Writing for publication demands correct grammar and form. Not always, of course. If a character is speaking he may use terrible grammar. But if you do certain things incorrectly it shouts at the reader, “Wrong!” While the incorrect grammar is shouting at the reader he can’t hear the more important things you are trying to say.
But good writing goes beyond good grammar. Sometimes it comes down to style. A sentence may be grammatically correct but ineffective. Because style is not absolute, it is harder to define. Ideas about style may vary from editor to editor. English teachers may be totally unaware of certain aspects of style. But learning a good style of writing is not hopeless. In publication circles certain things are considered acceptable and good style. Others are not. This can be learned.
In this article I am going to talk about two aspects of writing good sentences. The first deals with correct English. Until you get this right an editor will not even consider your manuscript. The second deals with style.
Right and Wrong Sentence Division
Some of you will wonder why I even bother with this. Fine. If you don’t need this, just skip to the next part. I grew up in America with an American education. I’ve written for publication for 30 years. For almost all of my adult life I’ve lived in Taiwan and New Zealand. Last year I joined a writer’s critique group in New Zealand. It was the first time I had ever read much by Kiwis who were not published writers. I began to notice a persistent problem. For some reason many Kiwis don’t divide their sentences correctly. You might think this is a difference between Kiwi English and American English, but you never see this problem in published Kiwi pieces.
This doesn’t mean Kiwis aren’t good writers. I imagine the average Kiwi writes as well as the average American. But just as Americans commonly struggle with certain kinds of writing mistakes, for some reason this is a common Kiwi problem. The good news is: it can be corrected. Whether or not I can explain it well enough is another issue, but I will try.
Problem 1: Combining two separate sentences into one.
Some of my Kiwi friends often join two sentences that shouldn’t be joined.
Wrong: I always loved seeing wee girls and boys play together I could watch them for hours.
Right: I always loved seeing wee girls and boys play together. I could watch them for hours.
Wrong: It would take hours to figure out what to make for evening tea then I had to spend the time making it.
Right: It would take hours to figure out what to make for evening tea. Then I had to spend the time making it.
Wrong: “Quit doing that it drives me crazy.”
Right: “Quit doing that. It drives me crazy.”
Wrong: “I’ll do that for you you don’t have to.”
Right: “I’ll do that for you. You don’t have to.”
Wrong: Aidan was feeling better he began to smile.
Right: Aidan was feeling better. He began to smile.
If these examples seem obvious to you, you don’t have to worry about this problem. If not, this gives you something to work on. Dividing these sentences not only makes them better. It makes them right.
When I read a story with a lot of these incorrectly divided sentences, it shouts at me until I can’t hear what the story is trying to say. It won’t bother some people, but an editor wouldn’t even finish reading your story if he found several of this kind of mistake.
Problem 2: Incomplete sentences
Sometimes you can get away with incomplete sentences. Here are some incomplete sentences from this article: Not always, of course. Fine.
You may also notice that I begin some sentences with conjunctions like and, but, or, and however.
Both of these practices would have been considered unacceptable years ago. They would still not be accepted in formal writing. But today’s reader wants easier reading. Breaking up your sentences into shorter sentences makes it easier to read. As a result, certain kinds of incomplete sentences are now acceptable and you can start sentences with conjunctions. If you are going to do this, however, you need to be aware that you are doing it and be sure you are doing it in an acceptable way. When in doubt, go with the complete sentence.
Here are some examples of incomplete sentences that are never acceptable:
The children continually working to finish their projects.
A red Ferrari sitting in the parking lot looking like a million bucks.
She did the cutest things. Like running and skipping through the tulips.
(“She did the cutest things,” is a complete sentence but the second part is not.)
Why are these sentences incomplete? They have subjects and verbs.
Complete sentences have subjects and verbs and form a complete thought.
Examples of complete sentences:
The boy hit the girl.
I carried the plate to the kitchen.
Some sentences have understood subjects, but are still complete sentences.
Shut the door.
Bring me the cookies.
In both examples the subject is understood to be you. “You shut the door.” “You bring me the cookies.” They are still complete sentences.
Ing gets some people into trouble. The previous examples of incomplete sentences could easily be made into complete ones.
The children continually work to finish their projects.
A red Ferrari sits in the parking lot.
She does the cutest things—like running and skipping through the tulips.
Here’s another way to make the same sentences complete:
The children are continually working to finish their projects.
A red Ferrari is always sitting in the parking lot.
She does the cutest things. She loves to run and skip through the tulips.
I hope this begins to make sense to you. Reading your piece out loud may help you to see where to divide sentences. If you are still struggling with this your computer may help you by underlining incomplete sentences or sentences that need to be divided. You may have a friend who can help you with this.
If you struggle with this problem go ahead and write your pieces as you always have. Let the thoughts flow as you capture them on paper. Then go back and check your work for these problems.
Good Sentence Style
Style is less easily defined than grammar. It is not so much a matter of what is correct or incorrect, but what is effective. Today’s readers want easy reading that entertains them. They quickly lose patience with heavy, formal reading.
