Writing Post: Sentences

Sentences for Beginners.

I am slightly obsessed with sentences. I write about them all the time. I see so many writers embarking on great projects when they haven’t quite got the hang of a good, clean, honest sentence. I see dangling modifiers and tangles of sub-clauses and an utter disregard for clarity. (Astonishingly, I see this in people who work for national publications. I’ve met it in brilliant young students with years of serious education under their belts.) 

I believe that sentences are your building blocks, your foundation stones. You need to learn them as a musician will learn arpeggios. You cannot play a symphony if you don’t get your scales right. 

The sentence is where every novice writer should start. So here are three useful thoughts for the beginners amongst you. (They are important reminders for the hoary old pros amongst us too. I contemplate this troika pretty much every day of my writing life.)

1.   When you are starting out on your writing odyssey, try to keep your sentences short. When you are more experienced, more confident, more easy in your craft, you can let them run long and loose and free. For now, the short, declarative sentence is your friend. Go back to basics. There is something lovely about subject, verb, object. ‘I love the rain.’ ‘She smashed my heart.’ ‘He hates anchovies.’ 

Sometimes, all you need is a subject and a verb. ‘The red mare danced.’ ‘I exist.’ ‘You understand.’ ‘The world steadied.’ 

You can tell a whole, heartbreaking story in a single sentence. The most famous is attributed to Hemingway, although the anecdote is disputed. It doesn’t matter who first wrote it; it is heartbreakingly brilliant. ‘Baby’s shoes for sale; never worn.’ 

Writing should have a rhythm and a swing. Too many very short sentences strung together can have a rattling effect. Sometimes you do need to let down and and go long and bring in the string section. But, as a starting rule, keeping it short is amazingly useful and oddly liberating.

2.   The second thing is to read your sentences out loud to yourself. Your ear will hear the mistakes that your eye cannot see. Get into this habit, and your writing will improve overnight.

3.   The third thing is to think of your sentences as arrows. You are firing them from your heart to the reader’s heart, from your mind to the reader’s mind. Keep them straight. You want them to fly free and true. If they are muddled and tangled, they will fall sadly to the ground.

I hope this helps. I wish you happy writing. 

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