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Toolbox: On Sentences and How to Improve Your Writing Immediately
If you want to write, your writing has to have rhythm. No one ever taught me this. But, as someone who wanted to improve my writing as a craft, this is something I set out to understand: why is writing good? The best writing has rhythm and readers might not even be aware of it, but that’s why we return to the writing again and again. The story and structure have to be there, but without rhythm as the foundation, the writing doesn’t work.
Skeptics read on, better yet, read aloud. Here are two passages. You decide.
Ex 1. Theoretical approaches that treat religiosity as an evolutionary byproduct of cognitive mechanisms to detect agency may help to explain the prevalence of superstitious thinking, but they say little about the social–motivational (or ideological) functions of religious beliefs or the specific contents of religious doctrines. To address these omissions, we develop the thesis that religion provides an ideological justification for the existing social order, so that prevailing institutions and arrangements are perceived as legitimate and just, and therefore worth obeying and preserving.
Ex 2. To love is also good, for love is difficult. For one human being to love another is perhaps the most difficult task of all, the epitome, the ultimate test. It is that striving for which all other striving is merely preparation. For that reason young people–who are beginners at everything–cannot yet love; they do not know how to love. They must learn it.
The first example is from a professional psychology journal, a kind of treatise against God and the ‘prevailing’ belief of the masses.
The second passage readers might recognize as an excerpt from Rainer Maria Rilke’s seventh letter to a young poet. The passage has five sentences: short, long, same, longer with aside, then very short. It is a humble argument for love as an art that demands solitude. It is sublime.
One passage has rhythm and I read the book twice. You’d have to pay me to read other work.
It’s easy to spot bad writing. Easier still when you have to read it.
What is the basic building block for all writing? The sentence. Learn to write one good sentence, then another. Meaning in writing comes from addition, one word and then the next. Then one sentence, one paragraph, one essay, and so on. The question is which words to use and in what order to place them. That depends on what you’re writing. The college essay, as an example, has more playfulness than say a quarterly earnings report.
In the virtual and global world, people meet you through your writing. Often that is the first and only impression they have. Writing in the digital age is more important than ever.
Rhythm in writing or prose is all about sentences. The first step on how to improve sentences is to understand how they work. Improve your writing immediately: Use variety in type and length. It’s that simple.
Here is a primer which you might remember from grade school; it is also a tool you can begin to use now.
Four sentence types include declarative, interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory. A declarative sentence is a statement such as this one and it ends with a period. Interrogative is a question, imperative is a command, and exclamatory shows emotion and ends with an exclamation mark.
Use variety in type and length. That’s an imperative, because YOU as the subject is implied or understood. It is also a sentence I repeated and repetition, like echoes in prose, when artfully done is a powerful part of writing. The imperative sentence is an order or command and it directs the reader, nudging her into the writing, a kind of poke, or little wake-up call.
When I talk or write to you as the reader, it is called breaking the fourth wall or just breaking the wall. (This came from theater, when actors broke with the script and addressed the audience, the fourth wall, because the other three walls made up the stage. Extra nugget of knowledge for you, beloved reader.)
The format of this post is a letter which I write to you, as a friend, so it’s natural that I address you. It can go beyond the poke. Hey! Are you paying attention to what I’m doing here? I’m sharing important stuff about writing which has taken me decades to understand! You won’t find this anywhere else! See what I mean?
Write better by using a combination of sentence types. All declarative sentences of the same length will lose the reader and it’s not how we speak. Speech was first. Then the written word.
Read what you have written aloud. How’s that for a command or the imperative? When you read, you will hear the awkward and difficult parts. Language is life! This paragraph has all four types of sentences.
But, the rhythm is choppy. It doesn’t mean skillful use of all four types can’t work, but writing should reflect your natural voice. The rhythm must work. Most sentences should be statements, but use a question on occasion because it engages the reader.
