Friday Writing Experiment No. 6: Writing Good Sentences

We can come up with brilliant ideas, storylines, and characters, but they’re unlikely to be much use unless we can bring them to life with elegant, vibrant, cogent, taut, muscular sentences.

I.e., unless we can write.

The book I recommend more than any other to writers and students is Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax, which is a lively and informative overview of all the grammar and usage we probably did not learn in English classes. I’m keen to acquire a copy of her new book Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch (one on the way, or rather, I’m on the way to one), which is – ahhhh! – devoted to verbs, those powerhouses of the sentence. I hope to review both of these books in the near future, but meanwhile take a look at Constance Hale’s newly designed website and blog, which has a ton of useful resources.

And inspired by St Constance’s love for ‘wicked good prose’ (and a day late – oops!), this week’s writing experiment is dedicated to writing powerful sentences.

Take any interesting sentence you’ve written lately – interesting as in a sentence you were pleased with, or maybe it’s a sentence that gave you a problem because it felt a bit clunky or did not quite express what you wanted. Or perhaps it’s just any old sentence from an email, or you can borrow one from someone else.

And if you are feeling bold and have the time: take a whole paragraph.

Now perform at least five different operations on that sentence/paragraph, i.e., rewrite it or modify it in at least five different ways.

Some suggestions:

* Change the word choices subtly, e.g., use a thesaurus to bring different shades of meaning out of each word in the sentence.

* Change the word choices radically, e.g., replace each word with another word that’s an equivalent part of speech acquired randomly – perhaps replace its first noun with the first noun you find in a newspaper story, then replace the next noun with the next noun you find in that same story, and so on. Understand word order, and words as placeholders of content.

* Express the action using passive verbs instead of active, or vice-versa.

* Remove all adjectives.

* Remove all adverbs.

* Change nouns to proper nouns, where you can (e.g., change ‘tea’ to ‘PG Tips’).

* If the/a sentence has more than one verb, remove unnecessary verbs (purging yourself of linking verbs and auxiliary verbs). If all the verbs seem necessary, let them take turns at being the only verb in the sentence. Change the verb if it seems necessary.

* Feel free to extend or develop sentences using content from other sentences from the original text, e.g., merging it with a nearby sentence to create a compound sentence and/or a complex sentence.

* Extend sentences by using a co-ordinating conjunction and another clause to make compound sentences. What effect does that have?

* Extend sentences by using a subordinating conjunction and a dependent clause to make a complex sentences. What effect does that have?

* Double the length of your sentence, without changing the basic meaning.

* Halve the length of your sentence, without changing the basic meaning.

* Rewrite your sentence/paragraph as a text message or a Tweet (under 280 characters, or 140 in old money).

* Add more life to your sentence/paragraph.

* Think abstractly. Conceive of your original sentence/paragraph as an action: right now, is it a kiss, a kick, a projection, a hinge, or some other gesture? How can you make it into a different action: a flight, a decoration, a flick, a punch?

* Assess the elemental quality of your sentence/paragraph: is it mostly Fire, Water, Air, or Earth? Like an alchemist, translate it into another element through your sentence structure and word choices. Aim to keep close to the original meaning, perhaps, but also explore how the sense can be shifted.

* Invent your own sentence operations, and share them with the class. Let your imagination go a bit wild with sentences.

I suggest you do these exercises by hand in a notebook. You can of course do on screen as well. In fact, it might be interesting to explore these processes of composition in different media: on the screen of your phone, on a blackboard, on Post-its.

And then repeat over with a different sentence/paragraph. It can be a good constraint, though, to use the same sentence/paragraph for several different operations in order to explore the possibilities.

If you need to look anything up, and don’t have your own Sin and Syntax (why not?!), here are some useful resources:

* Mantex study notes on English language

* Parts of Speech Overview – from Purdue’s Online Writing Lab

* Definitions of Basic Sentence Parts


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