Sentence by Sentence: The essence of good writing

Diagram for the Preamble

Ok, so this one's not so simple.

It’s true that different authors have different virtues.  Memorable characters. Nonstop action. Intricate worlds. Long, rambling unwieldy sentences that fill an entire paragraph and make your reader forget what the idea was that you started with in the first place.  Well, actually, maybe we could skip that last one.

Long sentences can be exciting. But they have their place, and they should be built with thought. A sentence should never feel as though it’s the last suitcase you have and you’re being forced to carry all your worldly treasures in it as you flee your home.  Your sentences should say just what they mean to say and no more. They can be long, short or medium-sized, and ideally sentences of all lengths appear within your writing.  But no matter how many words a sentence has, your reader shouldn’t have to read it five times to get its jist.

1. Start simple. I will say it again: long sentences can be exciting. But you want to make sure that they are carrying their own weight. If you find yourself rereading a sentence in your manuscript, and it’s just not working for you, try stripping it down to its essence: subject, verb, object, if necessary. Then, if something feels like it’s missing—if a little embellishment is in order—add it gradually and sparingly.

2.  Don’t make two (or three!) sentences into one. “Garrick spent the entire morning re-reading a chapter of the novel by his verbose sister that he’d been trying all week to finish, but he just couldn’t seem to make any progress.” How about this instead: “Garrick tried again to read his sister’s novel. He just couldn’t make any progress.”  Your reader longs for those mental pauses. Commas and semicolons will occasionally do the trick, but there’s nothing like a proper full stop to really rein in the brain. Just because three points occur to you simultaneously, you don’t have to charge that poor sentence with all of them.  Save some information for later in the paragraph, chapter or for another book! The verbose sister will have her day if she needs to.

3. Don’t forget the subject. This may seem obvious, but I’ve read more than a few sentences where the subject’s clause came after the modifying clause, for no apparent reason: “Being a boy prone to fits, Maxwell had one.”  or with modification for a subject  who is not present at all: “Being a boy prone to fits, Maxwell’s mother grew frustrated.” This problem occurs more often than it should. If you’ve been writing your novel quickly, in a fever of creativity, take some time to go over your sentences and make sure that the important person or thing is right at the forefront. There may be reasons to put the subject at the end, but this inverted construction should be the rare exception rather than the rule.

4.  Read your writing out loud. If you’ve read my other posts, you know I give this advice frequently. That’s because it’s always good, and it works for almost everything. If you can’t get to the end of a sentence without taking a breath, it’s probably a good idea to rework it.

5.  Love the sentence. We in the kidlit world are fond of plot. We are always trying to figure out how to make something “pacier” or how to build a better world. But once in a while, Dear Author, you’ve got to stop and smell the sentence. Really. It’s a crucial building block of your story.

Have you got a special trick for whipping your sentences into shape?  Let me know in the comments.

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