• Mark Collier

How can I write better sentences?

Before we can answer ‘How can I write better sentences?’ let’s look briefly at what makes a sentence. It is important to note that a sentence is a written concept, not a spoken one. We convey our thoughts, ideas, emotions, beliefs, information and instructions in writing by using sentences. Sentences conform to grammatical rules; the spoken word is often much less formal. We will not spend too much time here on sentence rules, just a brief overview to provide background information.

A sentence consists of a group of words that, when conforming to grammatical rules, make sense and convey meaning to the intended reader. A sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop, question mark or exclamation mark. A sentence contains a subject (noun or pronoun) and a verb (an ‘action’ word – it tells you what someone or something is doing or being). A sentence can be simple, compound or complex – which one depends on its use of independent and dependent clauses, which is definitely not the focus of this blog post!

Now that we have had a quick look at what makes a sentence, let’s move on to explore ‘How can I write better sentences?’ Here we will focus on fiction writing, as non-fiction writing will be the subject of another blog post. In fiction (creative) writing we can make sentences better by making them more interesting. For a sentence to be more interesting it needs to convey more information. Where can this information come from? One technique is to close your eyes and see a ‘picture’ of the information in your mind. For example, to write a better sentence about - ‘The deer in the field’. - in your mind look at that image and add to the sentence what you can see – ‘Early one misty morning the dusky deer bounded across the wet field.’

There are four ways we can add more information to make sentences more interesting: different sentence starters, adjectives, adverbs and connectives. Let’s look at each one in turn, then draw all four together later.

Sentence starters – these are the words used to begin a sentence. Often, particularly with young children, the tendency is to begin sentences with words such as ‘I’, ‘The’, ‘A’ or ‘It’, and other words that do not immediately grasp a reader’s interest. For example: ‘I like pizza.’ ‘The dog barked.’ Whilst these simple sentences conform to grammatical rules they are not very inspiring. We can combine different ways of starting sentences to help them to be more interesting. There is a range of ways sentence starters can be varied – the following are suggestions:

  • Begin with the subject, e.g. Lydia raced across the field and…

  • Begin with a preposition, e.g. On the beach, the hot sun… Near the forest stood a…

  • Use an ‘ing’ phrase, e.g. Jumping the fence, he realised… Running past the castle gate was a…

  • Use an ‘ed’ phrase, e.g. Excited by the laughter, they…Tired by the long journey, we…Frightened by the loud noise she…

  • Use an adverb (or an adverbial phrase – explained shortly), e.g. Finally, the exhausted traveller…Carefully, the nervous creature…

Adjectives – these are words that give more detail to a noun, for example, ‘black sky’, ‘enormous dragon’, ‘delicious cake’. An adjective gives precision to a sentence and helps to clarify an intended image in a reader’s mind. Illustrations in books can give a reader detail, but clearly it is not possible to illustrate every sentence – an adjective can do this job! The catchphrase ‘Adjectives paint pictures with words’ encapsulates this idea.

Adverbs – an adverb ‘adds’ to the verb (the action word in a sentence). It tells the reader how the action is happening, for example, ‘she jumped the wall quickly’, ‘silently the serpent slithered across the sand’. An adverbial phrase is a group of words that does the same job as an adverb – they modify a verb – and adverbial phrases can enhance sentences too. An adverbial phrase gives the reader more information and, by doing so, makes the sentence more interesting or exciting. For example, in the sentence ‘Stanley closed his eyes after the journey’ the adverbial phrase ‘after the journey’ tells the reader more information by saying when Stanley closed his eyes.

Connectives – sometimes these are called conjunctions and, although grammatically different, they are sufficiently similar to be considered as doing the same job in terms of improving a sentence. We will use the term ‘connective’ here, as they connect written thoughts. Connectives are used to link two ideas that could stand alone as separate sentences. For example, ‘Expectantly, Elizabeth waited at the door.’ ‘She heard the cart clattering along the grey cobbles.’ These sentences could be joined by the connective ‘because’ to read ‘Expectantly, Elizabeth waited at the door because she heard the cart clattering along the grey cobbles.’

‘Because’ is a brilliant connective because it tells us the reason why. This memory aid shows us one job of connectives – to provide a reason for something. Such connectives are known as causal connectives and include the words so, but, therefore, consequently, although, however and many others. A temporal connective can be used to link two separate sentences and this type of connective relates to time, for example, ‘Sandy paused by the stile then he climbed it to cross the cornfield.’ Other temporal connectives include later, next, meanwhile and several others.

So, we have seen that sentence starters, adjectives, adverbs and connectives all help everyone to write better sentences. They do this by making sentences more interesting or exciting – they give the sentence detail and precision. In doing so the four features work together to transport a picture from a writer’s mind to a reader’s mind. To help put these sentence strategies into practice try this technique – close your eyes and see the picture you want to convey in your mind – now use words to make the picture clear in a reader’s mind. It is no good writing ‘Charlie the monkey climbed a tree’ when in your mind you see ‘Early one bright and clear morning, Charlie the monkey quickly climbed the tallest tree in the steamy jungle because he loved the view across the silver river.’ This sentence has

used an adverbial phrase as a sentence starter, an adverb, a connective and five adjectives – can you spot them all?