Essential writing skills: giving your sentences that rhythm and twist

Welcome to the second post in a series exploring some of the mechanics of writing.

Deco. Jazz. Hemingway, They all go together.
Deco. Jazz. Hemingway, They all go together.

Writing is one of those fields where everybody thinks they can do it –not because it’s easy, but because they don’t know enough about it to know how hard it actually is.

The challenge is making the transition from those stumbling moments through to soaring mastery of the art. I outlined some of those challenges last week – check out the break-down.

This week – the No. 1 basic issue – sentence construction. With a twist. One that will, I guarantee, throw Word green grammar error underlines through your work – but it’ll be quite comprehensible to the punters. And it’s essential.

It’s the twist that makes people want to read it, you see.

Sentence construction is something hammered into most of us at high school, with the exception of me – my English teacher told my parents that no matter what I did, I would fail at it. Especially anything to do with English.

He never twigged that the actual problem was that he was boring and I usually switched off listening about 10 milliseconds into his classes.

When it comes to sentences you know the drill: the tenses have to match, the plurals have to match, and a sentence must have a subject and a predicate, usually in that order. For example, ‘I am laughing all the way to the bank’. The subject is ‘I’, everything else is the predicate, or the ‘doing part’ of the sentence.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

It also has to be a particular length, though exactly how long is a matter of opinion. When I was at school, that English teacher ruled that no sentence could be more than 2.5 lines, for instance. An institutional silliness which masked the point that, by classical rules, a sentence can often be quite long. It’s meant to encompass a single idea, but that idea may be quite complex – hence we have a plethora of different devices to separate the clauses: colons; semicolons, commas, and Oxford Commas among them. (Did you see what I did in that last sentence, anyone…anyone?)

The problem is that a sentence written strictly by the rules is a writing equivalent of one of those Czerny music exercises. Strictly correct, but absolutely boring. That’s where the twist comes in. Writing that runs to relentless rhythm lulls the reader into thinking they’re back in one of those stupidly dull English lessons I had to endure at high school.

Follow the rules, sure – readers will likely have trouble parsing meanings otherwise. But be creative about it. And the creative part – from the point of view of mechanical construction – is to give the sentence an interesting rhythm. My how-to tips for that are:

1. Vary your sentence length. Hemingway was supposed to have written only with short sentences. Wrong. He also wrote very, very long ones – inevitably with purpose.

2. Don’t just vary your sentence length. Also vary the length of the clauses and components within it.

3. Also vary word length, by syllables ideally.

4. Don’t ever go to the high school I went to.

Try it. Read some sentences aloud. Try again – keep doing that, and you’ll see what I mean.

Of course, that’s not the only way to make sentences interesting. They also have to have the correct content. More on that next week.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 


19 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: giving your sentences that rhythm and twist

  1. I truly enjoyed your take on English (class). It was in college taking ENG 101, that “made me,” (LOL) stop writing for 10 years. I love your take… and I agree.

    1. Yeah, my English teacher killed it for me, too – destroyed all interest in literature, particularly, for years. The irony is that it was thanks to him that I became a writer. He was so utterly useless that my parents sent me to a local polytechnic to be properly taught in English and writing. I had a brilliant tutor there, and I never looked back. Incredibly, the headmaster of the school actively tried to stop it happening – I needed to leave school 10 minutes early to make the polytechnic class (which was late afternoon), and the head wouldn’t allow it. The tutor at the polytech agreed to delay his class 10 minutes to let me make it. I can safely say that I am where I am today in spite of my high school, not because of it.

      1. Good for you! My English 101 professor gave ma a passing grade because I begged her… But, I love to write. No matter what!

        1. Absolutely. I figure high school English grades and writing are two different things. Ernest Hemingway – who I think was the greatest writer that ever lived – got a D for his high school English!

  2. An excellent post. This is great stuff to read. I did terribly in English class until I attended Mr. Reid’s English class. After commonly getting C’s I finally got a whopping A+. That guy really knew how to explain things in a way that made sense. *Sigh* We need more guys out there like that to capture the minds of the young.

    1. Absolutely. I had similar experience at the polytechnic I was sent to by my parents, after my high school English teacher proved how worthless he was. The polytech lecturer was brilliant. Suddenly I discovered that writing was fun – and English was interesting.

  3. Very clever with all the punctuation marks in one sentence 😀

    I was lucky to have a great English teacher. It was both my favourite and my best subject. However, it was English Second Language so the craft of writing was not a very big part of the curriculum. As long as our words were spelled correctly and it started with a capital letter and ended with a full stop, we were pretty much home free.

    1. It was a kind of grammar gymnastic exercise really!

      Good to hear you had a great English teacher…the one thing I lacked at school – where English equally did not include the craft of writing. Or anything much else, unfortunately. More than made up for, though, by the polytechnic courses I was sent to by my parents, as an after-school and school holiday activity. These were tremendous & I was formally taught writing, as a craft, there. Never looked back, though it still took me the better part of 20 years after I left school to get interested in literature.

  4. Nice. The punctuation listed is used each time before it’s mentioned three times in a row. Even the comma mentioned is an Oxford Comma. Well done. It was also nice to see the semicolon given that they’re on the endangered punctuation list. 🙂

    1. Thanks! Yes, that’s exactly it… kind of grammatical gymnastics really. Have to say that I over-use semicolons myself & have to confess that a lot of the editing I do involves removing them.

    1. It’s amazing how one can get insights into writing by reading it aloud. Silent reading, even with an inner voice, isn’t quite the same – but the difference isn’t obvious.

  5. I think I had some good English teachers. Unfortunately, i was not a good English student. Now, I wish I’d paid more attention. I wonder if it would seem strange for a 55 year old man to want to sit in on a high school or even fifth-grade English class? It probably would cause a stir. 🙂

  6. My high school art teacher, who is an amazing person, gave the great advice of, “You have to know the rules to break the rules.” It is in variety and rhythm that suspense and style are built.
    I also had a middle school teacher who set me on a long path of horrible dialogue tags that I have only recently been cured of.

    1. Quite true: the art of interesting writing is in tbe rule breaking. But that doesn’t mean being ignorant of the rules. Quite the opposite, in fact.

  7. Yet another favorite post for me, Matthew, although I am late to the discussion. Not surprised that your readers enjoyed “the sentence” that says it all. Just loved this, Matthew!

    P.S. It sounds as if many went to a variant of your high school. College is where I began to learn; I read my way through the other years.

    1. Thank you – yes, it’s surprising how many people I encounter who’ve had similar high school experiences. For me it was better than primary school though. My real learning curve – certainly with writing – came when I was able to step into the practical world. A couple of newspaper editors I wrote for, particularly, were absolute mentors – one keen to see me get ahead in the business, the other a curmudgeon by cultivation of character, but eager to pass on his knowledge of grammar. He’d forgotten more than I’ll ever know.

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