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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Sentence VaRiAtIoN

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

The topic I'd like to discuss for today deals with the style of writing. One of the biggest amateur mistakes with butchering the writing of a piece (apart from grammar and spelling) is not having enough sentence variation. What do I mean by that? Well, to illustrate, let me start by showing you how not to write a paragraph. Judy came home. She found her door wide open. Chills ran down her spine. Something seemed off. The lights were out. Nothing looked out of place. Something felt off though. She flipped the switch next to the front door. No lights came on. She grabbed her cell phone. She opened it. She used the faint light from the screen to look around the front room.

What's wrong with that paragraph? There's a clear lack of sentence variation. The sentences are short and choppy with the basic structure never changing. Each has a subject and verb (sometimes with an object thrown in) and nothing more. There is never any change to the length of the sentence or the style in which it is written. Now let's take that same paragraph, add in some strong verbs, some commas, and move the words around a bit.

Judy walked up to her front door, finding it slightly ajar. Chills jolted down her spine. Something seemed off. The lights were out, and nothing seemed out of place, but something felt horribly wrong. She flipped the switch next to the front door; no lights came on. She grabbed her cell phone from her purse and opened it. Using the faint light from the screen, she looked around the front room.

Now we see a plot starting to form, and it's clear that something bad is going to happen. Suspense has been heightened, and very real sense of the character's impending danger is developing. All this from sentence variation. Most of the same words were used; all that changed was the style of the sentences.

That's not to say that all literary problems can be solved by rearranging a few sentences, but there's certainly something about it that adds to any piece. If you opened a book and saw the original paragraph as the first one in the book, you'd probably close it immediately and never have a second thought about it again. But if you saw the second attempt at the same paragraph, you might be more interested in continuing.

In order to master sentence variation, one needs to study the types of sentences that there are a bit more. I won't go into great detail with all of these, but here are the main ones:

  1. Simple Sentence: A simple sentence is an independent clause that contains a subject and verb, expressing a complete thought. Example: Jack and Jill ran up the hill to fetch a pail of water. There is a subject (or in this case, two), a verb, and one complete thought. Simple.
  2. Compound Sentence: Much as you'd expect, a compound sentence is two independent clauses that have been joined together by a conjunction, or coordinator. Example: Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after. First, Jack fell down the hill and broke his crown, then Jill tumbled down after him. Two ideas joined together using a comma and the conjunction "and."
  3. Complex Sentence: Complex sentences contain both an independent clause (one that can stand on its own as a complete sentence) and a dependent clause (one that needs an independent clause attached to make it complete). Example: When Jack tripped over the rock at the top of the hill, Jill didn't notice. The first half of the sentence is actually the dependent clause in this cause. It signifies a specific period of time in which the event happened (when Jack tripped), and therefore, relies on an independent clause to clarify what the event actually was (Jill didn't notice). The semantics are more complicated and more in-depth than that, but there is the gist of what a complex sentence is.

Of course, you can have variations of these types of sentences within the English language, such as compound complex sentences, but as long as you at least vary between the three main types as you're writing paragraphs, the style and overall appeal of your will be more desirable. A well-written paragraph will sound almost musical. The length of one sentence has a big influence on the tone of the sentence, and when combined, different types of sentences can build paragraphs of suspense, bliss, and even turmoil.