Writing Good Sentences

What is style? Elvis had it. So did Engelbert Humperdinck. But what does style mean to writing? Answer: the ways in which a writer writes sentences and chooses words that convey a voice, or particular personality. When we analyze writing style, we look at things such as sentence variety and style, wordiness, repetition, redundancy, vocabulary and word choice (sophistication, uniqueness, accuracy).

The underlying premise of all of these elements in writing for conciseness, which means using quality-chosen words rather than many words in order to deliver a clear point (referred to as "clarity"). A concise sentence uses no more than the necessary amount of words. And conciseness is important. If you don't believe me, ask Steven King (appeal-to-authority), of whose top seven writing tips have been widely circulated across the internet. Of his top seven writing tips, six of which make sense, two deal specifically with conciseness, points #1 and #3: "Get to the Point" and "Cut down your text." 

Here's an index to writing good sentences, with an exercise to follow:

Index

Conciseness and Clarity: Important
Enemies of Conciseness
 
Wordiness
     
Unnecessary Words
     
Wordy Phrases

     
Topic Announcements
   
Weak Verbs
     
Adverb Overuse
     
Passive Voice
     
Auxiliary Verbs
     
Vague Verbs and Heavy Verb Phrases
     
More on "Was" and "Is" and their Variations
   
Repetition and Redundancy
   
Sentence Variety

Elements of Clarity
Word Choice
    
Avoid Lofty Language, Double-Speak and Mass-Abstraction
   
Avoid Euphemistic Language
   
Use Concrete rather than Abstract Words
    Pronouns: First- and Second-Person POV ("I/We" versus "He/She/Them")
   
Avoid Cliches

 

 

Conciseness and Clarity: Important

 

Sometimes, assigning huge word counts for essays has a drawback: it often encourages students to add words just to have more words. It often leads to sentences like this:

               

        “My mother had a really, really positive, amazing effect on my total life experience."

 

If this sentence is revised for conciseness, it might read:

 

        “My mother had a positive effect on my life."

 

In an essay, every word should count for a purpose. This is called conciseness, being brief but comprehensive, stating all you need to state, clearly, in as few words as possible, and the way to write concisely is to pay close, hawkish attention to the sentence. 

 

Conciseness is critical because it serves writers and readers well in reality. Much of the writing you will do for work, such as proposals, resumes, or cover letters, demands conciseness because employers often don’t enjoy readings novels. All essays need to make a point and support it; they need to be thorough, but brief.

 

Clarity is defined as "clearness of thought or style," and the way to write with clarity, again, is to pay attention to the sentence, one at a time.

 


Enemies of Conciseness

 

Wordiness, Repetition and Redundancy, when eliminated, can make sentences concise.

 

Wordiness in its Many Forms

 

Wordiness does not mean "too many" words, as in exceeding word count limitations imposed by teachers; instead, it means unneeded words within a given sentence. By omitting an unnecessary word or two in each sentence, you can bring your word count down 50-100 words, and not have to cut whole sentences or paragraphs, which might weaken the impact of the essay. Here are examples:

 

Unnecessary Words (modifiers)

 

The following words are often, but not always, unnecessary.  Some examples of unneeded words:

 

Quite

Really

Very

A lot

A few

About

Almost

Pretty

Pretty Much

Kind of        

Sort of

There

 

 

Wordy Sentences                               Concise Translation

 

I kind of felt like I had to leave.

I had to leave.

I was quite upset.

I was upset.

The situation was not very pleasant.

The situation was unpleasant.

After a few hours, we stopped.

After two hours, we stopped.

I weighed about 210 pounds.

I weighed 210 pounds.

I got pretty sick on shellfish.

I became sick on shellfish.

 

Wordy Phrases (Lofty Language)

 

Many writers think it necessary to use certain phrases to sound smart, but many of these phrases are clichés, and unnecessary. Examples:

 

“In my opinion, . . .”.

 

“It is my belief that . . .”

 

“I believe that . . .”

 

"I feel that . . ."

 

These phrases are unnecessary in an expository essay, especially a persuasive one, because it should be evident in the form of the essay that the ideas expressed are the writer's; therefore, simply state the ideas/assertions. Here are wordy sentences and their translations:

 

Wordy Sentence                                                   Concise Translation

I think that I am mostly competent.

