How to Vary Your Sentence Structure (And Stop Boring Your Readers)

How to Vary Your Sentence Structure (And Stop Boring Your Readers)

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.

Sentence structureHow 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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12 comments

  • Megan S. says:

    Great post, Ali Luke! I think sentence structure is something easy to forget but so important! Varying sentence structure can change the pacing of the story or article. If all the sentences are long, it’ll drag out the pacing. Shorter sentences enable a reader to read faster and then make the pacing faster as well and more suspenseful as they try to read even faster to get to the next point to see what’s happening. It’s then a key component to how a section of writing feels to the reader.

  • Great post. I’m now off to read through my latest wip to check all the sentences. Thanks/

  • Colin says:

    Sentence structure and flow is so important. Also chapter length. Long chapters are needed to embed ideas and characters. Short chapters can be necessary to generate explosive action plot. That sort of breathless excitement, when the protagonist is in mortal danger and there is a lead up to a an escape. Thanks for the reminder about variety in sentence start and length. There can be three or four re-writes in a chapter before it finally seems to gel!!

  • This opened my eyes. I tend to write subordinate sentences quite often. I’m in the middle of writing another book and rewriting yet another. I know now what to watch for and fix the sentences as I go. Thank you.

  • Olumide says:

    This article is a reminder to make our writing conscious. When I write articles for my clients most times, I’m usually oblivious to aspects like that. I just want to get all the ideas out.
    This advice is especially beneficial during rewrite of a book or post. Thanks for the important tip.

  • Nicholas says:

    It is true that most editor scan through a post to see the sentence structure. This post is a great resource for all writers.

  • Bob says:

    Nice post, and something that has not been on my radar screen. I guess it’s time for some reviewing.

  • That’s a very helpful reminder ! Thank you 🙂

  • Anitra Budd says:

    I’ve pointed out this issue to so many writers over the years. It’s great to have an article that explains it so succinctly. I’ll definitely share it with future clients—thanks, Ali!

  • Khomotso says:

    This is so helpful. Thank you for the insights!

  • Jenise Cook says:

    As an experienced business writer returning to creative writing, these are good reminders.

    Other writers ask me to edit their WIPs. I’ll add your ideas to my Checklist.

    I’ve shared the URL to this post on a Forum post in Scribophile. Thank you for writing this!

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