Monday, March 5, 2012

Tips for writing good sentences

You're worried I'm going to ask you to diagram your sentences, aren't you?

(Is that what it's called when you label the parts of your sentences?) I've always found grammar lessons somewhat boring, so instead of labeling all our nouns and conjunctions, we'll keep our focus on the sentence as a whole. (By the way, this is our second post about "pacing" in our novels. Friday we talked about description.)

So. How do you keep your sentence structure from getting too repetitive? For me, this is something that gets taken care of in the editing process. It's nothing worth panicking over in the first draft because it's just a lousy first draft, just the bones of my story, and who knows if this paragraph will make the cut anyway? So I wait until the second draft.

When I'm editing, I find it best to read my story out loud. If you can (without freaking out your family or waking up the sister you share a room with) I suggest you do the same. Not only are you more likely to catch repetitive words (oh, I've used "squelched" three times in 25 pages...), you'll pick up on sentences that are far too common in structure, like:

Exercising was something Ben had always liked. Ultimate Frisbee was what he had planned in college. Now running was a new obsession for him.

Another really common pattern is the character name/action pattern.

Ben ran along the trail, his gait confident. He paused along the bend by the creek. Ben checked his heart rate as he drank deeply from his water bottle.

Those are fine sentences by themselves, but strung together like that they don't work. Especially if you're going for a tight or "deep" POV where we feel like we're in the character's head. The way this is written now, it keeps the reader at a distance. Everything is on the surface. So one of the best ways to ensure varying sentence styles is to be sure you have a good balance of action and thought life:

Ben ran along the trail, his gait confident. Not long ago, it seemed to take forever to get to the bend in the trail, but now he was barely out of breath as he checked his heart rate.

When my sentence structure lapses into being boring, it's often because I'm telling the story instead of showing it.

It's also possible that your sentences are repetitive in structure, but that they're bogged down by unnecessary words. Adjectives and adverbs can make your prose sluggish. We're so desperate to show our reader what we're seeing that it's easy to throw in too many descriptors.
Ben ran briskly along the peaceful, wooded trail, his long gait confident.
I'm making you dig through a lot of description to find out what's going on. Readers don't like to dig through your sentences. Adjectives and adverbs aren't evil - they're just overused. So before you start cutting them, ask if they're necessary or if you can find a stronger noun or verb.

Can you change your "fancy party" into a "soiree"? Or, if you've written, "The wind blew hard across our backyard, knocking over our grill," you can instead make it, "The wind whipped across our backyard."

Or in the case of Ben on the trail, you don't need "briskly" because we've already said he's running. But if you really want to describe what kind of a trail he's on, give it its own sentence:
Ben ran along the trail, his gait confident. This had become his sanctuary from bustling life in the city. Here, where the sunlight filtered through the tall trees and birds called to one another, the stresses of family and work felt far away.
Another thing to check in your manuscript are sentences that begin with an "ing" word. Like:

Starting with an ing word can be a bad idea.

The above sentence works, but a lot of times whatever you associate with your ing word doesn't quite fit. Like:

Grabbing his water bottle off the kitchen table, Ben took off down the trail.

Wait ... does the trail start in his kitchen? You may think this is a silly and an obvious no-no, which is what I thought the first time I heard a writing teacher advise against starting with an ing word, but then as I perused my manuscripts, I realized I had done it quite often.

I know this isn't as fun of a conversation as worldbuilding or character quirks, but sentences are the nuts and bolts holding together all those creative ideas of yours.

Anybody have questions or additional tips to share?


  1. Well, my problem is "but." I tend to overuse it, so I've had to figure out other ways to convey my message. My goal is to use only a couple "buts" a page. Certainly not more than one a paragraph, unless there's a specific sound I want.

    1. "But" is a really common one, Becki. Especially sentences that start with "but" and don't need to.

    2. Well, I tend to use them to put two sentences together. So instead of, "But she had tried her hardest," I tend to write something more like, "He tried to console her, but it wasn't working." And then I have sentences like that over and over in the same paragraph.

  2. Ahem. Stephanie MAY have gotten that "squelched" example from the book I'm editing now before turning in to my editor, LOL.

    This is such a biggie! Sentence structure is what gives us our voice, our rhythm. Gets into cadence and the poetry of language, not to mention technical correctness of those -ing words. Great post, Stephanie. =)

    1. Aww, you noticed your shout out :) Squelched is just such a great, fun word. It's easy to want to overuse it. Mine is "quirked." Everybody's eyebrows are always quirking in my manuscripts.

    2. *laughs at all the squelching and quirking going on*

  3. I have the "-ing curse". :( I hate starting a line with "he did this and she did that while that guy danced a jig" sort of thing so I start with the -ings. Not every sentence, of course, but it is a tendency of mine.

  4. Sentence structure has to be the biggest thing I struggle with. I tend to tell instead of show. I had this one simple little part where one of my characters was on one side of the door and the other on the other side of the door. It felt so boring to me and walked up to the door and opened it and closed it like 10 times and thought more about what happened. (the hinges squeaked....)I wrote about that. I have done similar *experiments* many times when editing my story. My family thinks I weird, but I then again, I am.

  5. I actually didn't know starting with an -ing was bad. Oh goodness. I do that ALL the time.

    1. Don't panic, Micah! I did too. And it's not a "never do this" kind of thing, but a, "Use caution, and do it sparingly."

  6. I have a problem with transitions. I stopped using "but" so often and got in the habit of "however."

  7. I have a problem with transitions. I stopped using "but" so often and got in the habit of "however."

  8. Aloha! Okay, so my friend Jordi is so insanely talented at crocheting and I'm hosting a giveaway of a beanie she so generously donated and if you could check it out or like her Facebook page it would be so very-ily greatly appreciated. They're really very cool, these beanies. And she's raising money for a missions trip.
    Thankyou. A lot.

    Ooh, I so want to go and read my story out loud. That sounds really fun. :D

  9. These are some great tips, thank you so much! I'm starting draft two of my manuscript, which for me means fixing a lot of plot stuff as well as improving my writing style. I think your blog is going to be a big help! :D