I am competent

It is my belief that green beans taste bad.

Green beans taste bad

I believe that corporal punishment is  immoral.

Corporal punishment is immoral

The town of Wolf Hole.

Wolf Hole

The state of Arizona.

Arizona

For the reason that . . .

Because

In today’s society, . . .

Currently, . . .

In the year 1977, . . .

In 1977, . . .

 

 

Topic Announcements

 

Similar to the wordy phrases just mentioned are wordy announcements, which are usually unneeded since the purpose of the essay is to advance ideas rather than to announce what will be written about; therefore, one should clearly advance ideas rather than announce what topics will be explored. Examples:

 

“In this essay, I will write about walleyes.”

 

This is not an idea; it’s an announcement. Instead, state an idea, such as “Walleye are the best fish on the planet.” That’s an idea that can be supported. It says something "about" walleyes rather than simply stating a topic.

 

Another example: instead of writing, “In this essay, I will take a position on the gun control issue,” write instead, “Gun Control is a violation of the Constitution” or "Gun Control is necessary for the health of our society." In each case, the writer is stating an idea rather than announcing his or her intentions of "getting to it."

 

 


Weak Verbs

           

Adverb Overuse

Adverbs are literally words that modify verbs (and often adjectives and other adverbs), such as the word "literally" used to describe, for example, just about any verb, as in, "I literally had to drop the class when the teacher said that literally no cell phones were allowed in class, because I was like, literally, how can I go for fifty minutes without, like, checking my text messages and stuff?"

In this case, the verb "literally" takes up space; nor does it mean what it means. Other adverbs include "moderately" and "quietly," as in, "I was moderately unconscious" or "I was quietly whispering." Sometimes, if the main adjective or verb is accurate, no adverb is needed.

Choosing verbs is critical for strong, active sentences, and if they are good verbs, then adverbs are unneeded and the sentences read faster and cleaner. There is no need to remove all of them -- sometimes they good and lovable -- but it is important to test each adverb for necessity. Revising away unneeded adverbs is an important revision practice for both fiction and nonfiction writers.

See "Tips to Eliminate Unnecessarily Overused Adverbs"


Passive Voice

 

“The flower vase was placed next to my bedside.” This is passively constructed because the subject of the sentence is missing, which means that the verb phrase, in this case, “was placed,” will be passive. “Was” is passive and unnecessary.

 

Revised into active voice (with the subject present), the sentence might read, “The nurse placed the flower vase next to my bedside.” Note also that the verb shows specific action; "was” shows nothing, and adds nothing to the verb “placed.” Sometimes (though no always), “was” and “is” are often unnecessary, like Beanie Babies.

 

Passive                                                            Active Translation

My visit to Fargo will always be remembered

I will always remember my visit to Fargo.

The lights were dimmed

He dimmed the lights.

A car was spotted coming toward us.

We spotted a car speeding toward us.

The baby was dropped by his dad.

The dad dropped his baby.

There were ten tables sitting in the room. Ten tables sat in the room

 

Scour your draft for passive verbs such as “was, were, are, is have, has, had, will, would, might.” See if you can make the verbs specific. This then leads us to:

 

Auxiliary (Helping) Verbs: The Quiet Enemies

When revising your verbs, it's important to note that not all verbs indicate action. Auxiliary verbs help modify verbs. Sometimes, though, they weaken an essay's pace, often by creating instances of passive voice or making sentences sluggish. Watch out for these space-takers:

 

BE, AM, IS, ARE, WAS, WERE, BEEN, BEING,

HAVE, HAVING, HAS, HAD,

DO, DID, DOES, DOING,

MAY, CAN, SHALL, WILL, MUST, MIGHT,

COULD, WOULD SHOULD, OUGHT.

 

Vague Verbs and Heavy Verb Phrases

 

Some verbs are vague and "show" nothing, verbs like Go, Went, Got, Get, etc.

 

 Went

 

This verb is unclear. “Went” can mean many different things. Example:

 

        “I told Ashley I didn’t want to go see Crazy Heart, and she went, ‘Whatever,’ and I went, ‘Whatever’ back.”

