Friday, January 11, 2013

7 tips for great sentences

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.

39 comments:

  1. Working on all of that! I've gotten much better with shorter sentences.

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    1. I have to work hard at make my sentences short since I tend to write long ones.

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  2. I'm better at making my sentences shorter. Two short sentences are often better than one long one. Though sometimes, a long one can be interesting too.

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    1. variety is the key, which is why reading aloud helps.

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  3. I find #2 so important. Each paragraph must be its own unique build of screws, nails, corner pieces, and long 2x4s. (Not sure why I used building material for this analogy. lol)

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  4. and sometimes combine clauses and sentences with gerunds, adverbs etc, because people who have only short sentences tend to look like people who never read books :)

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    1. yes, I've read pieces like that and they're horrifically dull.

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  5. Amazing how far we have drifted. Today prof's some at the Iowa writers' workshops in particular, advocate very lengthy sentences, many of which to be should be paragraphs.

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  6. I have to make an effort to vary the sentence structure and length sometimes. Thanks for the great tips.

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  7. Well, that first one is hilarious. That's a very long sentence explaining how short a sentence should be. :)

    I mostly stick with Strunk and White, though I probably don't consult them as much as I should.

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    1. Ha! I didn't even notice until you pointed it out - and that was the author of the book!

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  8. Great advice! Cutting out the unnecessary can be difficult for a wordy writer. Yes, I am guilty :)

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  9. Thanks for tips Marcy.... Although I try to mix things up, I still LOVE my descriptive words. I

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  10. Great tips and reminders! I struggle the most with #1! :)

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    1. I tend to have the opposite problem.

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  11. I'll be focusing on this during the next sweep through of my ms. Thanks.

    OMG...I just saw my cover on the sidebar. Thanks!

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  12. Those are great tips! I was just working on using a variety of sentences with my students the other day :)

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    1. I bless the teacher who told me this. He was awesome!

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  13. I was told that I write my sentences in a sort of pattern. A couple simple and then a complex. A couple simple and then a complex. LOL. I never noticed until then. I try to mix it up even more now.

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    1. Interesting! I never thought to look for a pattern.

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  14. Oh, that familiar short sentences rule . . . I know it's something I need to work on. I love long sentences and hate cutting them up. :P

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    1. I'm guilty of long sentences, too.

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  15. I love all these suggestions. I agree with all of them except the inverted sentence suggestion - I think that often stops readers and hinders flow. I may do #7 too well. I don't like what I write; I change it; I still don't like it; I change it again; ad infinitum... *sigh*

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    1. I think some inverted sentences can work but it depends. And I know what you mean about #7. Sometimes we fuss with our work too much.

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  16. I reckon Faulkner never read that book, huh?

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    1. I reckon Faulkner can do what he likes ;)

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  17. Since I taught high school grammar for a number of years, I keep Harbrace's "College Handbook" near my computer.

    The grammatical bees that swirl in my bonnet include: alright for all right; your for you're; and 'there is' for a plural subject.

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    1. I'm guilty of alright and there is, too :)

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  18. Excellent advice. Have linked to it in this week's The Funnily Enough.

    regards,
    mood
    Moody Writing

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  19. This was a great post. It is interesting how the advice to writers rarely changes: just because you can be cleverly-wordy, and craft hundred-word sentences, it doesn't mean you should.

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