Have you ever stared at a blank screen, the cursor blinking ominously, and waited for the perfect sentence to hit you to solve all your writing problems? Let’s be real here: this is a favorite pastime of authors.
Coming up with a stellar plot and engaging characters is hard enough, but once you conquer that hurdle, you’re left with the shocking and unforeseen revelation that you still have to write this novel. Yes, you. You need to put words down on the page. This book isn’t writing itself.
But how do you write great sentences?
First of all, you need good tools to write good words. This is true for any skillset or craft! It’s a lot less daunting to launch into something like creative writing when you actually know what you’re doing. Imagine you’d never baked a cake, so you pour ingredients into a bowl and pray it’ll be edible. Then someone hands you a recipe book. Tips. Tricks. Instructions.
Understanding. You learn to stop tossing the whole egg into your cake batter and that the chocolate chips go in the bowl, not in your mouth. (Though, to be fair, you didn’t need to learn that heartbreaking truth.) Writing is absolutely like making a good cake. Let’s start with a recipe for improving your writing.
I’m going to share 8 tips for building great sentences below. This will be a simple and brief overview of tips to help you write better, but if you’re looking for a course that goes into careful depth about the structure and craft of great sentences, look no further than The Great Courses.
They offer a course specifically geared to honing and polishing your sentences and paragraphs, including instructions about grammar and rhetoric, propositions and meaning, and sentence rhythm and syntax. So check out their course for Building Great Sentences: Exploring The Writer’s Craft when you get a chance!
1. Avoid Writing Passively
Have you ever read a book and felt like it left you outside the story? You’re just peering in through a frosted window instead of being sucked right into the ink and magical world the words are weaving on the page. This often happens when writing is too passive.
A passive sentence would be: “The girl was running.” An active sentence is: “The girl ran.”
There is a time and a place for passive sentences (not everything you write will naturally be a launching place for an active phrase), but take a good look at your writing and see if you can pinpoint how often you start off sluggishly.
An over-accumulation of passive sentences often makes your pacing seem slow too. If your chapter is dragging, editing the sentences to be engaging instead of latent will help speed everything up.
2. Tell, Don’t Show
This goes hand in hand with writing passive sentences! One thing I often find when reading work by new and aspiring writers is that they tend to tell you what happens instead of putting you into the story itself.
There’ll be a long page talking about how the girl found a sword in the lake and pulled it out to free the witch king… which sounds like it should be epic. But somehow it feels detached.
You’re not feeling it. Instead, what if the story actually took you to that scene and so you could read how the girl feels as she embarks on this adventure? Write about the moment the girl pulls the sword from the lake: what’s she thinking and feeling, talk about sensory input, her racing heart, the risk, and emotion happening at that moment.
Again, not every scene needs to happen in front of the reader’s eyes. Some scenes are best told and the ground covered quickly. But as a general piece of advice: make sure you write what’s happening, not what’s happened.
3. Vary Your Sentence Length
When I go to read long paragraphs where all the sentences are roughly the same length, I can guarantee you that my eyes will glaze over and I’ll skip to the end. Here’s the thing with readers: we need to make the process of reading not only easy but fun and exciting.
We need to trick the eyes into staying focused on the page. We also need to present our words in rhythms that are engaging and pleasing to read. Your reader isn’t lazy, but they are here to be entertained with scintillating storytelling.
Vary the lengths of your sentences! Have a long sentence and then make the next one small to pack a powerful punch. Go through a paragraph and count how many words are in your average sentence. You’ll probably notice an unintentional pattern. Go shake it up!
This gives your writing an immediate boost in readability.
4. You Should Be Using “Said”
Being overly fond of dialogue tags is not the helpful trick we’ve been lead to believe. It truly is more professional and powerful to use “said” if you need a dialogue tag. No more “he chuckled darkly” or “she squalled” or “I responded”.
When you use phrases like that after dialogue, it runs the risk of doing two things: (1) it pulls you out of the story because they’re so easy to overuse and therefore become irritating, and (2) it’s telling, not showing, which comes across as lazy writing.
If a character is going to shout, build that up beforehand in their body language and tone. The momentum of the sentence should be set before the character utters the sentence.
Don’t tell us the cop “growled” his response – show us how he is feeling so we know his tone before he utters, “Get out of the car with your hands raised.”
5. Use Sparse but Specific Details
When it comes to description and details, you do want to go with the good old adage “less is more”. It isn’t 1908 and we don’t want a detailed description of the type of carpet in the old professor’s office. Use pointed descriptions that carry emotional weight instead of long rambling descriptions that will make a reader take a quick nap between chapters.
Using specific descriptions also helps a story leap off the page. You can tell a reader so much by showing them a simple scene. For instance:
Instead of saying: “The car wound slowly down the road towards the big old house,” you could completely dismantle this sentence and say: “The tired Ford wound down the potholed road towards the Victorian mansion, thorn trees blocking the view of the boarded windows and peeling paint.” You’ve given the reader an image of this house’s age, how the road is not well-traveled, how whoever is revisiting the house is weary of the journey.
You don’t want every sentence to be layered with description, but make it count when you do.
If you’re looking for ideas to compliment your story, try my list of 30 Creative Writing Prompts to inspire you!
6. Cut Your Filler Words
When we speak out loud we have a tendency to use things like “Um” and “Like” far too much. In writing, we still have that tendency! There are so many words that drag your sentences down and slow your pacing.
Go through your writing and look for words like actually, seriously, I mean, I think, just, only, maybe, perhaps, now, kind of, very, that.
There are more words you can cut, but start with those! Keep an eye out for your crutch words too. In one book I wrote, I used “wormed” so much I started to wonder if I was prepping for a fishing trip. (Spoiler: I was not? I hate fish?) And you’ll be surprised at how often you use “just”. Chose stronger words and you’ll end up with taut sentences.
7. Don’t Spoil Your Own Reveals
Don’t tell the readers what’s going to happen before it happens! This is a classic and underrated hole we writers fall into. All it takes is going: “My heart leaped into my mouth. A monster rose from the woods…” and you’ve told your reader how to feel before it happens.
Instead, start with the juicy, fearsome action you wish to convey in this paragraph first. Don’t tell us how to feel before you’ve shown us what we’re dealing with. It’s the same as how when people tell stories orally they’ll start by saying, “So I lost my car keys today!” Then they proceed to tell you how it happened…except you already know the result.
8. Only Write the Interesting Parts
Did you just write a paragraph that felt so boring one of your eyelids closed and had a nap while the other struggled valiantly on to finish the sentence? This shouldn’t come as a surprise but if you are bored writing it, your readers will be bored reading it.
If information is dull to convey, skip it! Or find a better way to relay what’s happening. Move past the mundane moments (we don’t need the scene where your character wakes up and stares at their bleary, forest green eyes in the mirror) and move forward to the scenes that matter.
Every scene should have a purpose, but every sentence should be valuable too.
Write in ways that excite you. Write to make your reader crave your next words.
Enjoyed This Article? You May Also Like:
- Creative Writing Tips: A Beginner’s Guide To Creative Writing
- What to Do When you Have a Writers Block
- How To Start Writing A Book: Tips For Aspiring Writers
About the Author
CG Drews is a YA book blogger with the goal to read every book in existence. She’s aiming for immortality for this. When not reading, she writes novels and blogs at paperfury.com.