The French writer Gustav Flaubert (author of Madame Bovary) once spent two weeks writing a single sentence. Words have mana. Choose them carefully. Take your time. Here are some guidelines that may help you write with more grace, power and beauty.
THE NO — NOs (actually, some of these are fine, but in careful moderation)
- Forms of the verb to be (is, are, were, was) when other, more forceful, accurate and interesting verbs will fit.
- Was … by phrases: Jack was hit by the ball.
- The word and when it joins two sentences as a conjunction (unless you are Ernest Hemingway).
- The phrases there is / there are / there were / there was, especially at the beginnings of sentences.
- Fancy, $2.00 words, when plain $.25 ones will work just as well. Say house, not domicile.
- The fuls: beautiful, wonderful, peaceful. In fact, use all modifiers sparingly. Make your nouns do the heavy lifting. Add details that show how beautiful, wonderful and peaceful your subject is. If you use the right nouns, your writing won’t need gushy adjectives.
- Personal pronouns like I, we, you, us, me. Your writing will be stronger if you leave yourself out and just focus on your subject, unless you and your life are the real subject, as in a personal essay.
- Try out colons and semi-colons to add complexity to your writing. Just don’t over-use them.
- Use the active voice: The ball hit Jack.
- Instead of using the generic and, connect your sentences with more accurate conjunctions (“glue words”) that suggest the actual relation between the ideas in the two sentences: after, although, as, because, before, if, since, so that, that, though, unless, until, when, where, whether, while.
- You learned how to use parallel structure in the 11th grade to create and unify long sentences. Put what you already know into practice.
- A loose sentence (the normal English structure) keeps its verb up front, near the beginning: Jack grinned as he slammed the ball over third base. A periodic sentence delays its verb until near the end: Slamming the ball over third base, Jack grinned. Use a mixture of loose and periodic sentences.
- Pay attention to the beginnings of your sentences. Vary not only their length but their structure
- Short sentences are great at the beginnings and ends of paragraphs or as transitions between two ideas, but they won’t stand out unless surrounding sentences are long. Write a long (more than 30 words) sentence every so often, so that you create contrast with your short sentences (fewer than 8 words). One sentence by the Irish writer James Joyce fills five pages (Molly Bloom’s monologue in Ulysses).
- One reason students write with short sentences is fear of failure. No fear! Chance ’em!, Imua e na poki’i! Eddie Would Go! When you construct longer sentences, just make sure all of their pieces fit together: double-check agreements between pronouns and their antecedents, and subjects and their verbs. Flaubert labored on a single sentence for two weeks; edit each of yours for two minutes.