You can write the almost the same words in either a heavy, formal style or a light entertaining style.
One secret is in sentence and paragraph division. Shorter sentences are easier to read. Adding “white space” to the page by using more paragraphs makes writing look easier to read.
The Southern Scribes is an interesting critique group who meets in the Glengarry area of Invercargill fortnightly. We have very informal meetings in which we critique each others manuscripts, drink tea or coffee, eat biscuits, and discuss many different topics including what life was like in New Zealand long ago, how it has changed, and many other subjects. We probably have about 20 people in our group when you include everyone, but some people don’t come every time so it doesn’t seem like that many because we’ve never had more than 14. Archie likes to write poetry and Edna likes to write vignettes of her childhood years which Gaye likes because Gaye is about the same age as Edna and can identify with them. Simon and Claire are younger and help us all to think about issues that are important to Kiwis today and they have travelled quite a bit so they also make us think about the differences in various cultures around the world. And then there’s Deb who is writing this very long paragraph and making us read it just to show how boring long paragraphs can be.
The following example uses virtually the same content with almost the same words in a more readable example:
The Southern Scribes is an interesting critique group. We meet in the Glengarry area of Invercargill every fortnight.
Our meetings are very informal. We drink coffee and tea and eat biscuits while we critique each others’ manuscripts. We also discuss many different topics of interest to the group.
We often talk about what life was like in New Zealand long ago and how it has changed. Sometimes we talk about current issues.
Archie likes to write poetry. Edna likes to write vignettes of her childhood years. Gaye is about the same age as Edna so Gaye can identify with these childhood tales.
Simon and Claire are some of the younger group members. They bring up more current issues. Both of them have travelled quite a bit. They help us to think about the various differences in cultures around the world.
And then there’s Deb. She is writing this example with short sentences and short paragraphs. Do you think this example looks less academic than the previous example?
Usually text that has shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs looks easier to read and less formal than text with long sentences and paragraphs. If all of your sentences and paragraphs are very short it may sound choppy. You want some variety. But aim for shorter sentences. I try to keep all of my sentences 20 words or less.
Dialog is another way to break text up. Remember, the paragraph should change with every speaker so dialog usually adds “white space” to a page.
An occasional very short sentence or paragraph can be especially effective.
In all of this we haven’t discussed content at all. Simple changes in how we divide our sentences and paragraphs can make a great difference.
And you can do that.
When you want a good read, which do you reach for–a novel or the minutes of your last business meeting? Probably the novel. Minutes of a meeting are not meant to entertain, only to record information. Minutes are almost always indirect. They often use passive voice.
Suggestions were made (by who?) regarding finances.
In recent months I’ve thought a lot about why minutes from meetings use so much passive voice. Why are they so indirect? I think it’s because meetings deal with sensitive issues. When we have to say hard things to people we often tiptoe around the subject and come at it from the side.
Direct: “You were harsh and insensitive. You had no right to say that.”
Indirect: “Sometimes we mean well, but the things we say are not well received. Maybe the thing you are trying to say has merit, but if you said it another way if might be more effective. Perhaps you could try saying it this way and you would get better results.”
The indirect approach minimizes responsibility by making the subject of the sentence, the person responsible for the action, less clear. The thoughts are less definite and leave more room for disagreement. This approach is a diplomatic way of dealing with an awkward issue. But it makes for weak sentences. In most writing you want strong sentences.
This is probably my favorite quote all year:
We have not passed that subtle line between childhood and adulthood until we move from the passive voice to the active voice–that is, until we have stopped saying, “It got lost,” and say “I lost it.” (Sydney J. Harris)
Here are some examples of direct and indirect sentences. The great majority of the time you want to use the direct approach.
Indirect: The dress was sewn by her mother.
Direct: Her mother sewed the dress.
Indirect: The catastrophe was averted by a quick-thinking stranger.
Direct: A quick-thinking stranger averted the catastrophe.
Indirect: In the middle of the crowd stood a tiny girl.
Direct: A tiny girl stood in the middle of the crowd.
Indirect: More care should have been taken not to break the vase.
Direct: The boy should not have broken the vase.
Remember the being verbs? Is, are, was, were, am, be, been. Sometimes you have to use them, but they just exist. They don’t act. When you can replace a being verb with an active verb, you usually should. It becomes even better when you replace it with a specific active verb.
Weak: She was walking slowly down the road.
Better: She walked slowly down the road.
Better yet: She sauntered down the road.
If you asked me, in the above example, “What was she doing?” I would say, “She was walking.” That shows that she was in the process of walking. But if I have a choice between “she was walking” or “she walked,” unless is it unclear or awkward, choose the latter. It is shorter, simpler, and more direct.
For more on this and similar subjects see An Introduction to Christian Writing by Ethel Herr (Write Now Publications), “Lesson 2–Choosing Words that Sing” and “Lesson 3 Writing Effective Sentences.”