How to Write Good Sentences

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

Learn how to hold your reader’s attention for a long time.

Content is everywhere. An infinite amount of text on screens and pages fight for our attention. That’s why good sentences are more important now than ever. A good sentence is the reason a reader will give their attention to one piece of writing over another. Once the reader’s attention has been harnessed, the good sentence then becomes the lubricant that moves them along to the next good sentence, then on to the next, until the reader reaches the story’s satisfactory conclusion.

I’ve been writing professionally for more than two decades and have had thousands of articles published, but every new assignment continues to present me with the same challenge — how to deliver ideas (sometimes incredibly boring ideas, sometimes flimsy, legless ideas, and sometimes a dense and messy jumble of facts hoping to become ideas) to intelligent readers in the most captivating way possible.

The keywords here are “intelligent” and “captivating.” Intelligent readers are shrewd, critical thinkers. They don’t suffer fools gladly. They’re judgy and demand a higher level of originality and value from the content they consume. When I write for such a reader, I risk losing them at every turn. My goal as a writer, therefore, is to take these sagacious and hard-to-please readers hostage with each sentence and compel them to surrender their attention to me for as long as it takes to peruse my article. No small feat!

Over the course of my career, I’ve written print and digital advertisements, website copy, biographies, short fiction, poetry, long-form news features, opinion pieces, press releases, market analysis reports, case studies, scripts, and copy for packaging labels. Each type of writing calls for a different presentation style and tone of voice, but all of them demand good sentences.


Language 101: What Is a Sentence?

A sentence is a set of words expressing a statement, a question, or an order, usually containing a subject and a verb. Sentences say something by delivering a clear mental picture. They are the building blocks of language, the foundation of effective communication. “The cat (subject) sits (verb)”, “Do cats (subject) eat (verb)?” or “Feed (verb) this cat (subject)” give us just enough information to conjure a simple image in our mind’s eye. Sentences, therefore, are the linguistic equivalent of an artist’s paint set. They are the colors used to engage the reader’s inner sight.

But more than that, sentences are also psychological tools used to elicit the reader’s emotions, sense of reasoning, beliefs, doubts, desires, fears, and prejudices. Viewed this way, a sentence is a force that acts against the resting human psyche. Originating from the Latin word “sentire,” which means “to feel,” “a sentence,” says Joe Moran, author, andprofessor of English and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University, “must be felt by the reader… a sentence is much more than its literal meaning. It is a living line of words where logic and lyric meet — a piece of both sense and sound, albeit the sound is only heard in the reader’s head.”

Indeed there is life and power in good sentences. But is there a formula for crafting them?


Anatomy of a Good Sentence

Like any creative endeavor, which writing certainly is, there are no fixed rules for getting it right. However, good sentences share a few key features.

A good sentence:

Gets to the point and is relatable

good sentence should be easy to read and should foster a sense of intimacy and simpatico between writer and reader. When reading a good sentence, the reader should immediately understand what is going on. Even with zero context, they should, from this single sentence, be able to recognize what is happening in your narrator or character’s environment or interior world.

Here are four examples of sentences that get to the point and are relatable:

We returned by an exposed and hilly road, where the bitter winter wind, blowing over a range of snowy summits to the north, almost flayed the skin from our faces. — From the novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Loneliness dropped on her with the speed of a black column. — From short story collection The Boat by Nam Le

You get pious about what you believe in, and soon you become a grotesque embodiment of that belief. — From non-fiction book The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter

[Brad] Pitt himself fed the slavering by posing for outlets that eagerly indulged their soft-core reveries, like his 1994 “Rolling Stones” cover for “Interview With the Vampire,” where he stares at the camera like a Fabio-ed Kurt Cobain. — From “Brad Pitt and the Beauty Trap” by Manohla Dargis for The New York Times

All four sentences either engage the reader’s senses and/or create an atmosphere, feeling, attitude or way of being that the reader can identify with. Like Hemmingway’s famous six-word tale: For sale: baby shoes, never worn, each of these sentences are mini-stories in their own right because they provide the reader with just the right combination of visual cues — nothing more, nothing less — so the reader can assemble an image with elements pulled out from their own memory banks.

Begins and ends strong

The first and last words of a good sentence should address the sentence’s main idea. If the reader doesn’t have time for a leisurely read and can only scan the text, the words at the beginning and end should convey the essence of what the sentence is about.

We returned by an exposed and hilly road, where the bitter winter wind, blowing over a range of snowy summits to the north, almost flayed the skin from our faces.

“We returned” lets the reader know they are on a journey. “Almost flayed the skin from our faces” lets the reader know there is something difficult and uncomfortable about this journey.

Loneliness dropped on her with the speed of a black column.

