Writers who have mastered the qualities of good writing are a blast to read. It almost seems like magic. Your eyes just can’t stop hopping along from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, one page to the next.
The Crucial Qualities of Good Writing
How do they do it?
Let me wager a guess: writing good sentences. Among other things, of course. But that’s right: sentences. The building blocks of prose, sentences are one of the crucial qualities of good writing.
A lot of beginning writers — caught up in plot and dialogue and characterization and description — sometimes lose sight of writing craft at the sentence level. Here are three qualities of good writing that will make your prose sing.
How to Begin a Sentence
Beware of structuring most of your sentences in the same way. The most common one I see, by far, is the “I verb” (first person) or “Subject verb” (third person) sentence beginning.
Take a look at these two short example paragraphs:
I looked down the street, first left, then right. I didn’t see anybody so I ran left. I picked wrong, of course. I had no idea that the bad guys were just around the corner.
He grabs the book and scans the lettering etched into the leather cover: The Volume of Secrets. He sighs with wonder. It is his at last. He slips it into his pocket just as Professor Detritus appears in the doorway.
If the above paragraphs inspire a vague sense of boredom, it’s because almost every sentence starts the same: “I verb” or “Subject verb.” Let me repeat: I see this a lot. If you’re not sure how often you fall into this trap, start underlining all of your “I verb” or “Subject verb” sentence beginnings. Seeing a lot of lines? Spice up your sentence structure so they don’t all start the same way. (Advice on rewriting sentences here.)
How Long Should Sentences Be
Length is another thing you want to take into consideration when you’re focusing on the qualities of good writing. I know this might sound like a no-brainer to some of you, but varying sentence length in every paragraph is a great way to keep the reader engaged. Take a look at one example:
The river drifted slowly through the countryside. Lila stood on its banks and watched the water. Anthony hitched up his horse somewhere behind her. She could almost hear his impatience.
Now compare to this one:
The river drifted slowly through the countryside. Home. Lila stood on its banks, watching familiar water burble at her feet. Behind her, Anthony hitched up his horse, the saddle hitting Lightning’s muscled back with a hard packing sound. She could almost hear his impatience.
I’ve mixed it up a bit, varying the “Subject verb” sentence beginnings, but also sentence length. We go from the very short “Home.” to a pretty long one about the horse. This keeps the reader engaged because, otherwise, their eyes and brain get lulled to sleep by sentences that look alike. Keep your reader on their toes, right down to the varied length of your sentences.
Exciting Writing Is Mimetic Writing
Sentence length is also very useful in setting tone. Make your sentence length match the mood of what you’re saying. Take a look:
Her heels hit the pavement in staccato bursts. They were after her. Five of them. Guns drawn.
Short, choppy sentences heighten story tension. Alternately, long, loopy sentences have their uses:
Edward’s pale marble skin erupted in a shimmering display as soon as he stepped into the lazy beam of afternoon sunshine. A light seemed to leak from his very soul and out of his pores, like a million twinkling stars dotting the nighttime firmament, each fleck of glitter as dazzling as the next.
Martha and Whitney, that was for you! You get my drift. 🙂 So be aware of length, and you’ll be on your way to finding the qualities of good writing that enhance the tone of your work.
How to Use Punctuation
There’s not much to say about this one, really, except that sentence structure is closely tied to punctuation. Do a sentence without a comma. Then slip in a more complex sentence with a comma, several commas or (gasp!) maybe even a semi-colon. (Tips on punctuation rules for dialogue.)
Harnessing Your Writing Tics
Also, be aware that you might have some pet structures that you use over and over again. This doesn’t just apply on a sentence level, or a paragraph level, but on a manuscript level. Every writer has tics: pet expressions, favorite words, redundant descriptions. This applies to how you craft sentences, too.
One of my tics is this type of sentence structure, for example:
“The air tasted briny and salty and cool. As far as sunsets went, this one lit up the sky in orange, pink, and lavender.”
Using “word and word and word” and “word, word, and word” is one of my challenges as a writer. I like to describe things in threes. While using “and” sometimes instead of commas and vice versa mixes up the sentence structure, these shenanigans still litter my manuscripts.
I’m not saying get rid of your favorite way of crafting a sentence, I’m saying: be aware of it and make each choice, even on the sentence level, an intentional one. Remember: One of the qualities of good writing is making intentional choices about each and every sentence.
Sentence Craft Is an Intentional Choice
Repeat after me, folks:
Every sentence in my manuscript is an intentional choice!
Feels good, right? Writing good sentences is just one way to make your manuscript that much stronger. It is essential to the craft and these are just three small things to take into consideration. Have fun!
An exciting novel begins at the sentence level. Hire me as your novel editor and we will engineer great fiction together from the ground up.
25 Replies to “Qualities of Good Writing: Good Sentences”
Great tips – especially love the link to Twilight ; )
Gasp! A shout out on Kidlit.com? Hello world, I have arrived. And right on the heels of a sparkly and twinkly and shimmery vampire. Swoon.
Mary Jo — Thanks!
Whit — LOL, I’m sure said vampire will give you fang to mouth in case you get the vapors!
Whoa whoa, I’m not *sharing* Edward with anyone!
The point about sentence beginnings that all sound the same hits home to me…
One of my own tics (in fairly informal non-fiction writing) is waaaaaaaay overuse of “I think” — or, in a grant application I wrote, “I believe.” Uck.
Ah, the rule of threes. A tic of mine, as well, but until now I never minded. Hmmm….
This post was so helpful. In an effort to combat my bad habit of letting passive voice slip into everything, I picked up the habit of overusing the S-V-O construction. Time for another edit 🙂
Mary, thank you for this post!
Very useful, as always.
I wanted to add just a tiny thing about sentences—about subordination clauses. I mean, sometimes I see on my early drafts that I’ve subordinated the most important part of the sentence to a less impacting, or less interesting, sentence. Lame examples here: “Having killed Jane, Mark felt hungry.” Or, “After kissing him for the first time on the lips, she jumped into the car.” So the more immediate verbs here are: “felt” and “jumped.” Instead of kill and kiss, which I think are more interesting, right?
Thanks Mary. Once I resolve my WIP’s plot, my next step is to tackle those sentences. I’m so guilty of the “I verb” construction. Or The “I verb” construction plagues my WIP?
Great post, Mary! One thing I’m finding to be really true is if you’re not sure if you have a problem with these things: read it aloud! You’ll hear it instantly. If you lower your voice, want to skim, or are afraid someone might walk in and hear you it’s a really good hint you need to take another look.
Insightful post. And if you can’t see them in your own manuscript, hopefully you can count on your critique group to spot them. Thanks, Mary!
… Interesting, concise, and helpful 😉
Yeah, this is a GREAT post! Thanks! 😀
Fantastic post to re-read. Working on this now. 🙂
Love the way you simplify the art of good writing! Thank you!
Great post. Helpful info. Thanks for all the great tips!!!
Very interesting that I just realized that I too use to describe in threes when crafting my sentences. There is a lot to learn about writing and writing well. Thank you for sharing.
Fabulous tips. Writing is truly an art form.
Great tips; however, you lost me the second you decided to use “twilight” as an exemplar. Meyer may have some well structured sentences, but perhaps she should have favored creating a well structured and drawn out protagonist- not a cardboard cut-out.
“Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing
what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it
is to have a boyfriend.” – Stephen King
Shawn — That sentence was making fun of TWILIGHT, not actually front TWILIGHT. It was an inside joke with some friends.