In the first fiction workshop I ever took, our instructor said to us, “Do you know what the difference between a really good fiction writer and you is? They write better sentences.” I knew even then that there was more of a difference between those writers and us, but his words have always stuck with me, and ever since I’ve been obsessed with what exactly does make a sentence great or even good.
Learning to write better sentences certainly isn’t a matter of imitating one particular style. Who would want to put a spare Joan Didion sentence against a more opulent one from Donna Tartt? There’s room for a myriad of artistic fashions when it comes to styling sentences.
But not paying attention to the specific functions and effects of our words will result in weak writing. I’m going to jump right over the usual suggestions to scrutinize your adjectives, cut your adverbs, vary your sentence lengths, and offer some advice that will take your sentences beyond Writing 101.
1-Choose better words
Seems obvious, right? Well, it may be, but it’s certainly not easy. Sometimes the first word that comes to mind doesn’t end up being the best word. Ask yourself if your language is fresh, vivid, and precise. And rather than going for a fancy or unexpected word, see if you can use an expected word in an unexpected way.
Most of us are less likely to choose an incorrect word than we are to choose an inexact word. For instance, what’s the difference between poured, gushed, surged, and cascaded? It’s the small variations between words that present a challenge, and the distinctions matter. I recommend revising with a good writer’s thesaurus close by (I own a well-used copy of the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus).
“Use the right word, not its second cousin,” said Mark Twain. Now that’s a quote to pin above your desk.
2-Prune Your Prepositional Phrases
Prepositional phrases are useful, but they’re also overused. I’m so sensitive to this one that when I come across words like of, with, since, after, and to, my editorial radar flips on. Which doesn’t mean that I’m going to cut something. But every prepositional phrase needs to be questioned.
When you’re deciding what to cut and what to keep, ask yourself if you’d lose any clarity or meaning if the phrase was gone. If it’s needed, see if you can fold in the information more efficiently. A business owner from a small town could become a small-town business owner.
What if William Goldman had written, My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die [on this rocky cliff]. The prepositional phrase would not only be unnecessary (the setting should already have notified us of the cliff), it drains away some of the emphasis that should fall on the word “die”. Be aware that unnecessary prepositional phrases love to sneak in at the end of sentences. This brings me to…
Part of learning to write better sentences is understanding sentence structure. Words in a sentence should be arranged in a logical progression, in a natural order that moves from broad to specific, from less vivid to more vivid, from less important to most important. The first and last words of a sentence carry the most weight, and of those two spots, the last words are the most significant.
Writing teacher Stephen Wilbers calls this last spot in the sentence the “V.I.P Parking” spot—only the most important words can park there. Consider this simple sentence: My foot has a blister the size of Oklahoma, I’m hot, and I’m tired.
Can you see how the parts are in the wrong order? A blister the size of Oklahoma is the most specific element, the most impactful, and should go last. Reordered it reads, I’m hot, I’m tired, and my foot has a blister the size of Oklahoma.
4- Go for sequence over simultaneity
This problem comes up so often in my writing classes that I have to include it here. Writers often fall into the trap of starting a sentence with a present participle phrase. Let me give you an example and explain why this is problematic. Consider the following sentence: Slamming her drink down on the table, Erica left the restaurant.
That sentence implies that Erica slamming her drink down and her leaving the restaurant happened at the same time. It implies simultaneity when in fact those two actions are sequential—one thing happened and then the other. Better to write: Erica slammed her drink down on the table and left the restaurant.
Readers process one idea at a time, and any sentence that presents actions happening simultaneously, when those actions are actually happening in sequence, can confuse your reader. Even if they know what you mean, it will come off as sloppy writing. Search your manuscript for any “ing” words that come at the beginning of your sentences and make sure you’re using them properly.
5-Tighten the voice
When a reader begins a piece, the first thing they wonder (whether they realize it or not) is Who is speaking and why? They are quickly assessing style and tone and content. The “voice” you employ is what is going to give your reader not just information, but an experience. Once you press down on the voice gas pedal, you cannot let up.
Tightening the voice in your sentences involves applying every technique I’ve mentioned so far and then some. Whether the narrator is you (as in memoir) or whether you’re writing third-person fiction, you must have a clear conception of your story world and your narrator’s attitude toward it.
You must know whether your tone should be formal or informal. You must understand why a character would use one word rather than another. You will be able to inhabit the world of your story when you understand the deep truth of what you’re trying to convey. And then your language can reveal it, sentence by sentence.
Precision, clarity, and artful effects don’t happen by accident and they often don’t happen in the first draft. Many of your newest sentences are going to have things wrong with them. It’s good to know this so you don’t slow yourself down by trying to sculpt your sentences when you should be dumping onto the table that lump of first-draft clay.
Once you’ve got your draft, then go back and underline any words that don’t seem spot on. Bracket the parts of your sentences that might be serving as clutter rather than providing clarity. Scrutinize the ends of your sentences, knowing that the ending carries the most weight.
Learning to write better sentences is hard work and there’s no way around that. But it’s worth it. In the words of William Zinsser, in his classic book On Writing Well,—“Both you and the reader know it when your finicky labor is rewarded by a sentence coming out right.”
Original version published at DIY MFA. Reprinted with permission.