Sentences—if the plot is the backbone of a story, then sentences are the muscles and tendons keeping it glued together. Unfortunately, writing solid sentences isn’t easy for everyone. As Human beings, we don’t speak the same way we write. Unless you do a lot of writing, you may have trouble putting together even the simplest of sentences. The last time you took a good look at a sentence and broke it down into it’s individual parts was probably around 3rd grade. Don’t worry—I’m here to help.
There’s More Than One Type of Sentence
There are (roughly) four different types of sentences, and we’re going to get into each of the different types (with examples!).
Simple Sentences – This is a sentence in it’s truest form. A simple sentence is the statement of a single idea in a direct, clear way. Most simple sentences contain less than 20 words, but it is best if you keep your word count average below 12 WPS (words per sentence). Longer sentences are possible, but the longer the sentence is, the harder it is to follow. Example: My coffee cup is blue.
Complex Sentences – A complex sentence is a simple sentence with one or two dependent clauses added on to expand or clarify what is being said. The first half of the complex sentence is actually a simple sentence in disguise, where the second half of the sentence is the dependent clause. Complex sentences are still limited to a single idea. Be careful of these—it’s easy to go overboard and add in redundancies and needless explanations that will weaken your writing. Try not to exceed 20 words. Example: My coffee cup is blue, which is also my favorite color.
Compound Sentences – Compound sentences are sentences made out of more than one idea that could otherwise have been separate simple sentences. Try not to let compound sentences exceed 25 words. Example: My coffee cup is blue, and my desk is black.
Convoluted Sentences – Convoluted sentences are sentences that ramble on far longer than they need to. They often consist of several simple sentences connected with excessive explanation and asides. For the most part, you want to avoid these at all costs. Example: My coffee cup is blue, which is also my favorite color, and sits atop my desk, which is black, right next to an empty can of Ginger Ale, which I’ve been drinking all day because my allergies make me nauseous.
Parts of Speech are the Building Blocks of Sentences
As the section title says: Parts of speech are the building blocks of sentences. Every sentence we construct can be broken down into smaller bits and pieces that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. We’re going to take a look at the different parts of speech and how they fit together to form a complete sentence.
Adjectives – These are words that describe nouns and pronouns. They tell us things like color, height, weight, number, etc.
Adverbs – These describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. They tell us when, where, how, and to what extent.
Conjunctions – These are connector words that show how different things are related. Some conjunctions are: And, But, Yet, And, Because.
Interjections – These are words that show strong emotion such as Oh, Wow, Hey, etc.
Nouns – These are the names of people, places, or things.
Prepositions – These link nouns or the pronouns following them to other words in sentences. Example: To, By, Over, In, and From.
Pronouns – These are words used in place of a noun (or other pronoun) such as: I, You, We, They.
Verbs – These are words that represent actions or states of being. Some examples are: Jump, Run, Swim, Hire, Fly, To Be.
Now, I could go on for ages about how the different parts of speech are constructed into phrases—of which there are 8 different types. I could explain things like participles, appositives, and gerunds… but I’m not going to. You don’t want to spend the next week sitting here having simple sentence construction explained to you (Maybe I’ll get into that someday, but certainly not now). Instead, we’re going to move on to something more useful (and far less confusing). The main point I had in bringing up the parts of speech is this: You should know what these are. I’m going to mention them throughout this article, and I don’t want you to be confused. Use it as a cheat-sheet if you must.
Get To The Point
When you write, you want to get to the point of your sentence quickly. The longer you meander around the point of a sentence, the harder it becomes to understand that sentence. We call these meandering sentences wordy. Not all high word-count sentences are wordy, but all wordy sentences have a high word count. Sentences become wordy when they contain too much padding; this padding can consist of an abundance of adjectives and adverbs, but can also be convoluted. We want to avoid this. Let me give you a few examples:
When you write, you generally want to get to the point of your sentence as quickly as possible because the longer your sentence is, the harder it becomes to understand the meaning behind that sentence.
Obviously, this is a pretty convoluted and wordy sentence. Let’s trim it down:
When you write, you want to get to the point quickly. The longer your sentence is, the harder it is to understand.
The second set of sentences are much more concise, and easier to follow.
Wordy, or convoluted sentences make your writing weak and slow down the pace. Shorter, simple sentences not only increase the pace of your writing, but are more engaging. When writing a novel, concise, clear writing is always preferred over wordy, convoluted writing. Here are some things to look out for:
- Cut out the filler words. Words like: seem, generally, basically, simply, quite, kind of, really, very, etc. are junk words. They rarely add any meaning to your sentences, but do serve to slow the pace.
- Make sure your sentences get to the point in the most direct manner possible. You can always pad a sentence later if the sentence seems too abrupt and messes with the flow of your writing.
- Try to keep your sentences below 20 words long. Most sentences average 15 words in length. That doesn’t mean you can’t have longer sentences, but keep it in mind that the longer your sentence goes on, the harder it is to understand.
- Use proper punctuation (We’ll get to that in another article) to help separate sentences into single ideas, or to join two ideas together. Don’t link more than two ideas together. Ever.
- Keep 90% of your sentences Active and not Passive. (we’ll get into that below). Passive sentences have their place, but most of your sentences should be active.
- Don’t use fragments.
Let’s explore a little more.
You should know the difference between a complete sentence and a fragment, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t. Complete sentences should have: A Subject (Noun/Pronoun), a Predicate (Verb/Verb Phrase), and should express a complete thought. Example:
My coffee mug is blue.
I think cats are adorable.
A fragment, on the other hand, is an incomplete sentence (usually because a word has been left out):
Coffee mug is blue.
I think are adorable.
