Contrary to what the experts say, writing isn’t easy for most of us. However, it’s a craft that can be developed with practice.
And at the heart of the craft of writing is one very basic ability…
The ability to write good sentences.
Master the art of sentence-writing and you can paint vivid word pictures that people will rush to read and share. Perfect the art of sentence structure and you’ll set your ideas free. Learn to write great sentences and you’ll conquer the worlds of blogging, marketing, and freelance writing.
The good news is you already know more than you think you do about how to write effective sentences. Some of it you’ll have learned at school, the rest through experience, but it’s all there. You just need to be reminded of it—to formalize some key concepts in your mind so that you can draw upon them at will.
Then you can go wild and crazy as a writer or blogger and let your ideas run riot.
How to Write a Sentence (aka Bite-Sized Morsels of Meaning)
Why is it so important to focus on writing good sentences? Because each one carries a lot of responsibility.
A sentence must simultaneously do two things:
- hold the reader’s interest in what it’s saying, and
- act as a tiny bridge to the next one.
Imagine your sentences as links in a chain. The stronger you can make each one, and the more tightly you can connect it to the ones on either side, the more powerful your writing will be.
But…what exactly is a sentence, anyway?
Traditionally, proper sentence structure contains a subject (the main person or thing being described) and a verb (the action being taken). Sometimes it also includes a direct object (the secondary person or thing that the action is happening to).
But for our purposes, we’re simply going to define a sentence as the smallest unit of reading that contains meaning.
That means “She stood at the bathroom mirror gazing thoughtfully at her reflection as she thought about how many years had passed since her senior prom” is a sentence…but so is “Uh-oh.”
In a nutshell, sentences act as cohesive bundles of words that make sense together, and that can be threaded together to tell an informational or entertaining story.
And that means focusing less on sentence fragments, independent clauses, comma splices, run-on sentences, etc. and focusing on context.
Because context is everything.
For instance, the rules of grammar will tell you that the words “oh, wonderful” can’t be a complete sentence. “That’s an incomplete sentence,” your English professor will say. “It’s not even a simple sentence. It doesn’t express a complete thought.”
But what about this piece of dialogue?
“Look, Melanie! We’re having octopus steak for dinner again!”
In context, you know exactly what those words mean—right down to the tone of voice in which they are being spoken.
So forget about the technical definition of what sentences are—focus instead on what they do. They relate short, coherent bursts of meaning.
Great. So now that we’re clear on that, how do you construct good ones?
6 Ways to Write Really Freakin’ Good Sentences
The best way to develop an ear for good sentences is to read good writing. A lot of it. Take the advice of one of the best writers of our times:
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” — Stephen King
There’s no substitute for immersing yourself in the good stuff and letting it sink into your consciousness until it becomes second nature. Ernest Hemingway. Margaret Atwood. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. John Irving. Virginia Woolf. Stanley Fish. Jane Austen. Mark Twain. The list goes on and on.
But in the meantime, how can you improve your sentence-writing skills, hook your readers’ attention almost against their will, and gain the devoted readership you crave?
You concentrate on writing crisply. Juicily. So that every word in a sentence has a good reason for being there.
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” — William Strunk Jr., The Elements of Style
Here are some great ways to make sure that every word you write earns its place:
1. Use words that pack an emotional punch
The best sentences do more than relay facts and figures—they wake you up and make you feel alive.
You want to offer that gift to your readers.
The way to do that, as Jon Morrow so skillfully explains in this post, is to channel the emotion you want your readers to feel through yourself first.
If you allow yourself to dive deeply into love, anger, fear, joy, or any other emotion, letting it crackle through you and out your fingertips as you write, it will jump like arc lightning from you to the page, then to your readers’ hearts and souls.
Here are some great sentences that do just that:
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” — Maya Angelou
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails.” — Mark Twain
“So burn it up, baby. Your ideas are counting on you.” — Jon Morrow
Another way to ensure that your sentences pack an emotional punch is to use power words that evoke specific feelings.
You don’t want to overuse this technique (in which every brilliantly scintillating piece of prose is breathtaking and full of joyous gusto!) or you’ll look ludicrous.
