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How to write a good sentence

Some years ago, I sent off a manuscript to an editor. After the usual period of review, the editor sent back a note saying that he liked the work, but suggested that I should make it “less academic.” I reworked a number of things and sent back a revised version with more examples and a lighter tone. A week later, I got a short email back saying “No really, make it less academic.”

I asked for some advice and he explained that I should have no paragraphs longer than a page, and no sentences longer than a paragraph. That helped me a lot, and it also got me to thinking more about what it takes to write a good, sometimes even a great, sentence. How concise should it be? How should you introduce a topic? When is it okay to use the passive voice? I decide to look at some actual prose to see how other writers manage their sentences.

Here’s a nice 41-word sentence from the introduction to Jeanne Fahnestock’s Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion.

In 1984, an archivist for the U.S. Congress discovered a text that had been missing for forty-three years: the podium copy of the speech that President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered on December 8, 1941, asking Congress to declare war on Japan.

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“Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

The first part of the sentence introduces a mystery—the case of the long-missing podium text—and after the colon, the mystery is revealed. It tells a story with a setting (in 1984, on December 8, 1941), characters (an archivist, President Roosevelt), and action (discovered, delivered). And the sentence offers just enough detail to heighten the mystery and drama.

With fewer words and less detail, the writing would be less effective:

In 1984, an archivist for the U.S. Congress discovered a text that had been lost: a copy of the speech that President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered on December 8, 1941.

A sentence, like a scientific theory, should follow Occam’s Razor. It should be as simple as possible, but no simpler than is necessary. In Fahnestock’s opening, everything contributes to the overall effect, right down to the initial D. in the president’s name.

A good sentence also lets you know just what to expect next. Here is one from the opening chapter of Geoffrey Huck’s What is Good Writing:

There was a time when good writing would invariably be defined by adverting to the literary classics.

The seventeen-word opening sentence lets you know where the chapter is going. The author is going to talk about the classical tradition of English prose. From the past tense “there was a time when” and the adverb “invariably,” we infer that the discussion of the classics will be used as a springboard to an alternate viewpoint proposed by the author. We’ve got a road map.

Notice how Huck’s sentence begins with “There was,” postponing the logical subject a time ever so briefly. This deferral gets the reader’s attention first on the idea of a past period of time and only then introduces the topic of good writing. While not a device to be overused, this grammatical deferral limits the time period as both specific and past. There was a time. It existed, but it no longer does.

Huck might have written a shorter sentence, but it would have lacked the same sharp focus on a past time.

In the past, good writing was invariably defined in terms of the literary classics.
Good writing used to invariably be defined in terms of the literary classics.
The literary classics once defined good writing.

Even the unusual diction of the word adverting fits the sentence, creating a literary tone less evident in the more commonplace in terms of. And readers for whom advert is a new verb will have already learned something from the exposition. All of the pieces of the sentence work together to create an effect and set a direction.

Sometimes, short sentences can be what is called for, especially when a series of them build a rhetorical effect. Here are thirteen words from a paragraph near the beginning of the second chapter of Fran Colman’s The Grammar of Names in Anglo-Saxon:

Names are chosen by people. Names are given by people. Names are anthropocentric.

The three short sentences build to a larger idea, the first two naturally leading to the third. The author uses passive verbs in the first two sentences and the resulting parallelism allows the repeated phrase by people to inform the meaning of anthropocentric and to fix the subject of the paragraph (names) in the reader’s mind.

Rote conventional wisdom would recast these in the active voice. But to do so would be a mistake, ruining the coherence of the paragraph. If Colman had written in the active voice, we wouldn’t know whether the paragraph was about names or people and the sequence of sentences would be a clumsy non sequitur rather than a logical progression:

People choose names. People give names. Names are anthropocentric.

Of course, we do not always write our best sentences on the first try. This sort of craft comes in the revising stage, where we look word by word at what we have wrought. Reading our own work with a critical eye, we see where we fumble, where we run on, and where we bluff. As writers, we should look again and again, eliminating unnecessary words but keeping those we need, fitting in the important details at just the right time, and putting grammar in the service of emphasis, cohesiveness, and logic. And in the end, it helps to have a good editor to catch what we still miss.

Featured image credit: “Kindergarten Sentence Writing” by Kevin Jarrett. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Robin Hamilton

    “A sentence, like a scientific theory, should follow Occam’s Razor. It should be as simple as possible, but no simpler than is necessary.”

    Isn’t this Einstein’s Razor rather than Occam’s Razor?

  2. M R Srinivasan

    In my view notions about whether a particular writing constitutes a good writing or not are basically subjective depending on the degree of perception exhibited by the readership at the individual level ; so long as a presentation in written down form is seen and understood to be decent and communicative enough to make some sense , it should pass muster for good readable writing.

  3. Nassar

    Thanks alot

  4. Jack Mulcahy

    I wonder what that teacher thinks of James Joyce’s Ulysses, where the last chapter is a 30-page single sentence.

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