I was looking over a grammar book I have - Pinckert's Practical Grammar* - and I came across these 7 tips for building a good sentence.
1. Keep sentences brief. "You should write the shortest possible sentences using the shortest possible words, in the shortest possible paragraphs, not because people are dimwits or because they're busy - they're not that dim or that busy - but because force comes from the elimination of the inessential."
2. Vary your sentence patterns. No one wants to read paragraph after paragraph of fifteen to twenty word sentences (the average written sentence). Mix it up.
3. Wake the reader up. "Use questions, exclamations, asides, commands, interruptions, and inversions." For example, instead of saying, To begin with, Marley was dead. Say, Marley was dead, to begin with.
4. Be brave and strong. Avoid the passive voice. Throw out the adjectives and adverbs. Make the nouns precise, the verbs forceful. Put statements in positive rather than negative form.
5. Combine sentences. This seems to contract #1 but by combining sentences often makes reading easier and smoother, especially when the sentences have a common subject. For example, when talking about the old library down the street: The library sits on the corner of Elm Street. It is an old stately building. The paint is peeling. Combined: The library on the corner of Elm Street is an old stately building in need of new paint.
6. Don't distract attention. "If you're writing seriously, avoid devices and expressions that call attention to themselves." In other words, be careful not to be too clever.
7. Don't like what you wrote. Don't love your words so much you can't bear to part with them. As writers we must be ruthless; as pretty as our words might be, sometimes they have to go.
#2 was one of the first I learned, thanks to one of my favorite teachers, Mr. Wallace. In fact, I think I still have some old stories marked in his red pen, advising me to vary my sentence structure.
What grammar books do you keep close?
* Pinckert, Robert C., Pinckert's Practical Grammar, Writer's Digest Books, 1986.