 

But Ashley and didn't went. She “said.”

 

Go

 

"I want to go to school.” Can you hear the confusion? This could mean the writer wants to go to school on a certain day, or return to school because he or she is not in school anymore. Let’s be specific: “I want to attend school” or “I want to return to school” are more precise, and have different meaning. The verb “go” could apply to either. It’s vague.

           

Got/Get

 

“Got” is often used to express the precise verbs “took”, “received,” “have,” and “became.” It’s lazy language, drive-through language: "Yeah, can I get a Whopper and a Diet Coke?" Sure, sure you can get a Whopper and a Diet Coke, if you can pay for it. Would you like a Whopper and Diet Coke?

 

 

Bad Got                                                          Good Got

My mom finally got to take me home.

My mom took me home.

I got an ‘A’ on my test.

I received an ‘A’ on my test

I got five limited edition Beanie Babies.

I have five limited edition Beanie Babies.

When I was going to get out of the car . . .

When I stepped from the car . . .

I got sick on shellfish.

I became sick on shellfish.

 

 

 

Heavy Verb Phrases: More on “Was” and “Is” and their variations.

 

Most repetition occurs with passive verbs was, were, have, has, had. These words often lead to flat, uninteresting sentences such as:

 

        "John was a good student. He was very smart. John was concerned, though, that he wouldn't make it to college."

 

Note the "was" and "John" repetition. Now read the sentence after it has been combined and compressed by listing John's qualities:

 

"John, a smart student, was still concerned that he wouldn't make it to college."

 

 

Weak "Is"                                        No "Is"  

My sisters were fighting.

My sisters fought.

I was walking to school yesterday

I walked to school yesterday.

Bob is employed as a dentist.

Bob works as a dentist.

 

 

Repetition and Redundancy

 

Repetition is the overuse of a particular word while redundancy deals with repeating the same idea over and over, but with some altered language. Note in the following examples how many of the sentences sound flat because their beginnings repeat each other. Repetition and redundancy can lead to a lack of sentence variety. Note the methods of correcting these choppy, repetitious sentences in leaner, more concise sentences.

 

Repetitious Sentences                                         Translation

That summer would be a summer that would change my life forever.

That summer changed my life.

It was early one morning about five o’clock A.M.

At five o’clock A.M., . . .

It was a very small cell. It could hold up to four people. It had two cold, dim light bulbs.

The small cell, which could hold four people, had two cold, dim light bulbs.

He was a crabby old man. He was in his mid-fifties and balding.

 

He was a crabby old balding man in his mid-fifties.

* Since I had fifteen minutes, I decided to have a smoke. I sat down on the stairs and lit up. I took one puff and looked up. I saw someone I hadn’t seen since I graduated from college.

 

Since I had fifteen minutes, I sat down on the stairs and lit a cigarette. I took one puff, looked up and saw someone I hadn’t seen since graduation.

 

* I would refer to this problem as an “I Farm” in my comments; not scientific or professional, I know, but it makes the point and connects with Ozzie Osbourne, who's popular with the kids.

 

 

Sentence variety, or lack of it, is also a part of repetition and redundancy. Example:

 

 

"My tooth hurt, so I walked to the dentist. He checked my teeth. He got the drill out and drilled my teeth. It hurt. He gave me some novacaine and it helped. He should have given me the novacaine first. I verbally abused him. I paid my co-pay and walked back home. My tooth still hurt."

 

Note that there is only one (arguably) complex sentence there; the rest are simple sentences, which are ones composed in simple subject+verb form ("I ate"), or sometimes subject+verb+object ("I ate food"). Complex sentences are variations on the former. To write more stylistically interesting sentences, hook together sentences with cool transition words and phrases, subordinating clauses,  and the occasional prepositional phrase to add detail where none exists. Example:

 

"My tooth hurt, so I walked to the dentist. He checked my teeth and then got the drill out, which hurt because he hadn't given me any numbing medication. After I screamed and flailed, he finally gave me some novacaine, and it helped, but he should have given me the novacaine first. Then I paid my co-pay and walked back home, my tooth still hurting."

