Jun 102010
 

Knowing how to write better sentences will help you write better paragraphs, which will help you be a better writer! To paraphrase Shakespeare, “the sentence is the thing.” It’s the foundation of spellbinding books, blogs, or magazine articles! These tips will help you write better sentences, which will create better paragraphs, which will blossom into better books, blog posts, or magazine articles.

Before the tips, a quip:

“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?” ~ George Orwell.

Sadly, it takes time and effort to write better sentences. But, like appreciating a fine cigar, good writing gets easier and better with time. To learn the (crucial, critical) nuts and bolts of writing, take a gander at Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose.

And, here are five writing tips for sentences and paragraphs…

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Be a Better Writer By Writing Better Sentences

The other night I read a blog post that made me want to dig my eyes out with my blue pencil. It was so horribly written, so poorly put together, that I wept for the writer and her family. The writing was so bad I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror as I brushed my teeth later…because, of course, the writer was me.  I mean I.

Here’s what I learned from my slab of humble pie — I’m ready to share a few tips to improve your (my) writing

Regularly review the basic anatomy of a sentence

I won’t go into the nitty gritty grammar and sentence structure details here (that’s what books like Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style are for! And Grade 8 English class). Sure, some successful writers break the rules – but they have to know them first. Some writers have a natural talent, and can recognize a split infinitive without being told. But, most of us need to learn about passive versus active voice, run on sentences, and misplaced modifiers first…and then we’re free to break the rules. To write better sentences, I read Strunk & White every few months, just to keep the elements of style and good writing at the forefront of my mind.





Don’t just “read, read, read

When successful freelance writers and published authors say you need to “read, read, read” to be a better writer, they don’t just mean grab a margarita, head out to the beach, and sink into the latest Jennifer Weiner. Instead, you need to notice what you are reading. For instance, when you read blog posts or magazine articles that are horribly written, don’t sit back in smug self-satisfaction. Grab your blue pencil, look at a sentence or two, and figure out why it stinks so bad. Rewrite the sentence in your head or on paper. Make it better. This practice of editing common writing mistakes will sink into your subconscious and help you write better sentences.

Write each sentence with a single point in mind

Edit every sentence in your blog post, magazine article, or book chapter at least three times. Does each word matter, or are you rambling like Grandpa at the last family reunion? Put your emotions aside (yes, I know how much it hurts to slash your sentences – but better to hurt yourself than your readers). Make sure every word in your sentence is meaningful. And, triple check that there’s a logical flow from one sentence to another.

Get daily grammar or “better writing” Tweets or emails

Twitter is one of my favorite inventions for writers! I don’t just mean networking and learning industry news, or learning to write in short, succinct sentences (Tweeting sharpens your writing skills). What I most love about Twitter is following people like @WriteAdvantage and @GrammarMonkeys, who regularly share grammar tips. For instance, here’s Jane’s (WriteAdvantage) tip for today: “Keep your business writing simple and your reader will keep reading. Replace: expeditious, with: fast or quick.” Writing tips like these take seconds to read, but can improve your writing immeasurably.

Apply George Orwell’s four writing tips to your sentences

This is a clunky way to write, but it will eventually become natural and happen subconsciously. Post these four questions on your bulletin board or computer monitor:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

Learning how to write better sentences (which will turn into better paragraphs and a better article or book chapter) takes time and effort. But it really is like learning to smoke a cigar: the more you do it, the easier and more pleasurable it becomes.

What helps you be a better writer, and write better sentences? Comments welcome below!

About Me

quips tips love relationshipsI'm glad you're here! My name is Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen; my husband Bruce and I live in Vancouver, BC with our critters. We can't have kids, and are learning to accept whatever life brings - both good and bad. I have an MSW (Master of Social Work) from UBC, and degrees in Education and Psychology. I hope you say hello and share your thoughts below. If not, go well....and don't forget to come back.

  7 Responses to “How to Write Better Sentences, Better Paragraphs, Better Everything!”

  1. Thanks for your comments – I’m glad this article on writing better sentences was helpful!

    Interesting, Tim, about the “stupid grammar advice.” I agree that being a good writer is about breaking rules…but it’s important to stick to the rules that make your writing easy to read.

  2. This is a great find for me. I am freelance writer and I always find some ways to make my writing skills improve. I’m glad I found this article and thank you for posting it.

  3. You write:
    “1. Regularly review the basic anatomy of a sentence. I won’t go into the nitty gritty grammar and sentence structure details here (that’s what books like Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style are for! And Grade 8 English class)…I read Strunk & White every few months, just to keep the elements of style and good writing at the forefront of my mind.”

    I’ve referred to it a few times, too…until I read an opposing view: “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice” by Geoffrey K. Pullum at
    http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497

    Uncounted students, grammarians, teachers, writers and editors have been hoodwinked by Strunk and White for over 50 years, it seems. While S & W are clearly skilled in other areas, Pullum calls them “grammatical incompetents”–and proves it by revealing (among other gems) how the authors break the so-called rules over and over again in their own book.

    To write well, they must break rules. Arbitrary rules–often cooked up by self-appointed fuddy-duddies seeking glory and prestige as experts–can cripple prose that might otherwise pierce, excite, perturb or sway. Or they often don’t make sense, if you consider usage as the final word (intended!) in a living, growing language.

    “50 Years…” is a fun read. It begins:
    “April 16 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a little book that is loved and admired throughout American academe. Celebrations, readings, and toasts are being held, and a commemorative edition has been released.

    I won’t be celebrating…”

  4. Hello, hello, hello!

    Ryan ~ Thanks for taking the time to comment, and I wish you all the best with your novel. I couldn’t write fiction, I don’t think. I have so much admiration for fiction writers.

    George ~ Good sentences are definitely the foundation of an article, book, or blog post. No shoddy sentences for us! It’s hard though.

    Gini ~ GREAT idea, to edit each other! That’s what we should be doing in our writers’ group….scrutinizing bad writing, good writing, and our own writing (which is probably somewhere between good and bad). Learning together to write better sentences.

  5. Laurie – I’m giggling at the image of appreciating a fine cigar! Reading other articles and books from a scrutinizing point of view has helped me be a better writer. But what has really helped me is having my work edited (which I haven’t done much of and would like to do more). I can then see how a particular sentence can be crafted better by example.So if you ever want to play with editing each other’s articles one day, let me know as I’m game.

    Gini

  6. Laurie,

    Absolutely mah-velous.

    A house built on a shoddy foundation cannot stand. I know my english isn’t perfect (heaven help me if it ever reaches that point). I’ve been blessed with a naturally active voice and I’m sure this has saved me mucho heartache in the past.

    Thanks for the great tips.

    George

  7. I don’t really know if I could be considered a “good” writer but, so far, I’ve learned what I know from, well, reading.

    By visiting blogs, much like this one.

    By scrutinizing everything I see and figuring out why I’d done that in the first place.

    Basically, everything in this article is true. I read through it and realized I had already been doing all of this. Although, the writing tips could help. In the novel I’m writing, I constantly re-read sentences that I write, over and over and I’m absolutely sure it’s going to take a lot more polishing.

    So, what helped me? Everything mentioned here!

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