From the Editor’s Desk – Mix Up Your Sentence Structure

Most writers suffer from some level of I’m-stuck-in-a-rut-itis, a debilitating disease unique to writers. It’s particularly hideous because it passes from the writer to the reader, but in a different form: oh-my-God-I’m-so-bored-itis. This, in turn, passes back to the writer in a vicious double loop, and the writer then requires emergency surgery—a please-stop-the-bad-reviews-ectomy.

The root cause of this catastrophic cycle is the tendency of writers to settle on one approach to creating a sentence, and employing that approach over and over and over, ad infinitum:

He did this. He did that. Then he did this again. Right after that, he did this other thing. Then he did that again.

Some call this the “Lullaby Effect,” because it goes a little like this:

Rock-a-bye, reader, with the glazed-over look,

When the page turns, on this most boring book.

Her eyes get all droopy, and soon she does snore,

To heck with that writer, she reads him no more.

I often have wicked flashbacks to my military basic training when I encounter books like this:

Hup, two, three, four! Hup, two, three, four!

We writers must mix up the cadence, the rhythm and flow, the basic structure of our sentences. Additionally, we must stretch our vocabulary a bit, as repetitive words compound the problem. However, when we address this issue, we mustn’t replace one problem with another problem. Sadly, many writers do precisely this.

The Wrong Way to Fix It – #1

Most writers approach this problem in the simplest possible way: they trade one bad string of sentences with a different bad string of sentences.

If the sentences that begin with a simple pronoun/verb combination start piling up one after the other, you don’t fix it by simply changing the pronouns to proper nouns.

He went to the store to pick up some milk. He could not imagine starting a day without his customary bowl of cereal. He thought it might be his only good source of fiber; given the rest of his diet. Yes, he was a typical bachelor.

John went to the store to pick up some milk. John could not imagine starting a day without his customary bowl of cereal. John thought it might be his only good source of fiber; given the rest of John’s diet. Yes, John was a typical bachelor.

You just end up with an equally dull, but even heavier, prose. All you’ve done here is trade one problem for another problem.

The Wrong Way to Fix It – #2

You also don’t fix the problem by converting the past participles (typically an “-ed” verb) to present participles (typically an “-ing” verb), and then creating an infinite verb phrase.

Going to the store to pick up some milk, he could not imagine starting a day without his customary bowl of cereal. Thinking it might be his only good source of fiber, given the rest of his diet, he was a typical bachelor.

(For more on why that’s a problem, see THIS article.)

Right Way to Fix It – #1

Mix up your sentences the right way by focusing on the object of a sentence, and treating it as the subject of your sentence, structurally speaking. In other words, in our sample above, focus on the store, or the milk, or the cereal or fiber or…. You get the idea.

The store sat at the corner of Third and Main. He went there to pick up some milk, because even the thought of starting a day without the customary bowl of cereal—his only good source of fiber—made his colon loosen. The rest of John’s diet sucked. Yes, he was a typical bachelor.

We have plenty of other opportunities here, and were we to play around for a while, we could probably come up with twenty good alternatives. The point is simple: stretch yourself. As a writer, you must challenge yourself to keep it fresh and interesting for the reader. Don’t take the easy way out. Don’t fix one problem for the reader by giving her a whole new problem. Don’t fall into the trap of: if I do “x,” I fix it by doing “y.” It’s not that simple.

However, it’s not that hard, either; just requires a little consideration.

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