Nothing ruins a great piece of writing like weak words and poorly structured sentences.
We’ve all been there. You’re working through your first draft or perhaps making your way through revisions. The scene plays out in your mind like a movie. But when you try to put it into words, it just doesn’t flow right.
In literature, language is what makes a piece of writing tick. The plot and characters move through time and space on their own accord, but the words you use to tell their story give it rhythm and clarity. That’s why writing effective sentences is paramount for any writer.
Choosing the right words to describe what’s happening in a piece of writing can be challenging. A writer might spend an hour looking for a word that accurately captures the sentiment that he or she is trying to convey. Sentence structure is even more critical. A weak word is like a missed beat, but a weak sentence is discord. It confuses readers, pulls them out of the story, and breaks the flow of the narrative.
Imagining a scene and then putting it into words can be a smooth ride. Sometimes the words and sentences arrive fully formed and ready for press. Other times, the language is jumbled or flimsy. When dealing with word choice and sentence structure, it’s often best to simply go with the flow. Write what comes to mind, and then go back and clean it up during revisions. Some writers prefer to get the language as clear as possible during the first pass, and that’s okay too.
But just because a word doesn’t sound right or a sentence reads clumsily, that doesn’t mean it’s a throwaway. There are plenty of habits you can develop and techniques that you can apply to make your words resonate clearly and effectively.
Writing Effective Sentences
The practices and techniques listed below will help you write effective sentences. Some offer positive writing habits that you can develop and incorporate into your writing process; others are quick solutions that you can use when you’re writing or rewriting.
Build your vocabulary: Nothing makes a sentence sing like words that are precise and vivid. Expand your arsenal by building your vocabulary. Read a lot and look up words you don’t know. Peruse the dictionary. Sign up for a word-of-the-day newsletter. Keep a log of vocabulary words and spend a minute or two each day adding to it and studying your new words. One of the best ways to master language and vocabulary is through poetry exercises.
Avoid repetition: Nothing deflates a piece of writing like the same descriptive word unnecessarily used over and over. She had a pretty smile. She wore a pretty dress. She lived in a pretty house. This kind of repetition robs a story of its imagery, making it flat and two-dimensional.
Use a thesaurus: A thesaurus will help you avoid unnecessary repetition. Many writers avoid thesauri, thinking that reliance on one constitutes some writerly weakness. But your job is not to be a dictionary or a word bank; it’s knowing how to find the perfect words and then use them when writing effective sentences.
Read drafts aloud to check the rhythm and flow: Reading aloud is great for catching mistakes and typos, but it can also help you with flow and rhythm. Take it a step further and record yourself reading an excerpt aloud. Does it flow naturally? If you keep tripping over your own sentences, there may be a problem with rhythm. Try alternating sentence lengths, breaking long sentences into shorter sentences, and joining sentences together to fix the flow.
Pay attention to word choice: Why refer to something as a loud noise when you can call it a roar, a din, or a commotion? The more specific you are in your writing, the more easily the reader will be able to visualize whatever you’re communicating. Choose words that are as precise, accurate, and detailed as possible.
Simplify: Run-on sentences and short sentences strung together with commas and conjunctions create a lot of dust and noise in a piece of writing. In most cases, simple, straightforward language helps bring the action of a story to center stage. Use the simple subject-verb-object sentence structure to keep the text flowing and prevent readers from getting confused.
Avoid filler words: I’ve gone back to this article several times since I first read it and have already passed it along to several writers I work with. In short, don’t tell the reader what the character is thinking, wondering, or feeling unless it’s essential to the narrative. Let the story’s action take its course and move the story forward.
Brush up on grammar: Nothing will clean up your writing more than using good, old-fashioned grammar. Pick up a grammar or style guide (a good starter is The Elements of Style) and spend some time mastering the rules. Yes, rules are made to be broken, but make sure you have a good reason when you break the rules, and make sure doing so doesn’t impede the readability of your work.
Are you writing effective sentences, or is there room for improvement in your work? Do you have any suggestions to add? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing!