How To Write Good Sentences – And Why You Should

““In America only the successful writer is important, in France all writers are important, in England no writer is important, and in Australia you have to explain what a writer is.”” –  Geoffrey Cotterell, New York Journal-AmericanIf you want to be your best in business, you must be a good writer. By good, I don’t mean crafty or artful, but clear and persuasive. For our purposes, writing is a means to an end. The end is (1) the clear expression of an important idea or (2) persuasion. To do either well, you don’t need to have the literary sensitivity of a Cormack McCarthy, but you do need to do certain things, some of which I’ll talk about today.

Some of the following suggestions comes from Bruce Ross-Larson, founder of the American Writing Institute (not to be confused with the American Writers & Artists Institute) and author of Edit Yourself, a book I’ve recommended in the past.

Writing Good Sentences – The Two Biggest Secrets

Before you can write a persuasive memo or an effective sales letter, you must be capable of writing a good sentence. The first Golden Rule of sentence writing is to express one, and only one, idea in each sentence. (Ross-Larson allows for “two closely related ideas” in one sentence.)

The second Golden Rule of sentence writing – and this one’s from me – is to make sure the idea you are expressing is a good one.

The mistakes made by not following these two rules are extremely common. They are responsible – I’ll bet – for 60% to 80% of bad writing. Not only are they proliferate, they are deadly. Break either of the Golden Rules of Sentence Writing and you are in trouble. Break both at once and you will make your reader wonder how smart you really are.

Ross-Larson Identifies 5 Types of Sentences:

1. Direct

The simplest and thus the clearest, the direct sentence has one main clause and is the starting point for countless variants.

Example: Smart eateries are putting peculiar mushrooms on the menu.

2. Embellished

The first common variant to the direct sentence is to attach a phrase – at the beginning, middle, or end.

Example: By all means, Alabama has made itself more like the rest of America.

3. Complicated

The second common variant to the direct sentence is to add a comment or definition by means of a “which” clause.

Example: The book also suffers more than usual from Elshtain’s prose style, which is earnest at best and plodding at worst.

4. Conditioned

You can condition the main clause with another clause beginning with “when”, “if”, “because”, “since”, “as” and so on.

Example: When Mr. Clinton toasts Mr.Jiang at the White House next week, there will be no shortage of critics to accuse him of supping with the devil.

5. Multiplied

Another variant is to combine the above structures and multiply their parts.

Example: The number of men who consider working women to be worse mothers has dropped precipitously since 1970, but the number of women who think so has dropped far less sharply.

5 Techniques to Improve Your Sentences:

1. Make your sentences short. Ross-Larson recommends that sentences not exceed 22 words (about two lines of print).

2. Vary length. Every third or fourth sentence should be short. It is acceptable nowadays to shorten sentences by using sentence fragments – partial sentences.

Example: All the crusading doesn’t reassure the public. Just the opposite.

Occasionally, it’s good to use extra-short and/or fragments to begin or end paragraphs. And you can string two or three short sentences together to create cadence.

Example: Literature is invention. Fiction is faction. To carry a story line a true story is an insult to both art and truth.

3. To give your sentences a quick stop-and-go, use the interruptive dash.

Example: New York is a city ripe with extremes – of wealth and poverty, of creative energy and rage.

4. Employ the imperative to grab attention.

Example: Trek to the tops of mountains, the sources of rivers, and the earth’s icebound poles.

5. Address your readers directly to make your message personal and compelling.

Example: As a parent, you want to do everything possible to keep your children from experimenting with drugs.

Make These Techniques Work For You

Okay, I think that’s enough for today. If I give you any more, you’ll be overwhelmed.

Keep these rules and techniques in your head (or jot them down on a note card) and edit your next memo or letter accordingly. You’ll see an immediate improvement. Your writing will have more energy and power. Practice this for a week and you will lock in some new, good writing habits.

Next Thursday – after you’ve mastered these fundamentals – I’ll teach you some advanced ways to make your writing even stronger.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]