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blog | June 10, 2015

Clear Thinking for Great Copy, Part 2: Crafting the Right Sentence

By David Hopkins

Words matter. But I want to share with you the dark secret of writing—you don’t need an expansive vocabulary to become an exemplary writer. Many writers have done fine with a simple, unimpressive lexicon. Few writers are impressed by other writers who can throw down multisyllabic words as if they were preparing for the SATs.

In truth, the sentence is where writers prove their worth. If you can write a solid sentence, you have my respect. Nothing is easier, nothing is more frustrating than crafting a good sentence.

Say what you mean

My daughter thinks it’s funny I own a book called How to Write a Sentence. “Dad, you write for a living. You know how to write a sentence.” You’d think so. However, on many occasions, I’ve read something I wrote that left me wondering: “What the hell was this sentence trying to say?” Most sentences don’t fail because of poor grammar. They fail because of poor organization. A thought failed to make sense. Or to quote Stanley Fish, author of How to Write a Sentence, “The first thing to ask when writing a sentence is ‘What am I trying to do?’”

In times of trouble, let the Writer’s Holy Trinity be your guide: subject, verb, and object.

  • The subject is the thing being discussed in your sentence. It’s usually a noun or a noun phrase. It can be another part of speech posing as a noun (“Running is my favorite activity.”) It can be one thing or a series of things. Whatever it is, make sure it’s clear to your reader. Long introductory phrases have a way of burying the subject. If the reader is digging for what you’re talking about, get to the subject sooner than later.
  • The verb gives the sentence its purpose. It’s the word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence within the sentence. Entire books can be written about verbs. A good verb is worthy of honor. To check the health of your sentence, start by finding your verb. While it’s possible to have multiple verbs in a sentence, try to avoid sentences that do too much. You can write more sentences if necessary.
  • The object is the thing that the verb is directed towards. An object is a noun or a noun phrase. Objects are tricky because not all sentences need one. At some point, an English teacher may have told you about “active transitive verbs.” How many of us paid attention? She was talking about verbs that require objects. Basically, an object is the last piece of cause/effect reasoning. (This happened to this. This is connected to that.)
    Not every sentence will arrange itself in a subject-verb-object template. However, if you know the template, it will help you to better diagnose an ailing sentence.

Dealing with lazy sentences

Certain sentences fulfill their duty, and yet, they still come across as a bit lazy, a bit uninspired. It’s okay—and sometimes unavoidable—to have some of these sentences, but if you string several of them together, your reader will lose focus. The brain gets bored. When this happens, the reader may have read every single word, but can’t remember one bit of what you wrote. It’s happened to all of us. Our brain simply wasn’t along for the ride. Readers tend to blame themselves, but the fault lies with the author.

Some of the chief instigators of lazy sentences:

  • “Be” verbs have long been vilified by English teachers. Sometimes without cause. The “be” verbs (am, are, is, was, were, be, being, been) serve a useful purpose. Maybe they’re a little too useful? A writer can depend on them a bit too much, when maybe a better verb exists.
  • “It is” and “there are” — If your sentence begins with “it is” or “there are,” a better way to write the sentence exists. No law prohibits you from writing a lazy sentence, but try to keep it to a minimum. Variety is the goal.
  • Passive voice happens when the object of the sentence is turned into the subject. (Example: Why was the road crossed by the chicken?) Passive voice can be identified thusly: be verb (“was”) + past participle (“crossed”). Fixing passive voice usually involves rewriting the sentence.

Instead of: “The ball was caught by the baseball player.”
Try: “The baseball player caught the ball.”

The goal is not to remove every instance of “be” verbs and passive voice. You’ll drive yourself insane. Both “be” verbs and passive voice have their place. Instead, you want to consider if there’s a better way for the sentence to be written. Opting for active verbs and an active voice can keep your writing lively and on task.

The long sentence and the short sentence

What’s better? A long sentence or a short one? People indulge in long sentences, and I admit a certain beauty springs from a well-crafted sentence that takes a few turns here and there. That being said, short sentences can pack a punch. Usually, a combination of both is preferred. If you notice your sentences meander too much, vary up the length to improve engagement. This lesson is especially true for executives who are so worried about impressing people they trip over unnecessarily long sentences.

Regarding fragments: Are sentence fragments wrong? Not really. We use them from time to time for effect. Just don’t go overboard though. Seriously. It’s trite.

When to use modifiers

Ernest Hemingway once said, “I was taught to distrust adjectives as I would later learn to distrust certain people in certain situations.” More dramatically, Stephen King said, “The road to hell is paved with adjectives.” Despite this, pick up any book by Hemingway or King, and you’ll find plenty of adjectives and adverbs. William Zinsser inches closer to the truth: “Most adjectives are also unnecessary. Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think that the concept is already in the noun.”

When dealing with adverbs, intensifiers like “very,” “really,” and “truly” are almost universally unnecessary. Many adverbs that end in “-ly” can be deleted as well. After you’ve finished writing, do a quick search. When you come across these words, ask yourself: “Can this sentence survive without this word?” If so, you’re better off without it.

Uncovering style

The predictable protest becomes: “But useless modifiers and cluttered writing are part of my style! Why are you taking away my personality? Why?” Insert the world’s loudest, most belabored sigh here. A lot of people misunderstand what style and voice actually are. Your voice as a writer emerges naturally whenever you become more comfortable with your craft. It’s not something you can fabricate with a few tricks and go-to tactics. You don’t pepper “style” into your writing. Style begins with the well-crafted sentence, devoid of cheap ploys. It takes shape when you have something worth saying, and you say it well.

In general, you want to watch for the standard clichés. Don’t try to be overly cute with your introduction. Avoid being ridiculously conversational. (“Have you ever wondered how to be a better writer? Boy, I know I sure have! Woo. I mean, seriously, like, I think about it all the time. Crazy, right?”) To be safe, view all rhetorical questions in your writing with extreme skepticism. Instead of asking the question, try answering it.

Write a decent sentence, one that makes you proud. You can build something worthwhile from there.

Next week: Building the Right Paragraph.