Keep Your Readers Reading: 4 Easy Ways to Improve Sentence Structure

improve sentence structureConstructing a variety of sentences to keep your reader interested is a challenge every writer faces. If you are like most writers, your “personal style” includes some overused sentence structure.

In Self Editing: Put Your Book on a Diet, I discussed the importance of deleting unnecessary words; another important part of the revision/self-editing process is making sure your sentence structures are varied . . . but sometimes writers create new problems for themselves in the quest to vary sentences.

Let me explain.

As a freelance editor, I work with writers who have varying levels of experience. In the course of a month, I usually do some coaching, evaluate manuscripts, proofread a novel, and copyedit a proposal. In almost every case, I find that the writers have specific tendencies to overuse words and phrases or to construct most (or at least too many) sentences in a similar fashion.

Now, look at those last three sentences. Can you identify the common sentence structure I used? (Cue “Final Jeopardy” theme.)

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Time’s up!

If you identified “overuse of introductory dependent clauses,” you win! (Sorry, no valuable prize, but you DO have the satisfaction of knowing grammar geeks will welcome you into the club.) I know that particular sentence structure is one I tend to overuse, so when I revise my writing, I’m always on the lookout for ways to restructure those sentences. A few sprinkled in every so often are great, but when the majority of my sentences have the same format: Zzzzzzzzzzzz . . .

(By the way, one of the best ways to learn to spot your own writing gaffes is by editing other writers’ writing. I wrote about that here. Try it—you’ll be amazed how much your own writing improves!)

Sentence construction should almost never be the same throughout a paragraph. That’s boring for the reader, and it’s a sure sign that you need to do some revising.

Here are some other common writing faux pas:

  • Overused words: All writers have their favorite words, even if they aren’t aware of them. I recently edited a manuscript with a great deal of clever dialogue, but more than half of them begin with “Well . . .” Every main character and most of the minor characters begin at least half their sentences that way: Zzzzzzzzz.

Lynn Serafin at Spirit Authors wrote about this in her excellent series on self-publishing:

This part of the process can be a real emotional journey for an author, especially if they have never worked with a good editor before. You might wonder why the editor didn’t do this herself. I’m glad she asked me to do it because a) it gave me the chance to decide which instances of these words should stay or go and b) it helped me improve as a writer. I notice that I am much more mindful of my ‘filler’ words since being challenged by my editor to address this issue.”

  • Dangling Modifiers: These are especially fun to include if you want to give your editor a good laugh. What is a dangling modifier? It’s a descriptive word or phrase (a modifier) that is separated from the noun or noun phrase it is supposed to be modifying. This often happens when the modifier is tacked onto the beginning or end of a sentence.

    Dangling Modifiers Lead To Slippery Pedestrians
    Dangling Modifiers Can Lead To Slippery Pedestrians (Photo credit: jaydoubleyougee)

Here are some examples:

  • Almost two feet tall, he hurled himself over the coffee table. (He’s awfully short, isn’t he?)
  • Returning home, the fire was still burning out of control. (Did the fire run out for a quart of milk?)
  • Knocking on the door, the package sat where the delivery man dropped it. (What a clever package—it can announce its own arrival.)
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  • Comma Splices: Our dear friend the comma is often asked to do more work that it was designed to do. Connecting two independent clauses with a comma but no coordinating conjunction or punctuation is one form of a comma splice. Here’s an example:
  • I can’t believe you brought me here, I have postponed it for so long, this is an awe-inspiring place, my sister would have loved it here.

There are a number of ways to fix this type of sentence. You can add coordinating or subordinating conjunctions, make dependent clauses out of one or more of the independent clauses, use different punctuation, or revise the sentences to add some variety to the structure. And, of course, you could use almost any combination of the above.

  • I can’t believe you brought me here. I have postponed it for so long, but this is an awe-inspiring place; my sister would have loved it here.

OR

  • I postponed coming here for so long. This is an awe-inspiring place, and my sister would have loved it. I can’t believe you brought me here.

OR

  • I have postponed coming here for so long that I can’t believe you brought me. This is an awe-inspiring place, and my sister would have loved it here.

You’ll keep your readers reading if you use a variety of the four basic sentence constructions:

  • Simple sentences
  • Compound sentences
  • Complex sentences
  • Compound/complex sentences

Mixing up the order of the clauses, adding coordinating or subordinating clauses, removing dangling modifiers, and eliminating extraneous words are important parts of the revision process. When you utilize different approaches to address the subject of each sentence, your writing will guide your reader to share your vision through your mastery of sentence construction.

What is YOUR biggest challenge when revising on a sentence level? I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments!

Happy Writing,

—Candace

Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be.

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15 thoughts on “Keep Your Readers Reading: 4 Easy Ways to Improve Sentence Structure”

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Oliver, and for sharing the link. I think writers are sometimes so focused on choosing just the right words that they forgot how important it is to put those words together in a way that the reader isn’t really aware of them, only of the message they share or the mood they create. Revising is such an important part of the writing process!

  1. Those pesky introductory phrases, they can be so damn addictive.
    Yet another level of editing that I have to consider in the lengthy process of trying to prepare my novel for other people’s eyes.

    One day, could you put together a list of all your wonderful editing advisory posts in the order by which editing might be attempted? I’m assuming sentence structure would come later than word choice and elimination of unnecessary adverbs, for instance?
    Then I can just go through your list and make sure I’ve applied your invaluable knowledge…and maybe go on to ask you to point out all the ones I’ve missed in the process by hiring you as my editor!?
    😉
    Great post.

    1. We should start a support group, Cat! “Hi, I’m Candace, and I’m an introductory-phrase overuser.”
      Thanks for the great idea for a future blog post! In the example you gave (sentence structure after word choice and elimination of unnecessary adverbs), I’d have to say it depends on the way you edit. I might go through and eliminate unnecessary adverbs in my writing, but in restructuring a sentence later, I could potentially throw a few extras back in because they just sounded so perfect while I was writing. 😉 So many of the writing choices we make go into the creation of that illusive “writer’s voice,” and in many cases those choices are a matter of personal style. But you’re right, some things are better done before others, so I’ll work on that post. And I would love to work with you whenever you’re ready–just let me know!

      1. Lol. Love that idea. We could branch out into supporting those who use dangling modifiers too!

        So looking forward to that future post. I struggle with editing, having very little experience. Am learning as I go, which is why I find your site and FB page so useful.

        It may be some time before I’m ready to invite a professional editor to see my work, but when that time comes you’ll be top of my list. You’ve already highlighted so many things I’d never even thought about that make my writing stronger so I feel I’d trust your judgement.

        Keep posting fab stuff and I’ll keep on working on my novel!
        Take care, Cat x

  2. Another wonderful post, Candace. One of my recurring sentence structure problems that I’m always trying to fix: Always beginning with “He did this…” or “She felt that…”

    1. Those are tough, Phillip, because they are so easy to slip in without even realizing you’re writing them! But the first step to changing a bad habit is admitting you have a problem, right? 😉 One way to quickly spot overused phrases is through a “search and replace” on MS Word; once you see the same word or phrase highlighted a million times (not literally, but it can sometimes feel that way), you’ll be on the road to some solid revising–plus you won’t have those “show, don’t tell” comments at your next writer’s critique.

  3. What you say above is true: reading someone else’s work teaches you a lot about your own writing. It’s often difficult to see the problems until someone else points it out. Underscores the value of readers and critique partners.

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