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Ten tips to improve your sentences

  1. Start your sentences with an active agent. Try to mention the active agent (the person in the sentence) right at the start of it. I think it focuses the reader on the protagonist moving through the scene.
  2. Get your agent moving with some action. Try to follow the active agent with a word that makes them active. Don’t bury the action at the end of the sentence. This is what is known as ‘avoiding passive sentences’.
  3. Try to have one idea (or clause) per sentence. Yes, we want varied and engaging prose that naturally helps you express yourself as a writer. But it is indisputable that one clause per sentence makes for clarity in writing.
  4. Avoid ‘sticky sentences’. A ‘sticky sentence’ contains a number of words unnecessary to the meaning of your writing. The best way to tell is to read the sentence aloud, and honestly note how easy it is to read! Sticky sentences often arise from the overuse of common words in the English language, like ‘so’, ‘if’, ‘than’, ‘but’, or ‘about’.
  5. Avoid ‘run-on’ sentences. Contemplate the sentence- ‘My name is Jack and I work in a designer store, I have great fashion sense.’ On either side of the comma was a full sentence. As each part can stand on its own the sentence is a run-on and grammatically incorrect. You can consider replacing the comma with a colon or semicolon, by the way.
  6. Avoid adverbs (especially in action sequences). Adverbs (words ending in ‘ly’) make sentences feel a bit inaccurate. Think about it- if you write the line ‘the door closed slowly’ you have introduced uncertainty into the prose, when ideally we want the reader to be gripped in the moment. How slowly? As spectators to this scene are we expected to imagine the door closing slowly for an hour? Most published works have adverbs but tend to steer away from them in action, I’ve noticed.
  7. Make the reader feel like you are building the story. One easy tip to do this is to end a sentence with a word that begins the next one. For instance- ‘There was no way he was going back home. Home was where this all started.’
  8. Write sentences as consecutive statements. This will also help with point seven. ‘I went for a walk. I saw a lion.’ Notice how this sentence addresses also addresses points 1-7?
  9. Emphasise a nonessential phrase using em dashes. For instance- ‘I went to the shop and- no, I didn’t imagine it- she was there.’ I personally use these em dashes a lot and find them a good way to keep the readers attention!
  10. Don’t worry about the above nine too much. They are good to keep at the back of your mind, but when all is said and done we want writing to be expressive, creative, and to even have a host of other qualities- emotional power, insight, clarity. You may find it hard to get going if you are trying to remember all these rules! I am not going to be clichéd enough to end by saying ‘there are no rules’ because that would not be fair on your reader. But- I suggest- keep these rules at the back of your mind, and then do your thing!

Posted by author: Guy Mankowski
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