Ice Cube Press intern Jenni Moy, from her own blog Editor’s Quill
How Varied Sentence Structure Can Spice Up Your Writing
May 11, 2015 | Editor’s Quill
I haven’t posted much about voice yet, but voice is one of the most crucial components to your novel. With so many writers trying to get their books published, if you don’t have voice, your book will go unnoticed.
There are many reasons why some writers lack voice. It could be their first novel. They’re forcing too hard to sound like someone else. For many new writers, I have found that their writing is vague and boring. It doesn’t pop. And this problem sometimes occurs because they don’t vary their sentence structure.
Varied Sentence Structure
Sentence structure is how you arrange your words, phrases, and clauses in a sentence. Writers who don’t vary their sentences repeat the same sentence subject, length, and type. This repetition bores the reader, and it weakens your voice.
Varied sentences give your writing life. It also reduces that repetition. Changing your sentence structure will keep the reader engaged and give rhythm to your writing. To understand varied sentence structure, we’re going to talk about sentence subject, length, and type.
The first sign that a writer doesn’t vary his/her sentences is when the subject of each sentence is the same. People who write in first person easily fall victim to this, repeating “I”—the same subject– over and over again.
Here’s an example:
“Alex opened his door and stepped outside. He felt a nice breeze and walked over to downtown. He wasn’t sure if he should go to the bakery or the burger joint first. He then noticed that he was short on cash.”
In every one of those sentence, he (Alex) was the subject. There’s no variety. The way to fix this is to alternate your subjects. You’ll have to stretch your creative muscle, but to be able to change subjects will help you craft your voice and spice up your writing.
“Alex opened his door and stepped outside. A nice breeze brushed against him. It was a perfect day to go downtown, and with the weather warm, he walked all the way there. Outside the bakery and the burger joint, a strong odor of cookies and fries filled his nose. Where should he go first? Digging into his pocket, he searched for cash, but there was only a couple of quarters.”
In the new example, we alternated subjects. The text is now more interesting. If you’re really struggling to alternate subjects, using a dependent clause before the subject (such as “Digging into his pocket”) can help.
Varying Sentence Lengths:
I have found that writers who lack voice overuse short sentences while writers who have a forced voice overuse long sentences.
Short sentences give emphasis, but when overused, the reader can’t digest what is supposed to be important. The writing also feels rushed, and the flow feels choppy. Long sentences can reveal a lot of information, but when too many, the reader becomes too overwhelmed. They struggle to understand what you’re trying to convey.
Here’s an example of too many short sentences:
“On his kayak, Frank paddled through the ocean. The water was calm. It was perfect for kayaking. Wanting to soak up the sun, he decided to rest. He set his oar over his lap. The waves lightly pushed the kayak.”
Here’s an example of too many long sentences:
“On his kayak, Frank paddled through the ocean, which had the calmest waves that were perfect for kayaking, and because these waves were so nice and because he wanted to soak up the sun, he decided to rest, setting his oar over his lap and letting the waves lightly push the kayak.”
That paragraph was actually just one sentence, and I’m sure the next sentence would’ve been just as wordy. Because that sentence was so long, we’re overwhelmed with information, and we’re not sure what to digest.
Now let’s see what happens when we alternate lengths:
“On his kayak, Frank paddled through the ocean. The water was calm– perfect. Wanting to soak up the sun, he decided to rest, so he set his oar over his lap and let the waves lightly push the kayak.”
Because the sentence lengths were mixed, the paragraph flows better, and it’s much easier and more engaging to read.
Varying Sentence Types:
When you’re using the same sentence type over again, the reader is going to notice or at least feel something’s off.
Spotting repetitive sentence type is hard to catch. You have to know the different types before you can really notice it. There are four types of sentences.
Simple sentence: An independent clause.
Ex: I love dogs.
Complex sentence: A sentence that contains both an independent and dependent clause.
Ex: Because Jim is allergic to cats, he adopted a dog.
Compound sentence: A sentence that contains at least two independent clauses joined together by a conjunction.
Ex: I have two dogs, and their names are Titus and Caspian.
Compound-Complex sentence: A sentence that contains at least two independent clauses AND a dependent clause.
Ex: Before adopting Buddy and Spot, Yuki purchased some dog toys, and his dogs loved them.
Writers who don’t know the different kinds of sentences can accidentally overuse a particular type. Sometimes, when a writer overuses a particular type, s/he tends to overuse a particular sentence length too. Writers who overuse short sentences usually use too many simple sentences while writers who overuse long sentences usually use too many compound-complex sentences.
Let’s look at an example with too many complex sentences:
“Straightening her skirt, Bella entered her office. Seeing a large stack of papers on her desk, she sighed. Because tax season was coming up, there was more work for her to do. Even though she liked to work, the stress was becoming unbearable.”
There’s a weird flow to this. Using a variety of sentence types will eliminate that weird flow, and sometimes all you have to do is make a few adjustments. Let’s try this again:
“Straightening her skirt, Bella entered her office. A large stack of papers was on her desk, and she sighed. Tax season was coming up. More work was coming toward her way. Even though she liked work, the stress was becoming unbearable.”
If you’re someone who struggles to vary your sentences, you’ll have to stretch your creative muscle and practice. Varying your sentence structure will spice up your writing and make it more interesting.