Correct grammar isn’t enough.
It takes more than a great plot to make a great story, and it takes more than an interesting topic to make a work of non-fiction into a page-turner. It’s all about the sentences.
There are so many ways to go about writing a sentence, but the most effective sentences speak to the purpose of the piece of writing. Just because a sentence isn’t technically wrong, that doesn’t mean it’s suitable or clear.
Sentence structure is a choice, and it matters. It can determine whether or not a reader can put down what you’ve written before he or she has finished. A variety of different kinds of sentences is essential for all types of writing. If all of your sentences are long, it will make reading a chore. If they’re all short, it will be too staccato and bumpy.
If every sentence has the same framework, giving it a “then this happened, then this happened, then this happened” effect, it becomes quite boring no matter how much a reader wants to like it. There are three main categories of sentences: simple, compound, and complex. Here’s a brief overview:
A simple sentence, or independent clause, has all the basics: a subject, a verb, and a complete thought.
“I like black pens.”
A compound sentence links two or more independent clauses with a conjunction or semicolon.
“I like black pens, and my sister likes blue pens.”
“I like black pens, but my sister prefers purple.”
“I like black pens; I use a pencil occasionally, but I prefer the mechanical ones.”
A complex sentence throws in more parts of speech, like subordinators and relative pronouns.
“My daughter can’t go to the movies tonight because she has a lot of homework.”
“My client sent me a book to edit after she noticed a few typos in the first chapter.”
“My mom sent me One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is a novel by Columbian author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Of course, there are multitudes of variations within each of these categories.
Sometimes a sentence needs to be revised even though it is technically correct. Here are some examples of issues I find myself editing most often:
Indirect language or “passive voice”
If a sentence uses the word “by” or “of,” chances are you’re making a loop-the-loop around your point instead of traveling in a straight line. This makes your text convoluted and cumbersome to a reader.
To demonstrate what a muddle indirect sentences can be, here is an example from a non-fiction business management text that is supposed to be instructive. This paragraph is riddled with indirect phrases:
Santander’s application of [product name omitted] outside of the software development environment involves the isolated utilization of some of its Events. For example, Standup meetings are used by non-software teams, and the concept of the Sprint, Sprint Goal. So, while the bank does not always apply [product] in its entirety, or even to a project aimed at the introduction of a new product, the primary principles of the system, such as the immediacy of its discursive communication or the tools that it provides to strategize forward progress, are made use of in adapted or niche applications.
Here it is with the sentences restructured to be direct:
Outside of software development, Santander utilizes [product] for its Events. For example, their non-software teams use Standup meetings, Sprints and Sprint Goals. So, while the bank does not always apply [product] in its entirety, or even to introduce a new product, the system’s primary principles, such as immediate communication and tools to strategize forward progress, are used in adapted or niche applications.
I didn’t change the writer’s vocabulary, and their content is in tact, but it follows a straight line through the author’s point instead of navigating a roller coaster.
A sentence loses its steam when unneeded words give it a slow start. This happens most often in non-fiction. When you are writing as an authority on a particular subject, you want your tone to mirror your confidence. It makes the reader trust you and accept you as a source valuable information. Most of these phrases can be deleted entirely without changing the rest of the sentence:
“One might argue that…”
“In fact…” or “In essence…”
“Therefore” or “Hence”
“In other words…” (If you’re written this at the beginning of the sentence, chances are that sentence or the one that precedes it can go.)
At the end of a sentence, hangers-on like “et cetera” (“etc.) and “as well” make the sentence lose its punch. If you want to stick the landing, end the sentence on a noun or verb.
Some sentences contain a list of words, most often adjectives, that all say the same thing.
“She was distraught, sad, and homesick.”
Why list three when one strong one does the work? Listed adjectives build melodrama. Some writer use them to give a sentence rhythm or a contemplative tone, but when I read them, all I can think is, “Make up your mind!” Choose the most specific one, and stick to it. In the example above, I’d choose “homesick.”
Often, when a writer is working on a draft, be it fiction or non-fiction, the ideas are forming as the writing progresses. This often results in repetitive sentences that need to be either consolidated or deleted entirely. Because a writer has a mental image of the piece as a whole, it’s hard to spot these repetitions.
“She was nervous. Her hands were clenched and clammy, and she couldn’t remember what it felt like to breathe normally.”
The “She was nervous” is completely unneeded since the sentence that follows demonstrates her anxiety.
What are you trying to say?
When your sentences are grammatically correct, the next step is style.
Hemingway is famous for sentences that go on for half a page or more. Thrillers like The DaVinci Code tend to use more clipped, short sentences to keep an exciting tone that matches the chase. In non-fiction, the more technical the content, the simpler the sentences should be.
When I recently read An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine, he actually made me catch my breath because a long, elegant sentence was followed up with a direct clause in perfect iambic pentameter. It was devastating in the best way.
When you’ve finished telling yourself the story, when your characters are fully formed and the structure of the telling is complete, or when the information has been fully presented, it’s time to move your attention from what you’re trying to say and focus on how it’s made. This is the difference between good stories and master works. This is how you glue your reader’s eyes to the page.