Joe Moran is the author of several academic books and numerous scholarly articles, most recently on the history and politics of everyday life. He is currently a reader in cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University. He writes for, among others, the Guardian, the New Statesman and the Times Literary Supplement. His most recent book First You Write a Sentence offers thoughtful advice on how to craft sentences and construct paragraphs. John Simpson, former Chief Editor of the OED and author of The Word Detective said of the book: ‘Thoughtful, engaging, and lively … when you’ve read it, you realise you’ve changed your attitude to writing (and reading)’.
Here Joe offers his three top tips for writing and crafting sentences:
Learn to love the full stop.
Think of it as the goal towards which your words adamantly move. You can’t write a sentence until you’ve mastered the barebones of the full stop: why you need it, where to put it and what to put just before it. It is the writer’s failsafe and the reader’s friend, the giver of clarity and relief. It gives clarity because it turns the words that precede it into a self-sufficient whole. And it gives relief because it brings the thought to rest. The full stop offers the reader a brief mental break, a sense that the point of that sentence is done and its meaning has been fulfilled. It should feel like a satisfying little click that moves the dial along so the next sentence can pick up where it left off. Its end is also a beginning.
Vary the length of your sentences.
A good trick, when drafting a piece, is to press enter after every sentence, as if you were writing a poem and each full stop marked a line break. This renders the varied (or unvaried) lengths of your sentences instantly visible. If you keep pressing enter after every full stop, the music of your writing is easier to hear because now it can also be seen.
When you vary the length of your sentences, two things happen. First, as you fit your thoughts into shorter and longer forms, you come up with better wordings. Second, your writing will, as if by magic, fill with life and voice. Writing gets much of its rhythm from its full stops – or, more precisely, its cadences. The voice drops on the last three syllables of a spoken sentence: a descending tritone. In writing we get the same drop in pitch, if sounded only in our heads: a dying fall at the sentence’s end. A falling cadence signals that the sentence, and the sentiment, are done. Varied sentence length makes for varied gaps between the full stops, which makes for varied cadences. This lets the writing breathe and move and sing.
Use strong verbs.
In most cases you should put the main news of the sentence, the subject and verb, at the start. The main verb is the sentence’s beating heart. Verbs bring a sentence to life whatever form they take. Disinter the verbs buried inside long nouns and bring them back to life by reverbing them. Unspool long noun strings (such as website content delivery platform or supply chain resource issues), restoring the proper links between the nouns by adding verbs and prepositions, even if this means using more words. Turn weak verb-noun phrases into verbs. Puts emphasis on: emphasises. Gives the impression: suggests. Draws attention to: notes. Turn other parts of speech into verbs. Verbs born of adjectives – we dim lights, tame hair, muddy prose – can be especially cinematic. Verbs are as life-giving to the sentence as light and air are to the world. Verbs enact a universal law of the universe: everything moves.
To celebrate the paperback publication of First You Write a Sentence we are running a giveaway on Twitter. We have five copies of Joe Moran’s must-read book for writers up for grabs. Find out more @cbcreative.
First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing … and Life is published in paperback by Penguin.