“Loneliness” tells the reader the feeling that this sentence will be describing.“Black column” leaves them with the sense of something dark and heavy, and a mood has been set.

You get pious about what you believe in, and soon you become a grotesque embodiment of that belief.

“You get pious” makes the reader uncomfortably aware of their own feelings of piousness or self-righteousness, so they quickly grasp the idea or argument being put forth to them. They also sense they are being challenged or admonished, and this is confirmed when the writer then refers to them as “grotesque embodiments of their beliefs.”

[Brad] Pitt himself fed the slavering by posing for outlets that eagerly indulged their soft-core reveries, like his 1994 “Rolling Stones” cover for “Interview With the Vampire,” where he stares at the camera like a Fabio-ed Kurt Cobain.

“Pitt himself fed” sets the actor up as the one in control, the subject in the position of power. The closing noun — “a Fabio-ed Kurt Cobain” speaks directly to readers who know their pop culture. When these in-the-know readers combine the image of a very alpha Brad Pitt with the image of those two other male celebrities, the result is an in-your-face visual of Brad as seen on the magazine cover in 1994.

Has hardworking adjectives and/or adverbs

Besides sentence fundamentals — subject and verb — there are adjectives and adverbs, better known as the “describing words.” An adjective describes the subject: “The boy (subject) is loud (adjective). An adverb describes a verb: “The boy speaks (verb) loudly (adverb).”

Thoughtful chosen adjectives and adverbs can work extra hard to enliven, enhance, or alter the subject or verb, and/or provide subtext. In the sentence “His smile was sugary,” the verb is “smile”. The adverb “sugary” tells the reader not only something about the type of smile we are looking at but about the type of man who displays it.

The same four sentences have hardworking adjectives and adverbs:

We returned by an exposed and hilly road, where the bitter winter wind, blowing over a range of snowy summits to the north, almost flayed the skin from our faces.

The adjectives “exposed” and “bitter” and adverbs “hilly” and “snowy” make clear an atmosphere of ruggedness and stops the reader from possibly imagining a well-paved road in the middle of green flatland on a warm day.

Loneliness dropped on her with the speed of a black column.

Here “with the speed of” is used idiomatically so its effect is that of the adverb “speedily”. When this phrase is tied onto a “black column”, the impression created is a thought-provoking contradiction of something dark, dense, and solid moving swiftly.

You get pious about what you believe in, and soon you become a grotesqueembodiment of that belief.

The adverb “soon” added to the subject “you” and the verb “become” makes the reader feel a sense of impending personal transformation.

[Brad] Pitt himself fed the slavering by posing for outlets that eagerly indulged their soft-core reveries, like his 1994 “Rolling Stones” cover for “Interview With the Vampire,” where he stares at the camera like a Fabio-ed Kurt Cobain.

The adverb “eagerly” in relation to the verb “slavering” hints at a master and dog relationship between a sex-symbol and his fans.

Is original

A “hack” is a term used to describe a mediocre writer because hacks love using hackneyed words and phrases in their writing. Return to the third paragraph of this article, and you’ll see two instances where I played the hack by using “they don’t suffer fools gladly” and “no small feat.” I succumbed to these two clichés because they captured the sentiments I wanted to relay. But if I had been willing to spend more time thinking about better ways to express myself, I might have written “they are vigilant in avoiding worthless or dull literature” rather than the former, and “a challenging task, no doubt!” rather than the latter. A sentence is original when it presents a known concept in a new way or when it reveals a unique voice that shows the writer or character’s personality and invites the reader to come a little closer.

Our four sentences are original for the following reasons:

We returned by an exposed and hilly road, where the bitter winter wind, blowing over a range of snowy summits to the north, almost flayed the skin from our faces.

“Hilly roads” aren’t uncommon, but an “exposed” hilly road makes the reader think of a road that is not only hilly but also naked, undressed, so now the road is personified. Eyre then writes about “bitter winds” that “almost flay skin of faces.” Anyone who has walked outdoors in harsh winter winds has felt that burning sensation on their cheeks, ears, and noses. But the idea that this familiar sensation might have the power to actually remove the skin from faces is horrifying and hence ingenious.

Loneliness dropped on her with the speed of a black column.

Loneliness as the subject is static, but when paired with “dropped,” it comes to life and moves downward with the force of gravity. Likewise, when readers think of black columns, they usually see something stationary and immobile, yet the unusual choice of “with the speed” animates this black column to evoke a menacing feeling of despair.

You get pious about what you believe in, and soon you become a grotesqueembodiment of that belief.

Here Baxter does the opposite of what Nam Le did with the sentence before. Rather than add life, Baxter removes life from the subject “you.” He could have written “soon you embody (a verb that denotes action and that would give the subject — you — agency) that belief”, but instead he stretches his idea to the extreme, so the reader no longer has volition in embodying his or her belief, but, robbed of their free will, becomes “an embodiment” — a lifeless object-subject — that belongs to their belief, which now has more life than them. Baxter is saying that when you “get pious” you become a puppet controlled by your beliefs. By sedating a verb, he inventively highlights the way piety and dogmatic faith can take the life out of the living.