 

 

Elements of Clarity

 

Word Choice

 

Avoid Lofty Language, Double-Speak, and Abstraction

 

Avoid language that reaches too high or sinks too low. There's no need to write "melancholy" when "sad" will do, but this sort of judgment depends on context. One word that may work in a science paper may not work in personal narrative essay. Choosing accurate words depends on being clear on context: who you are writing for, and what you are writing about.

 

Some writers choose to overwhelm reader with complicated languge in a mission to confuse them. See the Corporate Gibberish Generator. Corporate jibberish (called Double-Speak -- read this article -- falls into the realm of mass-abstraction, the purpose of which is to obfuscate truth rather than make it clear. Some academic language also fills the realm of mass-abstraction; to see how easy it is to create academic gibberish, see the Postmodernism Generator and get a brand new, intelligent-sounding but absolutely meaningless essay in less than three seconds.

 

Avoid Euphemistic Language

 

Euphemisms, the purposeful weakening of language to make it less hurtful or impactful, or sometimes less truthful, also falls into the territory of mass-abstraction because it makes the language less clear; ideas becomes softened and weakened and sometimes die.

ere are some more euphemisms to think about:

Original Word or Phrase

Euphemism

 

 

   
Old furniture Antiques
Used Cars Previously Owned Vehicles
Sales Tactics Gentle Persuasive Techniques
Brainwashing/Torture Persuasion
Criticism Critiquing
Arguing Dialoguing
Begging Requesting
Complaints Concerns
Anger Concern

Dump

Sanitary Landfill

Missile

Peacekeeper

Dead soldiers

Casualties

Dead civilians

Collateral damage

Poor

Economically Disadvantaged

Problems

Challenges or Growth Opportunities

Errors

Issues or Challenges to overcome

Shell shock

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Dead

Passed on/ no longer with us

Fat

Heavy or Obese

Short

Vertically challenged

Handicapped

Person with a disability

Deaf

Hearing impaired

Blind

Visually impaired

Crippled

Physically challenged

Diabetic

Person with Diabetes

Chemical spill, genocide, nuclear meltdown, etc.

Tragic Incidents or Unfortunate Tragedies

Old people, senior citizens

Older persons or People who are older

Midget 

Little person

Little person 

Person of small stature

Lazy

Lacks motivation/unmotivated

Pupil

Student
Student Learner
Student Customer
Professor Learning Resource Facilitator
Professor Instructor
Salesperson Sales Associate
Janitor Sanitation Engineer
Garbage Man Sanitation Engineer
Phone solicitor Customer Service Representative

 

 

And now, here is an explanation of the differences between abstract and concrete language:

 

Use concrete words rather than abstract words, especially if writing narrative.

Concrete verbs and adjectives are critical. Concrete language reveals the specific truth about matters whereas abstract language is non-specific. It's general and vague. It shows nothing. Concrete language, on the other hand, is specific and cannot be argued with. It expresses connections to physical things, whereas abstract language attempts to express connections to ideas, beliefs, and other matters not physical: things we can't see, touch, taste or feel.

Use clear words rather than smart-sounding ones that might confuse readers or make them feel stupid. For instance, I used the word "obfuscate" above rather than "confuse." Why? To make a point. The goal of writing is to make ideas clear to readers, not to confuse them. Each reader will probably get a clear picture of what the word "table" means, but each reader might not arrive at the same idea with the word "courageous."

Abstract language is open to interpretation; concrete language is not. For example, the word "rock" is concrete. Sometimes rock is concrete, and is thus a good example. Concrete can't be argued with. It is what it is. The word “Confusion,” on the other hand, can be argued with. For one person, “confusion” might mean not knowing which way to turn at the I-35 E and W junction; for another, it might mean mental anguish or severe depression. The word, “Rock,” however, means the same thing to just about everyone, unless we're talking about Led Zeppelin (Dated reference? Keep it? Cut it?) 

 

Other abstract words: spirituality, sacrifice, torment, pain, morals, values. Each of these commonly used words only has specific meaning when a writer shows what each means to him or herself through describing them through concrete language. Otherwise, they are vague, impersonal, general words that most people assume share a similar meaning. But nothing could be further from the truth.

