Most of us need to improve our writing — even if you’ve been writing for forty years, right? One of those ways is to vary our sentence structure.
First of all — if we don’t practice soccer or show up for practice from the drills and the warm-ups, will we ready for the next game? Will the coach even place our name on the roster for the next game? Or bench us?
Like anything, writing takespractice. Practice. And revision. And editing. And reading it out loud — and cutting the fat — and listening to the musicality of the language.
Baseball, guitar, piano — it all takes practice and time. If you’re not into baseball or piano, guess what — are you just wasting time?
Let’s start with the basic sentence — and keep it loose
So let’s start with the basic sentence: the loose sentence. Here’s an example:
Walter is the noun. Laughed is the verb, right? This is past tense. ‘Walter laughs’ would be present tense — it’s happening now.
Those are the only two requirements to make a sentence — like the shortest verse in the Bible: Jesus wept (John 11:35) You need a subject — the thing or idea and that thing or idea need to be doing something — the verb.
If your teacher or editor says you’re using a fragment, that means it’s not a complete sentence. You could do that intentionally. Like this. But let’s worry about that another time.
A loose sentence is when the subject and verb appear at the beginning of a sentence. It’s considered a simple sentence. It’s really how we begin to learn a language:
I eat. I see. Me go. Me ball — okay — add verb — Me wants ball. Okay — now proper English. I want the ball.
With this basic, loose sentence, now we can add to the basic structure — the foundation:
Walter laughed at the clown while munching popcorn at the circus in New Jersey
Here, I’ve added two prepositional phrases: at the circus and in New Jersey. ‘While munching popcorn’ is the subordinating conjunction. It is still a loose sentence — even with the extra material. A run-on sentence does not mean it’s ‘long.’ A run-on sentence looks like this:
Susie and Ameet were finding it hard to, then they went to the store.
Does that make any sense? Sometimes there may not even be a comma. So watch out for incomplete sentences — like run-ons and comma splice — when two independent sentences are joined by a simple comma:
I was having the time of my life, I loved being at the party.
The periodic sentence is great for drama and surprise
This happens when the subject and verb are withheld until the end of the sentence. Here’s an example of a periodic sentence:
While he was munching popcorn at the circus in New Jersey, Walter laughed.
Parts of speech can be moved around to create variety — like puzzle pieces. You can shift them around the sentence above contains for the dependent clause to start the sentence. That means it cannot stand by itself. If you put a period at the end of ‘New Jersey,’ it becomes a fragment.
The sentence could also be written this way:
While he was munching popcorn, Walter laughed at the circus in New Jersey.
When you pause when reading out loud, you generally need a comma — like a little breath of the spirit in there. Think of dependent clauses as a support system — like a flying buttress that supports the main wall of a thin, high church wall — like Notre Dame in Paris.
They cannot stand by themselves. They need support. You can add dependent clauses against that main wall at the beginning and at the end or on the side. You could you can string dependent clauses together as long as that main subject and verb that main sentence that that independent clause is strong enough.
Or you write:
While at the circus, munching on popcorn, Walter laughed at the clowns.
Laughing at the clowns, Walter munched on popcorn while at the circus.
Or not as effective:
Laughing at the clowns, Walter, while at the circus, munched on popcorn.
It would be weird to write this:
While he was munching popcorn at the circus at the clowns, Walter laughed.
Writers can string dependent clauses together as long as that main subject and verb — the independent clause is modified correctly. Who is laughing? Who is munching? Who is at the circus? Well, it better the noun — the subject of the sentence or else that’s confusing and called a misplaced modifier.
You would write, using a non-restrictive clause, one that could be taken out because it does not interfere with the meaning of the sentence:
Walter, while munching on popcorn at the circus, laughed at the clowns.
That middle section could be deleted — and it makes sense: the subject and verb are still together — but this will make a loose sentence. But it helps to vary the sentence structure. And that’s what we want.
2nd example of a periodic sentence: it helps create drama and tension — we wait to see what happens
As the wind whistled and the rain pounded the windows, the sky gray and foreboding without a trace of hope in the heavens, Walter picked his nose.
Okay, the reader expects something to happen that’s more in keeping with the tone of the dependent clauses. This is often how humor is developed — the writer inserts what is not expected. It’s ironic.
For a periodic sentence to be effective, the punctuation must be perfect and understandable. Do not confuse the reader with faulty grammar in order to be ‘complicated.’
Subordination is used somewhat like a greater than and less sign
Great writing requires balance and symmetry. Artists know this. Writers are artists. We arrange words on the page to create order and meaning — much like photographers and painters and sculptors.
When viewing the photo, right, we need to know the vanishing line. All of those things place a huge role — the golden ratio — the rule of thirds — where is the emphasis for my eye? If it’s not on the books and it’s on the weird half-cropped painting in the back, well, that’s a problem.
Writers need to direct the eye too to the empathic detail in every sentence. Writers often place the most essential word — the most important idea — the most emphatic word in the middle of a sentence or at the beginning.
Oftentimes, this is a mistake. If you think of the sentence as a unit — the strongest beat, the strongest word, what you want to be stressed, right — that should be at the end.
Here’s an example:
I wrote my first novel when I was only ten years old.
What’s intriguing about this? I have created an A and a B in the sentence: two parts. One is subordinate to the other. One is in charge of the other in importance. So B must always be in charge because it comes at the end.
What is unique about that sentence? Well, she wrote her novel when only ten.
It could be written this way — but it misses the right emphasis:
When I was only ten years old, I wrote my first novel.
Is the novel really what’s important? Well, sometimes it’s up to the writer, but think about what the reader will find interesting. After all, that’s the audience you need to please and educate and entertain, right?
The secret is to vary the sentence structure — like a musician that varies the notes and chords on the scale. You just don’t play middle C all the time. Writers, oftentimes students, pick a set structure that they’re comfortable with and they stick to it. And man, that makes for troublesome and frustrating and boring reading — especially if you always start with a coordinating conjunction or string so many independent clauses with coordinating conjunctions. The reader does not know what is important.
For more information on subordination, check out this website.
Dramatically short sentences grab attention — Like this!
Writers often do not know when to stop. So they just heap more and more into an already overloaded sentence, and they keep going, and the reader wonders what’s happening because they are confused, and the writer just keeps typing away, and hopefully somewhere they will find out what you trying to write and guess right.
Like my example above. Horrible, right?
The emphasis on the subject gets lost. Many times, too, the punctuation is problematic.
Dramatically short sentences vary the sentence structure.
Look at this example:
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — **** — — — — — — — — —.
What stands out there — the four-star things, right? Well, your dramatically short sentence can do that, too. The eye focused on what