[Brad] Pitt himself fed the slavering by posing for outlets that eagerly indulged their soft-core reveries, like his 1994 “Rolling Stones” cover for “Interview With the Vampire,” where he stares at the camera like a Fabio-ed Kurt Cobain.

This sentence is fresh and unconventional because it doesn’t try to please a universal audience but instead speaks to a very specific group of readers — those with an interest in or affinity for ‘90s American pop culture.

Is grammatically sound

Good grammar isn’t a matter of aesthetics. It’s essential for effective communication. “A cat-fat seating in mat” doesn’t work because it’s confusing and delivers an image that is incongruent with what readers know of cats and mats. Most readers have never seen a seat inside a mat. And what does cat-fat even look like, greasy one might assume, perhaps like lard? But can cat-fat be a singular countable thing? Shouldn’t fat be uncountable, like oil or water or sand? The reader is boggled wondering about all of this. They are stuck and cannot relax and enjoy what you’ve written. They do, on the other hand, know what “a fat cat sitting on the mat” looks like, so if you had just given them that, they would already be on to your next sentence.


Sentence Lengths

Writers often debate the merits of long versus short sentences, but both are valuable for different reasons. Sentence lengths determine the pace of a piece of writing — how quickly or slowly it moves — so like a concerto, a good piece of writing should have sentences of varying lengths.

The short sentence

Like a camera’s close up, the short sentence zooms in on the single image that you want to direct your reader’s attention towards. It creates tension by removing distracting details in order to amplify the impact of the action or add punch to a scene.

Every sound in the dark was rat-made. From short story collection The Boat by Nam Le

Heightens the reader’s sense of sound and makes it known to them that they are in an unpleasant, dirty, and possibly frightening situation.

I withdrew the bolt and opened the door with a trembling hand. — From the novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The idea is singular: a person is confronting someone or something they fear.

Mrs. Bixby was a big vigorous woman with a wet mouth. — From Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl

The shots of strong words “big”, “vigorous”, and “wet” calls Mrs. Bixby out as a woman of wanton character.

To write a good short sentence, you need to have a clear idea of what you want to communicate then whittle away everything that clouds that vision.

The long sentence

Many modern literary critics have lambasted classical literature for its lengthy, complex, and sometimes exhausting sentences. This is a shame because a properly constructed long sentence is a wonderful tool for revealing the psychology of characters, as well as complex movements within a scene.

In Jane Eyre, Bronte uses long sentences such as the one below for psychological profiling:

She was very showy, but she was not genuine: she had a fine person, many brilliant attainments; but her mind was poor, her heart barren by nature: nothing bloomed spontaneously on that soil; no unforced natural fruit delighted by its freshness.

She also uses the long sentence to reveal orientation and physical movements within a scene, as in this example:

The head of my bed was near the door, and I thought at first the goblin-laughter stood at my bedside — or rather, crouched by my pillow: but I rose, looked around, and could see nothing.

The long sentence is also good for creating moods, awakening one or more of the reader’s five senses, and influencing their emotions.

Here an example of a long sentence that creates a mood and arouses the senses:

Potted music of water running through pipes, slapping against the earth, puddles strafed by heavy raindrops until in his mind they became battlefields, trenched and muddy. — From The Boat by Nam Le

Here is a sentence that invokes a strong emotional response:

Without really impinging on his solitude, the window made an inroad into the darkness of the books and mitigated that other darkness which often creates phantoms in the hearts of men who have never quite learned to live alone. — From the short story collection Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga

When crafting a long sentence, writers face the problem of the run-on, which occurs when two or more sentences are improperly merged into a single sentence. Example: I love writing (sentence 1) I would write every day if I had the time (sentence 2) I also like reading other people’s writing (sentence 3). The three conjoined sentences ought to have been punctuated with full stops.

To write a good long sentence, you must tune in to the rhythm of words. It helps to speak the words out loud to know whether or not each phrase can stand as a separate sentence (in which case you should un-join them) or if the phrases work better strung together with commas, conjunctions, colons, semi-colons or dashes.

If you look at Nam Le and Atxagas’ long sentences in the format of the poem, you’ll see the rhythmic structure behind what makes them good.

Potted music of water

running through pipes,

slapping against the earth,

puddles strafed by heavy raindrops

until in his mind

they became battlefields,

trenched and muddy


Without really impinging on his solitude,

the window made an inroad

into the darkness of the books

and mitigated that other darkness

which often creates phantoms

in the hearts of men

who have never quite learned

to live alone.