 

"Truth" is another abstract word. Can you define what it means? Some might say it is "honesty," but that's abstract, too. Honesty is actually a character quality, and those who have that character quality value truth, which is nothing more than what “is” as opposed to what “is not,” but who knows? Abstract language is confusing and open to interpretation, and thus it muddles up essays and stories and lessens their emotional impact and softens their truth.

 

Maybe that's the purpose of abstract language: to muddle up the truth, to present less-than realistic portrayals of life, and maybe that's why abstract language is purposely employed by lawyers, politicians, businesses and institutions (ad agencies, schools, cults), or in sum, those who attempt to have power over others by confusing the others so that the others know less than they do. If these leaders meant to be clear, they'd use concrete language. Instead, they use words like “glorious” and “tragedy” and “opportunity” to boondoggle people into fuzzy ideas about the truth. Example of a letter sent to parents of children at an elementary school:

 

“We have established a special phone communication system to provide additional opportunities for parent input.”

 

Concrete translation: “We have a phone number set up so parents can call and complain.”

In storytelling, concrete language, that which “shows” characters and events, is called for. For example, instead of saying, "Jamie was a sad person," a writer using concrete language could write, "Jamie hung her head and a tear dripped off her nose." By her behavior, the reader knows she is sad, and believes she is sad. The reader doesn't have to take the writer's word for it .Concrete language shows how characters look and behave and reveals who they are by action, appearance and words rather than through a narrator telling how they are.

Concrete language is specific: run, jump, snap, computer, window, eyebrow, lip. It expresses physicality, whereas abstract language expresses vague ideas, beliefs: things we can't see, touch, or feel. Abstract words give no vivid picture, but create a cloud of associations for the reader: confusion, terror, anguish, melancholy, joy, heartache, sorrow, beautiful, handsome. These are abstract words, all of them meaning different things to different people. According to Gardner, abstract language pulls the reader from the vivid dream:

 

If the writer says ‘creatures’ instead of ‘snakes’, if in an attempt to impress us with fancy talk he used Latinate terms like ‘hostile maneuvers’ instead of instead of sharp Anglo-Saxon words like ‘thrash,’ ‘coil,’ ‘spit,’ ‘hiss,’ and ‘writhe,’ if instead of the desert sands and rocks he speaks of ‘the snake’s inhospitable abode,’ the reader will hardly know what picture to conjure up.

 

Abstract language is common in young writers. Take this example from a seventeen year-old:

 

            Sullen and pensive,

            My thoughts apprehensive,

            I need to start anew.

 

            Fearful of tomorrow,

            Throw away my sorrow,

            My life begins with you.

 

            Near to my beginning,

            Inside I’m grinning,

            The world awaits my care.

           

            Scared to face reality,

            I need to find vitality,

            I have to take a dare.

 

Not a word is descriptive or specific, except maybe "I"; the language is general, vague, sentimental, and abstract, all of it based on trying to fit a rhyme scheme, if I remember correctly. The language sounds cool but says nothing. There’s no person doing anything, or no theme or idea being advanced by images. There are no images. Who is the narrator? What’s the situation? What is leading this person to have these vague feelings? It’s a self-indulgent poem (and there's nothing wrong with being self-indulgent, unless you're trying to "communicate") that has no effect on the public. It’s a kid imitating the lyrical pattern of a Rush song, “Fly by Night.” It’s good practice, meant for the self more than for the public.

 

When I was seventeen, I considered that poem my best work, but only because the words sounded cool.  I wrote that before I understood that writing is a transaction with an audience rather than merely a self-indulgent "look what I can do" act. Effective writing isn't about a big vocabulary; it's about accurate word choice. Still, good writers start out where I did, in abstraction, wanting words to sound cool, and that's cool, because words should sound cool, but for a purpose, not just to sound cool. This move from "telling" to "showing" is a natural path for the writer, and also frustrating and wonderful.

 

Don’t be ashamed if occasionally your thoughts lead to “so many fears.” Stop and “show” the reader what makes you afraid, and what you “do” when afraid.

 

Read the essay "Stain you Red" for an example of concrete language and scene.

