Good writers of either fiction or nonfiction must master writing sentences of various structures and lengths. This lesson is the first in a series covering different types of sentences, and how each of them may be used for maximum effectiveness.
I'm going to be using a few grammatical terms during this series--more in the following weeks than this week. Hang in there with me, and if anything needs clarification, feel free to ask. The terms I use may be different from the ones you learned in high school, so I'll give definitions and examples when I think it's necessary.Simple sentence
At its most basic, a simple sentence consists of a noun
and a verb
. Cats purr.
Additional words can be added to modify the noun or the verb (or both).My three cats purr.
My three cats purr loudly.
My three calico cats always purr loudly.
Simple sentences can also become more complicated when they contain things like direct objects
and indirect objects
. Those are beyond the scope of this lesson, but here is an example: I gave
my calico cats
of red yarn.
Hold on to your hats--this lesson was the easy one. More grammar terms to come in the lessons to follow.
Short and simple sentences can serve any number of functions in your writing.
1. They may increase the pace. You could use a string of short sentences, for example, to describe the quickening heartbeat and breathing of a character who is being pursued.
2. Interestingly, a short sentence may also bring the reader to a sudden stop. You may have used several long sentences to describe a beautiful setting, then a short sentence like In the clearing stood a filthy hovel
to make the readers stop, take inventory of the setting, and think about the sudden shift of their expectations.
3. A short sentence may be the kicker or the punch line to a longer story or anecdote, or the lesson that you want your readers to grasp. Similarly, if there's some significant bit of wisdom that you want your reader to glean from your nonfiction, make it memorable and short.
4. A short sentence may help to establish your narrator's voice. If your narrator is a child, or inarticulate for reason of disability or foreign-ness or some other circumstance, he or she will probably use shorter sentences.
5. You may choose short sentences to be part of your own writer's voice--your writing style. One of America's most famous writers, Ernest Hemingway, was known for using short, simple sentences. Here's a passage from Hemingway:A doctor came in followed by a nurse. He held something in his two hands that looked like a freshly skinned rabbit and hurried across the corridor with it and in through another door. I went down to the door her had gone into and found them in the room doing things to a new-born child. The doctor held him up for me to see. He held him by the heels and slapped him.
"Is he all right?"
"He's magnificent. He'll weigh five kilos."
I had no feeling for him. He did not seem to have anything to do with me. I felt nothing of fatherhood.
"Aren't you proud of your son?" the nurse asked. They were washing him and wrapping him in something. I saw the little dark face and dark hand, but I did not see him move or hear him cry. The doctor was doing something to him again. He looked upset.
"No," I said. "He nearly killed his mother."
The average sentence length in this passage is nine words, and there are only four sentences with more than ten words. This style worked for Hemingway, of course, because he was a master wordsmith--if you write entirely in short, simple sentences, you must be sure that your writing does not come across as childish.This NY Times column
discusses more of the virtues of short sentences, for those of you who want to read further.
Finally, my purpose here (and in the next few weeks) is to get you to think about the types of sentences you use, and to use different sentence lengths and types intentionally to help you to communicate your message. When we're just beginning to write, many of us just put words on paper without thinking about how to do it the most effectively. Having a variety of sentence types in your repertoire is one way that you can improve your writing. HOMEWORK:
Choose a piece of your own writing that you like a lot, because you'll be analyzing it and picking it apart for a few weeks. The length doesn't matter, but the longer it is, the more work it will be for you. A Writing Challenge entry of about 750 words would be just about right.
1. Count the number of sentences in your piece.
2. Count how many of those sentences are simple sentences, according to the definition and examples I've provided.
That's all for this week--we'll do the deeper analysis in the weeks to come. However, if you wish, you could do one or more of these options:
3. Share 1 or 2 of the short sentences from your selection here, and tell why you think they're effective.
4. Comment on this lesson, or add something that I may have left out.
5. Just for fun, write 1 new sentence, just for this exercise, of less than 10 words--make it say something fresh, original, and pithy.
5. Ask me a question.
Thanks to Steve Fitschen, who helped me with the grammar-y parts of this lesson!