Tips for Writing Better Sentences

Recently I gave a talk on how to write better sentences and fix clunky ones. Here are the tips I gave to the attendees. Remember that there’s no formula for writing a good sentence. There’s not even a formula for knowing what a good sentence is. The very idea is subjective. Instead, these came from analyzing some truly bad sentences and considering what could make them better. These tips won’t apply in every situation. But they’re worth considering when you find your sentence is in trouble.

TIPS FOR IMPROVING SENTENCES

1. Identify all the clauses in the sentence.
The mayor went
to Washington because he had a meeting with the senator.

2. For each clause ask: Could the subject or verb be more vivid or substantive?
Bob’s desire
was that he would come to occupy the Lou Larson’s job.  --->
Bob
wanted Lou Larson’s job.
Ask: Does the main clause convey the most important information?
Paris
is a place that gets a lot of tourists.  --->
Paris gets a lot of tourists
.

3. Look for “upside-down subordination,” where the most notable information is trapped in a subordinate clause by until, after, before, if, when, because, etc.
When suddenly Officer Miller shot the robber, he knew it was a good decision.  --->
Suddenly, Officer Miller shot the robber. He knew it was a good decision.

4. Consider whether each clause/action should be made into its own sentence.

Karen knew that removing her coat would send bill the wrong signal and didn’t want to give him any ideas because that could lead to trouble.  --->
Karen knew that removing her coat would send Bill the wrong signal. She didn’t want to give him any ideas. That could lead to trouble.

5. Look for other sentence elements, like participial phrases, that could be made into separates sentences.
Having been in a lupus survivor for 15 years, John knew what to do.  --->
John had survived lupus for 15 years. He knew what to do.

6. Look for passive voice and try converting to active voice. Compare:
The coffee was served.  --->
The waiter served the coffee.

7. Look for actions and descriptions converted into abstract objects (nominalizations) and consider changing.
It’s clear she has happiness. --->
It’s clear she is happy.

8. Look for modifiers that can be deleted without loss of meaning, especially adjectives and manner adverbs.

9. Root out verbose expressions and linking terms: therefore, furthermore, thus, for his part, due to the fact that, it is his opinion that and some instances of in addition to and from blank to blank.

10. Look for poorly placed modifying phrases and look for ways to rework the sentence.
Steve photographed an elephant in his pajamas.
The elephant appeared just after Steve had leapt out of bed wearing his pajamas.
Wearing his pajamas, Steve leapt out of bed and photographed the elephant.
Steve was still in his pajamas when he photographed the elephant.

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