Instead, use it like a spice in those places where you really want to jazz up a sentence or two—definitely in your post’s headline, probably in your subheads, and certainly in those tweetable little nuggets that you’d like to see shared via social media.
And be sure to use more of them in anything you specifically want to incite strong emotion and/or action in your readers, such as a manifesto.
So let those feelings flow, sprinkle some power words with a judicious hand, and make your sentences sizzle!
2. Jolt sentences into life using the active voice
Most sentences are (and should be) written in the active voice, meaning that the subject is doing the action—to, with, or in some other type of relation to the direct object, when there is one. Here’s an example:
Rex ate the crispy bacon.
The passive voice twists things around so that the direct object is acted upon by the subject (and sometimes the subject is left out of the sentence entirely).
The crispy bacon was eaten by Rex.
The crispy bacon was eaten.
The passive voice isn’t technically incorrect—it’s just a weaker way to express a thought. The omission of the subject can also lead to confusion about who the real actor is…which is why the passive voice is so often used in law and politics. 🙂
Some unfortunate oversights occurred during the mission.
Who’s responsible for the oversights? We’re not told. (And someone avoids getting fired.)
Again, the passive voice isn’t necessarily wrong, and there may be times you choose to use it. Just do so very sparingly.
3. Stimulate the senses with concrete, colorful description
Just as you can transfer emotions to your readers by feeling them yourself first, you can turn each sentence into a vivid word picture for them by using specific and rich detail to describe what you see in your own mind’s eye.
Use all your senses to dive into what you’re thinking about before you write it down. Make your descriptions concrete and specific. Do this and your sentences will come alive.
So don’t just tell us you were excited to exhibit at a local art show—describe the growing flutter in your stomach as the date approached.
Don’t just say it was a lovely fall day—make us hear the crunching of the red-gold leaves under your feet and smell the woodsmoke from your neighbors’ fireplaces.
In short, make sure that your sentences evoke strong images.
Which of the following two sentences make you feel more like you’re at the event being described?
- “I saw some surprising new things at the electronic music convention.”
- “The most exciting surprise came on the second day of the electronic music convention, when I watched a button-sized device respond to colored lights with different musical notes.”
The second sentence isn’t better because it’s longer, but because it describes so much more specifically what occurred. It’s much easier for the reader to picture what happened.
4. Vary your rhythm to keep readers guessing
You can easily get caught in the trap of making most of your sentences similar in length. But the steady rhythm that uniformity produces will quickly lull your readers into a comatose state…just like the hum of car wheels against the freeway lulls many a passenger to sleep.
So shake it up. Use short sentences like the previous one to add a percussive bite to your writing, which will keep your audience on their toes. And use longer ones to explain things in more detail or add a flowing quality to your words.
You can—and should—even sprinkle some one-, two-, and three-word sentences here and there for emphasis.
Yep. That’s right. Try it out!
For a sense of what I’m talking about, check out this passage from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, where a very long (but wonderful!) sentence is bracketed by some much shorter ones:
The boys still listened and watched. Presently a revealing thought flashed through Tom’s mind, and he exclaimed:
“Boys, I know who’s drownded—it’s us!”
They felt like heroes in an instant. Here was a gorgeous triumph; they were missed; they were mourned; hearts were breaking on their account; tears were being shed; accusing memories of unkindness to these poor lost lads were rising up, and unavailing regrets and remorse were being indulged; and best of all, the departed were the talk of the whole town, and the envy of all the boys, as far as this dazzling notoriety was concerned. This was fine. It was worth while to be a pirate, after all.
Or for a brisker, snappier feeling, take a look at the opening of this Smart Blogger post:
Want to know the big problem with blogging?
Most people don’t know there’s a huge chance of failure, so they spend months or even years creating a blog that has zero chance of succeeding. Eventually, they give up and start over, but again, they invest months or even years into creating a second (or third or fourth) blog that doesn’t work.
It’s not because they’re dumb. And it’s not because they’re lazy.
It’s because they’re choosing the wrong blog topic.
Granted, if you’re starting a personal blog, the rules are different. Do you enjoy the topic? Is it fun? Those are the only two questions that should matter to you.
But if you’re looking to start a blog that will bring in traffic…
If you want to create a blog that will generate passive income…
You need to choose a viable blog topic that has a fighting chance to succeed.
