric noticed that it was damp.
Beginning every sentence the same way is boring. Varying your sentence structure, style, and length creates rhythm and life. Longer, more complex sentences slow the pace of the narrative and provide context and depth. Short, punchy sentences quicken the pace and often highlight essential information. Both are needed.
The exception is anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a sentence for a specific effect. The most famous example is probably Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. One of my favorite examples of anaphora comes from Shipping Out, the non-fiction travelogue by David Foster Wallace. Anyone who’s ever taken a cruise can identify:
- I have now seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue. I have seen an all-red leisure suit with flared lapels. I have smelled suntan lotion spread over 2,100 pounds of hot flesh. I have been addressed as ‘Mon’ in three different nations. I have seen 500 upscale Americans dance Electric Slide. I have seen sunsets that looked computer-enhanced. I have (very briefly) joined a conga line.
If you do pile up sentences with the same basic structure and length, make sure you have a good reason to do it.
TIP #5: Pay Attention to Pronoun Attribution
A good rule of thumb is to remember that in the mind of the reader, a personal pronoun (he, she, they) generally refers to the last-named character. You, the writer, may know that “she” refers to your protagonist, but the reader may be confused. Using demonstrative pronouns, such as ‘it’ or ‘those,’ without a clear antecedent can also cause confusion. Unfortunately, this is easy to do because the writer knows what he or she is talking about. Here are some simple examples:
- “After putting the spare tire in the car, Adam sold it.”
Did Adam sell the tire or the car?
- “Susan spoke often about Aunt Midge. She loved to tell stories about the old days.”
Who loved to tell stories—Susan or Aunt Midge?
- “The candy dish was empty, but we were tired of eating it anyway.”
Are we talking about an edible candy dish?
The more times a reader must stop and reread a sentence or paragraph, the greater the chances he or she will put down the book and walk away. You don’t want that.
WRITING IS BOTH AN ART AND A CRAFT
These five tips for crafting better sentences are just that—craft. We may not all be literary geniuses like Shakespeare, Austen, or Hemingway, but we can all improve our craft.
One of my favorite literary quotes comes from Pride & Prejudice. While visiting the newlyweds, Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins, Elizabeth Bennet is taken to Rosings Park to meet Lady Catherine de Bourge. When the subject of piano playing comes up, Lady Catherine says, “If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.”
The craft of writing must be learnt. Improving your craft requires time and practice.
What simple writing tip has made you a better writer?