How to Improve Your Sentences

Now that you’ve examined the anatomy of the good sentence, here are some habits that can help you to write more of them.

Increase and diversify your reading

Structure, style and vocabulary choices differ depending on what you read, but almost every form and genre of writing — whether it’s the news, case studies, biographies, literary classics, screenplays, romance novels, or crime thrillers — has something beautiful and useful that can help improve sentence crafting. In the same way that a good conversationalist becomes good by listening to as many people as is possible, a good writer becomes good by reading as many different writers as is possible.

Imitate your favorite writers for practice

Copywork — when school children transcribe text by handwriting them into their notebooks — has long been a part of language pedagogy in many parts of the world. But does it help adult writers?

Hunter S. Thompson copied every page of Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” and Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. Jack London copied every page of Rudyard Kipling’s books. Other greats such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Benjamin Franklin also benefited from “parroting” other writers they respected for practice to improve their skills. I’m not obsessive enough, neither do I have enough time to copy an entire novel by an author I like. So what I do is keep a Word document on my laptop called “Beautiful Sentences” where I type up all the sentences I’ve read that made me stop and go “wow, that’s good!” Once a week, I open this document, then I take out my Moleskine notebook and Uni-ball pen and hand-write one page of the sentences from my “Beautiful Words” collection. First typing, then hand-writing these well-crafted sentences helps me feel the rhythm of the consummate authors who wrote them, better understand why their sentences had moved me, and apply this understanding to my own writing.

Increase your vocabulary and use your thesaurus

I have another Word document on my laptop titled “New Words” where I collect all the words I come across that I don’t know. I log these words, record their dictionary definitions along with two sentences with these words in them. Once a week, I’ll go through one page of this document to create new sentences for each of the words on that page. Over time, these new words become part of my sentence-building arsenal. I know however that I won’t use all the words collected in my “New Words” document — “prevarication” for instance, doesn’t sound as reader-friendly as “lie”, and I don’t see myself employing “uberous” or “demassification” anytime soon either. So I created another document titled “Words I Like.” After completing my “new sentences” exercise for one page of words in “New Words,” I then review all the words on that page and select the ones I like and can see myself using in the future. I then type these words into my “Words I Like” document so I can refer to it regularly and commit them to memory for quick recall.

If you find yourself stuck with a word that doesn’t quite say what you want, there’s no shame in using a thesaurus. The more words you can draw from, the better, because an expansive vocabulary enables you to build sentences that are better than average.

Learn new languages

As often as I can, I use the Duolingo app to learn a new language — I’ve practiced Italian, Portuguese, Indonesian, Greek and German. When I’m learning a new language, I use the app for at least 15 minutes three times a week. I may not get the chance to actually converse with anyone in these languages, but reading, listening, typing and writing down sentences in other languages strengthens grammar and comprehension skills, along with memory and concentration. Learning a new language forces me to break sentences down into their individual parts. By doing so, I become more attuned to patterns in linguistics, which helps improve how I structure my sentences in English.

Read your writing out loud

Writing starts with talking in your head. But how does your speech sound once it’s unleashed upon the world? When I’m writing at a café, I probably look a little eccentric because my mouth is moving. I am softly repeating the sentences I’ve written to myself in order to ensure they sound the way I want them to. There is something musical about a good sentence, and reading out loud trains your ear to spot this “music of words.” You become more sensitive to the poetic rhythm — an important element that distinguishes a good sentence from one that is merely OK.

Omit needless words

Writing is about getting thoughts onto paper, then eliminating the rambly bits. You’ll find tons of suggestions from writing coaches and authors about why you should “kill your darlings” and tighten your sentences. James Patterson says, “If you want to keep up the pace, make sure you only give readers the barest details that add a bit of color, texture, and emotion.” John Grisham says to “read each sentence at least three times in search of words to cut.” British novelist Esther Freud says, “Editing is everything… cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life”. But the author who says it best is William Strunk who simply tells us “Omit needless words.”

Take your time

You can’t rush a good sentence. As Stephen King puts it, “Most great pieces of writing are preceded with hours of thought,” because “writing is refined thinking.” So you must slow your mind down and get into a deep meditative state if you hope to wrestle that quality sentence into being.


Conclusion

Writing well is one of the most useful skills anyone can develop, and it begins with a good sentence. A meticulously designed sentence is a thing of beauty. It is an act of persuasion, an enticing provocation, a magic spell, and a love letter.

A good sentence tells your readers that you value their time and attention, that you have slogged to deliver your best performance, that you know they are intelligent and you honor their complex humanity. A good sentence is the most sincere gesture of a writer’s respect for and eagerness to please their reader. Good sentences matter because without them, the reader — and not just any reader, but that astute reader whose heart you hope to steal — will flee.

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