This is the fourth in a multi-part series of Motley Writers Guild posts specifically about the craft of writing, on a basic level. It’s intended to help you become a better writer overall, as well as provide you with something to refer back to whenever you need some guidance.
*Bear in mind that these are only suggestions; merely “guidelines” (writers, like pirates, love “guidelines” instead of “rules”).
Sometimes your writing is going to need to break the guidelines. And that’s fine! Do it! But first, it’s good to know what they are and how to use them to take your writing to the next level.
In February we celebrated the launch of our Services feature by doing a Critique Blitz, where we offered free critiques for over a dozen writers who submitted their amazing work for us to read. I found there were some common grammatical and structural areas in need of improvement running through quite a few of the stories. They were also things I’ve noticed in my many years as a beta reader/critiquer, and something I pointed out to the individual authors of the Critique Blitz too. Based on those common areas of improvement, I was inspired to write this series to help other people see the often very simple and easily fixed issues present in lots of creative writing.
The first in this series was about the Using “That” In Creative Writing, which detailed some quick and easy ways of utilizing “that” to be most effective.
The second was about Dialogue Tags in Creative Writing; how to use them and omit them entirely sometimes.
The third installment of the series detailed the dreaded Info Dumps in Creative Writing. How to spot them, fix them, and avoid them altogether!
This next one is going to seem very obvious to many of you, but it’s something we all struggle with as writers, and which can be quite noticeable for readers. I’ve encountered it countless times as a beta reader and critiquer.
Thankfully, it’s also relatively easy to fix!
Varying Sentence Structure in Creative Writing
Now, I’m not an English teacher or a professional editor, so when it comes to the schematics of grammar and sentence structures you’re gonna have to look elsewhere. I highly recommend you check out Karen Elizabeth Gordons books, especially The Deluxe Transitive Vampire (“…a guide that addresses classic questions of English usage with wit and the blackest of humor”) and The New Well Tempered Sentence (“A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed”) as well as the University of Guelphs Improving Your Sentence Structure series, which I will refer to myself.
This post is focused more on simple, easy to spot problems and how you can remedy them all on your own.
A common mistake I see in first drafts, second drafts, and heck, even people’s polished manuscripts (that they’re already querying!) is simple, repetitive sentence structures. Combined with the same words/themes to start multiple sentences, and you’ve got a recipe for writing which runs the risk of seeming unskilled.
You can have the most beautiful ideas and grandiose dreams, but if every single sentence in your paragraph starts with “the”, “he”, “she” your writing will not have the same depth as it should.
Alternatively, if every sentence follows the same pattern, no matter how eloquent or advanced it is, you may have your work dismissed as amateurish by agents or readers.
I’m going to detail what I mean in the next sections, using examples I’m writing on the fly. I don’t want to use other people’s stories as examples, as that would be a breach of the bond I’ve developed with the writers who trust me with their works — and it would be disrespectful AF.
These examples aren’t meant to be perfect, because I am not a perfect writer. BUT I do have a superpower, and that’s seeing the simple problems in other peoples writing and being able to point them out. So bear with me as I muddle through this journey of trying to get my point across, while also trying not to spend forty hours on a blog post.
Every sentence begins with the same or similar words.
The writer sat at her computer desk overlooking the yard. She wished she had an air conditioner. The sun was shining and surely it would be spring soon, but even at minus three degrees celcius the upstairs room was stiflingly hot. The writer could barely form sentences. She wished she hadn’t asked for a heated blanket for her birthday.
She tried to avoid looking out the window at the glaring sun on the snowy yard. She thought about going downstairs to retrieve sunglasses, but then realized she only had twenty minutes before her toddlers would wake up from their naps.
The writer decided to power through and finish the blog post. She hoped her readers would appreciate the sacrifice her pupils were making.
Now, let’s look at that example.
Every single sentence starts with “the” or “she”. I see it often in writing where people have used “the”, or a pronoun, or a characters name as the very first word in every sentence. Sometimes this goes on for entire paragraphs, and in one case there were whole pages structured the exact same.
I’m sure you can understand why a reader, agent, or editor might not appreciate writing with such repetitive sentence starts.
How to fix it:
This one is relatively easy, as long as you’ve got a handle on the English language and hopefully have read some of those resources I mentioned earlier.
- Skim your writing and note the first and second words of every sentence in a paragraph.
- Look at the first and second word of every paragraph on an individual page.
- Identify repetition.
- Use your writer magic to replace those words with different ones, or restructure the entire sentences!
Okay, yes I know that seems way too easy to be correct, but it isn’t! Often just becoming aware of an issue is the best way to remedy it. In this case, it can be as simple as taking note of the issue areas, and then playing swapsies with the words.
The writer sat at her computer desk overlooking the yard. It was nearly spring and with the sun shining it should have been a wonderful day to sequester oneself and write a blog post. Unfortunately, though it was only minus three degrees Celsius, the upstairs room was stiflingly hot. Wishing for an air conditioner, the writer could barely form sentences. The heated blanket she’d received for her birthday sat unused in the corner, mocking her.
As you can see, it’s not perfect, but it flows better and is more concise. The sentences vary and only two start with “the”.
You can do the same with your own writing! I BELIEVE IN YOU.
Every sentence is structured the same.
This one is glaringly obvious when I read it in writing — but it’s more difficult to explain than the first issue. At it’s core, it’s just a lack of varying sentence structures.
When encountering this problem, you’ll be able to take note of it because while the writing and the sentences may be more advanced than in the first example, they follow the exact same rhythm/beats. There is no variation in how the sentences are presented to the reader.
It quickly becomes repetitive, and will also seem unskilled if not remedied.
Too warm, she wished she had thought to bring a fan upstairs. However, if she had done that then she would have had to dig through the crawl space. In fact, she never had time to go into the basement. Discouraged, she dabbed at her forehead and tried to type faster. Time ticked on, though she persevered.
Now let’s look at that example.
Every sentence follows the same structure: One or two words. Comma. Rest of the sentence. Repeat.
At first glance it will seem like a good way of writing. You’re avoiding beginning every sentence with the same word or pronoun (as I pointed out in the first part of this post). You’re utilizing different lengths to give it variety. It should be effective, right?
I have beta read entire novels where this was the only way the writer chose to structure their sentences. It became tedious after the first few pages.
Another way I’ve seen this mistake is when writers don’t utilize compound sentences and they’re all short sentences or fragments. Or, they only use compound sentences and never vary the lengths. (Are you sick of me saying the word “sentence” yet? Has it lost all meaning for you, like it has for me?)
How to fix it
This is also relatively easy to fix!
- Skim your writing and note the way the sentences are structured.
- Identify repetition.
- Use your writer magic to reword entire sentences!
Yes, yes. I know I’m making a complex problem seem very simple, but it honestly can be that easy! Most of the time I find the writers aren’t even aware of their habits, and once I point it out they can remedy it themselves.
If you’ve already got a rudimentary understanding of writing and how to craft a story, then you are fully capable of revising with these suggestions in mind.
Need some professional feedback?
The Motley Writers Guild offers beta reading and critiquing services! With years of experience, we’ve helped many writers hone their craft and polish up their writing. Our members have an array of styles and wealth of knowledge gained from countless hours spent writing, reading, and critiquing. You can hire one of us, or request a FREE sample critique from multiple members!
Have you learned something about repetition in writing? Do you think you’ll be able to identify your own areas of improvement? Do you hate my examples as much as I do? Leave a comment on this blog post to tell us what you think. We love hearing from you!
The Motley Writers Guild’s – Em Van Moore
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