Here's a list of concrete versus abstract words:

Active concrete verbs show nouns "doing" things. Much of the time they give the reader a mental picture. In this short list, you can see the difference. The specific verbs "show" specific action, while the inactive verbs can express a number of different actions, none of which are expressed, and are therefore called "abstract."

Concrete verbs           Inactive verbs                                   

 

walk                          went

run                             go

jump                          got

crash                          get

flew                           come

 

Abstract adjectives show nothing and can be interpreted to mean hundreds of things, while concrete adjectives are what they are: they show exactly what exists in reality, and are therefore concise.

 

Concrete Adjectives            Abstract Adjectives

 

blue                                    beautiful

black                                  amazing

rusty                                   confusing

curved                                wonderful

 

Concrete nouns are what they are; they represent what they mean to represent. Water is water, but confusion is abstract and could take hours to make sense of.


Concrete Nouns                    Abstract Nouns

 

wound                                  pain                       

soot                                     confusion                                            

water                                   melancholy

nails                                     beauty

 

Pronouns: First- and Second-Person POV ("I/We" versus "He/She/Them")

 

Many students ask, “Can I use the first-person pronoun ‘I’ in my essay?” Many of them ask because in the past, they haven’t been allowed to, for certain essays, for certain reasons.

One reason is that first-person POV may indicate “bias” to the reader, or that the argument is based more on “feeling” and “belief” rather than “reasoning.” This is a good reason for avoiding first-person POV. Too much self-reference may signal to the reader some personal bias rather than objective criticism. Base your argument on logic and reason rather than feeling/personal taste. Yu can more forcefully advance your ideas, and much more concisely, by avoiding self-reference and instead using third-person pronouns, which makes your ideas universal rather than personal

Another reason for avoiding first-person POV is that it’s sometimes p.lain unnecessary, especially in “announcements” such as the following:

“I think . . .”

“I feel . . .”

“In my opinion . . .”

“I believe that . . .”

For better authority as a writer, it’s best to simply advance the idea rather than “announce.” Instead of writing, “I think that Walleye are great fish,” write, “Walleye are great fish.” Since you’re writing an argument, it’s pretty well understood that your thoughts are your thoughts.

However, there are cases where first-person POV may be effective, especially is a writer is using a personal experience to support a point. In that case, the writer would need to refer to the self. The basic rule is that first-person POV can be appropriate if it used sparingly and used only for the targeted purpose of advancing the argument.

So again, the answer is both yes and no. It depends on the context and the purpose. Sorry there’s no “one way or the other” rule on this one.

Speaking of pronoun point-of-view, one that you’ll want to avoid is the second-person pronoun “you,” which you’ll notice I use a lot in my instructional writing.

“You”: Second-Person POV

 This is a good example of pronoun-use matched to rhetorical purpose: second-person is typically only used in instructional writing, which this is, but not persuasive writing. And there are many reasons to avoid “you.”

The first is that any sort of shift in POV is confusing to readers. If the writer is moving from first-person “I” to second-person “you” and third-person “he/she/they,” there are can be a great deal of confusion about whom exactly the writer is referring to. It’s a clarity issue.

Secondly, “you” directly refers to the reader. This pronoun sometimes serves a purpose in essays of instruction (“how-to” essays), but not in persuasive forms. In any persuasive essay especially, it can seem heavy-handed and preachy, trying to force the reader aggressively to believe in something rather than allowing the reader to make his or her determination based upon the logic and support you provide. Instead, use specific pronouns like “audiences” or “viewers” or “readers,” depending on the subject. This at least makes the argument seem more objective rather than “telling” the reader to think a certain way. Oftentimes, this “telling” with the word you is a mask for a lack of developed reasoning. Make your “reasons” do the persuasive work. 

Finally, if there is any pronoun confusion at all, you should stick to writing in third-person POV, avoiding both first- and third-person POV’s entirely.

 

 

Avoid Cliches

 

And lest we forget, avoid old, stale, overused language that makes the individual look less than individual. Cliches put a halt to individual style quick-like. Here's a list of a few hundred, a drop in the bucket, scratching the surface, the tip of the iceberg: Cliches

 

 

Here is an exercise called Sentence Revision Exercise, but before you begin it, read this: