In this Dutchgirl’s Guide to Becoming a Better Writer, we’ve looked at many issues already. Today, we’re focusing on the very foundation of writing: sentences. Let’s start by defining what I mean by effective sentences:
An effective sentence has rhythm, communicates the message you want to get across and invites the reader to read further.
Three goals to achieve then, in order to make a sentence effective. How to go about this?
Four things matter:
- One key thought per sentence, also known as purpose driven writing.
- Rhythm. I’ve covered this in depth in a previous post as well.
- Grammar. Sorry. I know it’s boring, but correct grammar will help you craft effective sentences.
- Beauty. Let’s explore what that could look like.
Since I’ve talked about aspects 1 and 2 in previous posts, we’ll dive into the last two things you can do to write more effective sentences.
Correct Sentence Grammar
Correct grammar matters, there’s no beating around the bush. You don’t need to know every single thing about grammar and there’s no need to become too obsessed about it, but a slid grasp on sentence structure will help you.
Let’s look at a few common sentence problems:
Sentences that are too long
The longer a sentence, the bigger the change of you making a mistake in grammar. Plus—maybe even more important—the bigger the risk of readers losing their reading rhythm.
My rule of thumb is this: if a sentence needs more than two commas, split it up in two. The only exception is when you include ‘added information’ and put it between two commas, known as a parenthetical element. An example:
“The man, who was dressed in a black suit, ran towards the bus stop.”
Obviously this sentence doesn’t need to be split into two. The following is a different case, however:
“The man, who was dressed in a black suit, a suit that he got from his late wife’s parents as a wedding present and that he now wore daily in remembrance of her memory, ran towards the bus stop.”
I think we can all agree this could benefit from being made into two sentences, if we even want to include all those details in the first place.
Long sentences also often violate the rule of one key thought per sentence by the way. Check your writing to make sure you’re not trying to pack too much info in one sentence!
Sentences that derail/mixed construction
You start with one train of thought and end with something else entirely, either in content or in grammar structure. Sound familiar? This happens most often when you edit you work, as you change words but forget to change the structure of the sentence as well. An example:
“Because of the rise of mobile internet use is the reason web sites need to be mobile friendly.”
Technically, the Grammar Police will forbid you to use sentence fragments (sentences that miss a verb for instance, or a subject). Personally, I could not care less. I use fragments all the time, as they do wonders for your writing rhythm. Just make sure you use tem in the right places. An example (the second and third are fragments):
“I love writing blog posts. And articles. And books.”
The comma splice
Yeah, so this is one I keep having trouble with. A comma splice is when you connect two sentences with a comma, where there should actually be a period or a semi-colon. An example of a comma splice:
“I love writing blog posts, I could do it every single day.”
Technically, this is wrong. It may read correctly, but there should be either a period (which results in a kind of awkward construction by the way and definitely one than lacks rhythm) or a semi-colon.
“I love writing blog posts; I could do it every single day.”
This is my favorite, since it can lead to quite funny errors. A dangling modifier means the word you’re trying to ‘modify’ (elaborate on, give more details about) doesn’t appear in the sentence. A few examples, since this is a tricky one for some people:
“Having broken into dozens of homes, the police finally arrested the burglar.”
You know that it’s the burglar who did the breaking in, but according to this sentence, it was the police…
“ I saw an accident walking down the street.”
Try and explain that!
Ok, enough about grammar. Let’s move on to beauty.
It’s highly subjective of course, beauty. I’ve read works praised by others that left me cold and I’ve been inspired by writing denigrated as commercial pulp. Still, you can at least aspire to craft more beautiful sentences.
Much of what we’ve covered in this series will help get you there. Grammar, writing with purpose, strong verbs, tight writing, literary devices, they will all contribute to improved sentences. But I want to add two more things:
Reading and practice
You cannot learn to write well without reading the words of others. I’ve learned tons from various writers in all genres, both non-fiction and fiction and even poetry. Sometimes sentences hit you with their beauty. Read these examples from recent literature:
“Sometimes I can feel my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.”
—Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
“It does not do well to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.”
—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
That’s beauty. It invites you in, makes you think, it has a beautiful rhythm, and it definitely communicates a message.
My second advice is this: practice. I’m still growing as a writer; I don’t think I’ll ever stop actually. Experiment with different styles, approaches. Try something else entirely (I attempted some haikus the other day—it was fun!). Challenge yourself to become better at writing.
And as a bonus: consider having your work edited by a professional. I won a five page edit of a novel I was working on and the feedback was so valuable, that I hired this editor to go through my entire manuscript. She taught me tons with her comments.