Every writer wants to create prose packed with energy and vitality. They know dull, lifeless writing disappoints the reader. Tired sentences are often the cornerstone of bad prose. They disrupt the flow and bore the reader.
Take these tests and find out if your sentences pass, or if you’re writing tired sentences.
- Same Sentence Starts:
The Problem: This one shows up a lot first person point of view, too many sentences will begin with I and my. Opening the bulk of your sentences with any single word (she, he, a character’s first name, or anything else) is tiresome for a reader. Also, it can take on an unpleasant listing quality.
The Test: Print out some pages of your writing and highlight the first word of every sentence. Now read just the highlighted words. Did you see a pattern? If every third word is the same word, you have a problem.
The Fix: Even if you’re writing in the first person there is no reason for every sentence to start the same way. Use items, emotions, colors, just about any word can start a sentence. Find respected authors working in first person and take note of the words they use. Don’t be afraid to try something new, you might like it.
- Pesky Verb Preferences:
The Problem: New and experienced writers alike fall into the habit of using the same stale verbs. No writer needs to use the same verb 20 or 30 times in a single page, and yet some do. Yes, I have counted. Overuse of to be verbs is a pet peeve of mine.
The Test: Use the pickle trick we taught everyone last year.Take a copy of your work (never the original) and use the search and replace function to change every occurrence of an overused verb for the word pickle. If your manuscript looks like relish vomit, you have a problem.
The Fix: Rid your work of dull verbs by rewording and replacing them with a better verbs. If you are having trouble thinking of fresh verbs, I recommend reading Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing, by Constance Hale. Although written for nonfiction writers, Hale hammers home the senselessness of sticking to a small assortment of verbs when so many other verbs are hungry for your attention.
- The Long and Short:
The Problem: Most writers know you slow down readers with longer sentences. That’s great for delivering emotionally packed prose. So super short sentences must make your manuscript read faster, right? Wrong! Lots of short sentences stacked up like dominoes, can make your work read as simplistic and monotonous.
The Test: Nothing beats reading aloud. I even wrote a post about it last year, Reading Aloud: Why Hearing your Book is Important. In an ideal situation short and long sentences should work together to create pleasing tempos, almost like music. If you start sounding singsong, or like you’re droning, you have a problem.
The Fix: Length preference is influenced by personal style, and modern readers favor shorter sentences. The genre you write in can help you find the right balance. Thrillers favor shorter sentences, whereas literary writers favor longer ones. There are programs to help you count and chart each sentence length, but I think editing by ear is still best.
Special Note: Longer sentences will impact the readability index and give your novel a higher score. This is an important consideration for children’s writers.
- Structure Sabotaging Pace:
The Problem: Related to sentence length is sentence structure and complexity. A writer needs to know when to keep it simple. Making good decisions about sentence style will help a writer control the pace and the tone.
The Test: Print some pages of your writing and using three different colored highlighters mark each type of sentence construction. I use yellow for simple, orange for compound and red for complex sentences. If your pages look like a pleasing mix of all three colors, leaning toward the yellow/orange range, the chances are good you’re on track. If you have too much yellow (and you don’t write for young children) or too much red, you might have a problem.
The Fix: Look at the type of sentence structure you overuse. If your dialogue is mostly red, you need to break those ups. Real people use back-and-forth bursts of conversation. Simple sentences (the ones marked in yellow) work great for dialogue and will lend extra punch to something shocking. Use complex sentences to slow the reader down and make them think. Again, the exact mixture is influenced by style and genre.
Special Note: Compound sentences are fantastic, we all love them. But beware; don’t rely on and as your main conjunction. Any repeated pattern starts to get monotonous after a while.
Hopefully you took the tests and didn’t find a single area to improve. Congratulations! Or maybe you didn’t pass. Sorry about that. At least now you know which good sentence villains you need to vanquish!
I’d love to hear your good sentence tips in the comments.