Have you ever received a piece of feedback on your writing that made you think:
“Huh. I never noticed that…but now you mention it, I can see what you mean.”
My novel editor, the lovely Lorna Fergusson, has given me a lot of insightful feedback over the years. One issue she pointed out was this:
Too many of my sentences started the exact same way — with a character name (or pronoun), then an action.
They’d look something like this:
- He opened the door…
- She frowned…
- He backed away…
This was my “default” sentence setting — the type of sentence I produced when I was hurrying to get the first draft down on paper.
And I hadn’t even noticed.
But as soon as Lorna pointed it out, I could see the problem.
If all your sentences begin in the same way, or if they tend to all be roughly the same length, it can create a rather plodding — even soporific — effect.
Readers notice repetition: As an author, you may well use that to your advantage (think of the number of children’s books that employ repetition)…but it can also be a problem if you didn’t intend to repeat yourself.
How to vary your sentences
Look at something you wrote recently — maybe your last blog post or a chapter of your book.
What patterns crop up in the sentences? Do you tend to start sentences the same way? How long are your sentences, on average? Is there much variation in length?
If you need to make some changes, you might:
- Vary the subject of your sentences (especially if, like me, you tend to start with a character name or pronoun).
- Break up long sentences — particularly complex ones: See if the new rhythm suits your piece better.
- Use a subordinate (dependent) clause before the subject, e.g. “Looking across the road…” or “As Mandy watched…”
Here’s an example of a passage that isn’t quite working, and a suggested rewrite:
John ran down the street towards Mandy, shouting for her to stop.
She turned her head, meeting his eyes for a moment. He hurried forward, hoping she might finally listen. She strode away, ignoring him just as she’d done before.
These aren’t terrible sentences, and any one of these on their own might be fine. But packed together like this, they’re all far too similar:
- Each starts with a name or pronoun, then a verb
- Each has a main clause followed by a subordinate clause…and each subordinate clause begins with a present participle.
- There’s not a lot of variation in length (12 words, 10 words, 8 words, 10 words).
Here’s how I’d rewrite that passage:
John ran down the street towards Mandy. “Stop!”
She turned her head and met his eyes. Hurrying forward, he hoped she might finally listen. But instead, she strode away. She was ignoring him – just as she’d done before.
This time, there’s a much greater variety of sentence lengths — the shortest is the single-word sentence of dialogue, and the longest is the last sentence, at nine words.
The sentences have a variety of structures – e.g. “She turned her head and met his eyes” is a compound sentence with two coordinate clauses (the sentence could be broken into two sentences at the “and”).
While it may not be the finest prose, it now reads more smoothly: It sounds like the author knows what they’re doing.
It’s incredibly easy to fall into the trap of having too many similarly structured sentences.
Thankfully, a few tweaks during editing can easily fix things!
(Keep in mind, though, that you don’t need to change every sentence. Your go-to sentence structure might work fine some of the time.)
If you’re struggling to come up with different types of sentences, or if you’ve got a sentence that isn’t working but you’re not sure why, you might want to check out June Casagrande’s book It was the Best of Sentences, it was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences for lots of example and insights.
Next time you edit a piece of your writing — or someone else’s — pay close attention to sentence structure. Could a few minor tweaks make the whole piece work much better?
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