Writing tips: Sentence variety

WRITERS often fall into the habit of building all their sentences the same way: subject, verb, object; subject, verb, object, with independent clauses strung together with the conjunction and. This kind of repetition quickly becomes boring. Here are some ways to combine ideas in a sentence:


• Use a series to combine three or more similar ideas: The unexpected tornado struck the small town, causing much damage, numerous injuries, and several deaths.
• Use a relative pronoun (who, whose, that, which) to introduce the subordinate (less important) ideas: The tornado, which was completely unexpected, swept through the small town, causing much damage, numerous injuries, and several deaths.
• Use an introductory phrase or clause for the less important ideas: Because the tornado was completely unexpected, it caused a great deal of damage, numerous injuries, and several deaths.
• Use a participial phrase (a phrase that includes a verb ending with –ing or –ed) at the beginning or end of a sentence: The tornado swept through the small town without warning, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction.
• Use a semicolon (with a conjunctive adverb such as however when appropriate): The tornado swept through the small town without warning; as a result, it caused a great deal of damage, numerous injuries, and several deaths.
• Repeat a key word or phrase to emphasize an idea: The tornado left a permanent scar on the small town, a scar of destruction, injury, and death.
• Use an em-dash to set off a key word(s) or phrase at the beginning or end of the sentence: The tornado that unexpectedly struck the small town left behind a grim calling card—death and destruction.
• Use a correlative conjunction (either, or, not only, but also): The tornado not only inflicted much property damage, but also much human suffering.
• Use a colon to emphasize an important idea: The destruction caused by the tornado was unusually high for one reason: it came without warning.
• Use an appositive (a word or phrase that renames) to emphasize an idea: A single incident—a tornado that came without warning—changed the face of the small town forever.

In addition, get a book about composition. One good one is called The Art of Styling Sentences: 20 Patterns for Success (Third Edition) by Waddell, et al. Remember that prose has a rhythm just like poetry. Even small changes make a difference to the reader. Pick up any book, fiction or nonfiction, and read one page at random. You should find (emphasis on should) a page full of sentences written in a variety of ways. One of the best ways to find that rhythm, that pleasing flow of words, in your own writing and to make sure you’re not repeating the same sentence structure over and over is to read your manuscript out loud. When the words are vocalized, they sound different from what you hear in your head as you are writing.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com

 

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