Rhythm in writing is also called cadence and it refers to the movement of the language, the timing and flow of the sentences. Variety is vital to keeping reader interest. I use the terms rhythm and cadence interchangeably but prefer the word rhythm because we are familiar with that and it is a musical term. If we want to find what sticks in song and story, rhythm is the answer. Which reminds me of a nineties techno dancing favorite.
Maybe I misheard the lyrics. For the purposes of this letter on writing, Rhythm is the answer! It’s a soul’s companion! You can feel it everywhere! When you’re writing, channel your inner rhythm, that dancer that is you. Your voice in writing is like your fingerprint and your speech, distinctly you. One of a kind.
What do you read? Ever wonder why you read what you read? Maybe you read Sarah J. Maas (pronounced Mass) or Stephen King or the Wall Street Journal. Next time you read a writer or passage you enjoy, check out the language. Stop and examine what made you think, feel, laugh. It could be careful phrasing, smart dialogue, or the opening lines of a favorite novel. Look and examine the sentence length and type. See how they did it.
That’s the miraculous thing about writing. The art is right there for you, word by word, on the page to examine. Every sentence. The punctuation. How the writer constructed the sentence, the paragraph, the essay, the novel.
Unlike a painting with its layers of pencil and color and technique, with writing you see only the final copy, not the trash heap of thirty-nine revisions over the last seven years. For professional writers, that’s a truth universally acknowledged: writing is rewriting. For everyone else who has a day job, formal writing involves at least three revisions. Alas, beloved reader, that is fodder for another letter.
When writing, don’t overthink rhythm, but do change it up. Write short. Then, write long, letting the words flow from you naturally, trying dictation for a change because it’s an enabled feature on most computers and smartphones, and it’s a heck of a lot easier to dictate messages and notes if you’re walking or moving. That last sentence has forty-one words. The one before it has two words, as does this next one. Write short.
For now, write what’s on your mind, then try a short sentence, a long sentence, and ask a question. Go whole hog and throw in an imperative. And, for the love of words, have fun!
Upcoming TreeHouseLetters for your Toolbox will cover sentence structure, sentence order, and syntactical or grammatical forms. Nothing hard, just fancy words about how sentences work and more tools to improve your writing.
The Toolbox is a new TreeHouseLetter feature and you can expect it about every other week or so. If you miss one, all of the letters will be on the site.
Summary on How to Improve Writing Immediately
Share with children, friends, and colleagues. They have to write in this age; sorry there’s no escaping it. And, it will be better for the rest of us who have to read what they write. In a way, you’re doing this for yourself.
- Vary sentence length.
- Vary the types of sentences, writing mostly statements with thoughtful use of questions, commands, and exclamations.
- Hint. Those are the simple names for declarative, interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory. I think the Grammarians (AKA the Grammar Gods, Grammar Police, Grammar Nazis) invented these.
*NOTE ON GRAMMAR: I am a huge fan of language and mechanics and punctuation, but there are no grammar police at the TreeHouseLetter. For word nerds who are aware of the so-called Language Wars, I might be called an Enlightened Prescriptivist because there are places for formal writing, of course. For normal readers with normal lives, this means I’m a bit of a Grammar Nut and Grammar Hippie. That is, I love learning rules AND think it’s fine to use your judgment and personal taste to suit the writing. See, The Sexy Semicolon, Really? If it’s effective, even elegant, then go for it! The purpose of writing is communication and if the writer makes that happen with a style that readers like, then take note. I’ve read beautiful writing from the nearly illiterate who aim for authentic communication. And, I’ve read more than I’d like of gobbledygook from academics (see Example 1 for skeptics in opening) and of purple prose from authors who are writing for the literary peerage.
**WARNING: The Grammar Hippie’s approach may not be suitable in your AP Lit class (Advanced Placement Literature and Composition) or in an Executive Business Summary. Just saying. Never dispense with your Common Sense. Writing involves thought. Writing is thinking on paper. Or as Francis Bacon said: Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.
Try these tips now.
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