Go ahead and laugh, it seems absurd, but a lot of authors try to pass off these fragments off as real sentences. Don’t do it. Fragment sentences don’t make sense.
Vary Your Sentences
Your sentences shouldn’t all be one length. If they are, you writing will feel monotonous. Please don’t do it if you can avoid it. Please, I’m begging you. See what I did there?
Seriously though, You should vary your sentences not only in length, but also construction. It helps to keep the flow of your writing fluid and interesting, rather than monotonous and boring. This doesn’t take a whole lot of thought if you do this one thing: read your writing out loud. Let me explain:
As a writer, you’ve probably read over your own work a multitude of times. Not only that, but because you wrote it, your brain has built itself the ability to fill in the gaps in your writing. You can misspell things, forget punctuation, even forget words, and you may not notice it. Your brain will skim over these gaps as if they didn’t exist and move on—because it knows what you intended. Reading your writing out loud bypasses this built in knowledge of intent. As you read out loud, your brain has to route the information not only through your eyes to your brain, but then from your brain to your mouth. It makes it easier to find mistakes and I highly recommend that you read all of your writing out loud whenever you can. If you’re a brave person, read it out loud while someone’s in the room—hilarity may ensue, but your audience may be able to point out even more mistakes.
Keep in mind: Sentence length, whether short or long, can be used as a tool to change not only the pace of your writing, but can help draw attention to important points. Shorter sentences drive up the tension in a paragraph, whereas longer sentences tend to mellow things out.
Passive vs. Active
Let’s start with some examples:
- Slamming into every shoreline on Earth, the tsunami hit.
- Most of the current population had been wiped out by the survivors or by the larger packs of dogs as they scuffled over territories.
- I never knew when I’d be forced to hole up in the base for several days at a time, and it paid to be prepared.
These are passive sentences. Passive sentences follow a construction where the action is performed upon the subject.. Active sentences on the other hand, are the opposite. They follow a construction where the subject performs an action. Let’s make the above examples active.
- The tsunami slammed into every shoreline on Earth.
- Survivors and the larger packs of dogs scuffled over territory, and had wiped out most of the current population.
- It paid to be prepared, and I often holed up in the base for several days at a time.
See the difference? Not only are passive sentences harder to follow, but they’re usually longer. Most of the time, it’s better to keep your writing active. This doesn’t mean, however, that passive sentences should never be used. Sometimes sentences have to be passive. They may sound better as passive, or sometimes you may want to use passive voice to help avoid placing blame. As long as you keep in mind that you should try to stay active as much as you can, and use passive as a tool—not a default setting—you should be okay.
Expletive Constructions and How They Make Your Sentences Flabby
Expletive Constructions are:
- It is
- It was
- There is
- There are
- There were
…at the beginning of a sentence, before the subject. They are used to fill the hole left behind when an author tries to switch subject-verb word order. You don’t need them. Example:
- It was then that I noticed the little bird.
- I noticed the little bird.
- There were three children lined up in a row.
- Three children stood in a row.
A little re-wording can help clear things up with minimal effort, and your writing will be stronger for it. The only purpose an expletive construction serves is to delay the point of your sentence.
Say Exactly What You Mean, Not The Next Best Thing
Another thing you can do to make sure your sentences are strong, is to make sure you pick the best words possible to convey what you mean—not the next best thing. Here’s some examples:
- Green / Olive
- Went / Drove
- Walked / Paced
- Looked / Stared
Words have slightly (and sometimes vastly) different meanings—a flavor if you will. Try to avoid bland words (such as went, walked, looked) and find words more specific to your meaning.
Now, for a bit of fun… let’s put this all into context
I’m throwing myself under the bus—yet again—for the sake of a writing tutorial/advice article. Below is a paragraph or two out of the first draft of one of my novels. Take a look, and then we’ll shred it… because all first drafts suck, and we need to see some edits in action.
I grit my teeth and lifted a foot to take a step forward. The raw flesh of my feet stuck to the floor as I lifted it, and blood smeared along the stone as I walked with slow steps towards the far side of the room, no longer attempting to hide the pain. I slid my feet along the floor in an uneven gait, holding my breath with each step.
Sweat trickled down the back of my neck, and I winced as I sat gingerly on the short rock-wall that enclosed the pool. My eyes stung with unshed tears as I lifted my legs over the rock wall, sinking them into the cool pool of water. The water turned black around my feet in the moonlight – clouded with blood and mud. It was freezing cold, but I welcomed the numbness. With trembling fingers I began to wash the grime from my body.
Note the redundancies, stiff sentence structure, and the unneeded word additions. Let’s clean it up:
I grit my teeth as I stepped forward; raw flesh sucked at the hard stone, smearing blood in my wake. I shuffled with an uneven gait, and drew in a pained breath with each burning slide forward.
Sweat trickled down the back of my neck, and I winced as I lowered myself onto the short rock-wall that enclosed the pool. With my siblings out of sight, I no longer had to act brave. I’d held it together for the last two days, and here—at last—there was no one left to witness my pain.
With a whimper, I lifted my legs over the rock-wall, relieved to sink them into the cool waters. The pool turned black around my feet, clouded with blood and dirt. I welcomed the numbness of the freezing water, and with trembling fingers, I began to wash the grime from my body. This nightmare wouldn’t be over until I was clean.
I snipped a little here, reworded things there… moved things around, and even added new bits in. It ended up being a little longer overall, but take note of the change in tension.
Though there’s a lot more than just this to writing well, and my opinion is by far not the only (nor most knowledgeable) opinion out there… I hope this article served to help clue you in on a few ways you can improve your writing and construct strong, clean sentences.