See how, rather than simply plodding along, these sentences of differing lengths seem to dance?
5. Stick your sentences together like Krazy Glue
Far too many writers generate “stream of consciousness” writing…and simply leave it at that, without tweaking their content further.
Remember, though—good writing doesn’t mean simply plonking words down on the page or screen as they come out of your head. You need to connect your sentences to each other so that your readers keep going.
Each thought must lead naturally to the next. Each sentence must create desire for the next. Otherwise your readers will drift away.
Think about biting into a slice of pizza. The hot cheese stretches out as you pull the slice away from your mouth, and you have to nibble your way up the entire string to get to the rest of your pizza. 🙂
Another way to think about it is to imagine each sentence as a mini cliffhanger—you want to compel your readers to move on to the next sentence to find out what happens next!
You can do this in several ways. One is to work on your transitions (and, but, or, since, therefore, etc.) so that we see how your ideas are causally and logically related. (And incidentally, feel free to start sentences with conjunctions when you blog, no matter what your English teachers might have told you.)
You can definitely improve at sentence-writing. And the best way to do that is to practice.
Notice how you see the word “and” out of the corner of your eye as you’re finishing the first sentence? Suddenly you don’t have the closure that you thought you did, and you feel the urge to read on.
Another way to keep your readers moving from one sentence to the next is to create “open loops” by withholding enough information to make them keep reading:
Mary desired only one thing. She wanted to be taken seriously.
You can also ask questions, which naturally lead the reader to continue in search of the answers.
Why should you hire a tax professional? Because doing so can save you a lot of money.
Another tactic is to start a list, which also keeps the reader moving along from item to item.
Here are four great ways to keep your children busy on rainy days. First, save up old cereal boxes as you empty them…
Take a look at the following paragraph and see if you can identify which of the above techniques are being used and where.
Why should you hire a tax professional? There are three main reasons. The first is that he or she will be up-to-date on any new rules and regulations. The second is that hiring someone to do it all for you saves you precious time. But the last reason is by far the most important. You’re simply leaving money on the table at tax time if you don’t hire a pro.
Did you catch them all?
6. Ruthlessly eradicate any fluff or flab
Make sure that your sentences contain no unnecessary words.
It’s easy to include words that don’t contribute much because when you write a first draft, you’re usually transcribing your sentences straight from your brain as you would speak them out loud…and most conversation is replete with meaningless “filler” words.
First of all, be on the alert for redundancy. Instead of telling us that something is shorter in length, just tell us that it’s shorter.
Secondly, look out for modifiers—words that add to or alter the meaning of another word—that seem to amplify what you’re saying but don’t actually add much. You don’t need to say that something is very pretty—simply saying that it’s pretty does the trick. Even better, go back to point #3 above and be more concrete and precise. Maybe it’s attractive or eye-catching or stunning instead.
That’s not to say you can never use words like very, really, absolutely, etc…just save them for when you truly do need to add some emphasis. (Like I just did with “truly.”)
Watch for overly lengthy phrases that can be tightened up. Don’t tell us that the position of management is that we should start hiring again. Instead, tell us that management’s position is to start hiring again. Or even better, that management will start hiring again.
In short, look for ways to trim the fat from your sentences, leaving them as lean and expressive as possible…no, wait. Leaving them lean and expressive. 🙂
You Now Know How to Write a Sentence. Now It’s Time to Sentence Yourself to Success…
The world of a freelance writer is a harsh, unforgiving environment.
If your words don’t pack a hefty enough punch, they’ll fizzle out and die.
Knowing this, you’re committed to doing what it takes to become a better writer—even if that means returning to fundamentals and focusing on your sentences.
But don’t worry, you’re not starting from scratch.
You’ve been reading—and possibly writing—for many years, and you’ve already got a better head-start on this than you realize. Want to know how I know that?
Because this post made sense to you. You already grasp the ground rules of writing good sentences—you just need to practice thinking about them consciously.
You already know how to assemble sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into posts.
Learn to write great sentences and the effects will ripple through the rest of your writing.
Your paragraphs will become more powerful. Your posts will become, dare I say, more epic.
Now go out there, and practice creating those perfect blocks of meaning.
Then use them to build something truly extraordinary.