Whether you’re a fiction writer, a journalist or a web content writer, you want your sentences to capture people’s attention. And for that, you need to write powerful sentences that spark curiosity and drive them to continue reading.
If you think of sentences as a piece of music – which would you rather listen to: music that lifts and moves you as it spans the musical scale or music that drones on in muted monotones? You don’t have to be a natural at this. By practicing some of the advice to follow, you can shape better sentences that snag the attention of your readers.
Trim the fat
The rule of thumb in writing powerful sentences is that less is more. Don’t saturate your sentences with drawn out phrases. Be direct and get to the point. Nobody has time to slog through circuitous writing to get to the author’s true intentions.
Some examples of fat-trimming:
Due to the fact that Sally has a cold, she didn’t come to work.
Sally didn’t come to work because she has a cold.
I skipped my workout so I could make my daughter’s soccer game.
I skipped my workout to make my daughter’s soccer game.
Lynn is the type of girl who likes to go for long walks.
Lynn likes to go for long walks.
There was basically no real reason for John’s dismissal.
There was no reason for John’s dismissal.
The gasoline tank suddenly exploded.
The gasoline tank exploded.
She came inside of the kitchen and sat down.
She entered the kitchen and sat down.
Move strong words to the beginning or end
The first and last words of a sentence are the most memorable. If your sentence’s strongest words are in the middle, you can restructure to bring them either to the beginning or the end.
The storm caused a big fire and several electrical shortages due to strong winds.
Strong winds caused several electrical shortages and a big fire.
The first example starts with “The storm” and ends with “winds” vs. the second example that starts with “Strong winds” and ends with “fire”.
The tiger pounced on the deer and managed to rip its jugular.
Pouncing on the deer, the tiger ripped its jugular.
By starting out with the word “pouncing” you get the reader’s attention right away.
Get to the point
Don’t write in circles. Don’t try to be crafty or sneaky or hide your point in innuendo or double-meaning. Nobody is going to take the time to decipher your complicated sentences. Say it plain and clear or don’t say it at all.
It was as if John were trying to fish for some sort of compliment about the quality of his report.
John was fishing for compliments about his reports.
Oddly, there were virtually no young-ish men at the fireman’s bachelor party.
There were few young men at the fireman’s bachelor party.
Don’t use fluff
Even fiction writers who are allowed a certain license to ramble can fall victim to this one. Make sure that your sentences are there for a reason. Are they moving the story forward? Are they driving the point home? A gourmet meal doesn’t include filler and good sentences don’t include fluff.
For example, if I added this sentence to the above paragraph:
Fluff fills up the page but doesn’t bring your reader any closer to understanding your message.
Is it really necessary? Or has this point already been made by the previous sentences?
Get rid of passive voice
Passive voice does not make strong sentences. It slows down the flow of information and sounds awkward. Replace your passive voice with action verbs and see what happens:
The deer’s jugular was ripped by the tiger.
The tiger ripped the deer’s jugular.
A fire was caused by the storm’s strong winds.
The storm’s strong winds caused a fire.
The child was knocked out by the flyball.
The flyball knocked the child out.
Choose better verbs
“To be” and “To have” are some of the first words taught to ESL students. Why is that? Because they’re the most commonly used verbs in the English language. For powerful sentences, you want to forge new terrain. Shelf “To be” and “To have” and venture into the wide world of verbs. Check out this list of action verbs for some ideas. Just be sure not to weaken them by putting them in passive voice (see above).
Create an image in few words
Okay, so you’re not going to use fluff, you’re not going to use passive voice or extra words. It may seem like I’ve taken away all your tools as a writer, leaving you with 5 word sentences that sound plain and robotic. But, believe me, there’s a better world waiting for you beyond wordiness. And you can write strong sentences with few words. Hemingway was the master.
He claimed that this was the best sentence he ever wrote:
“Baby shoes: for sale, never worn.”
It tells a story, creates an image and evokes emotion and has zero fat to trim.
Yes, you want to get to the point. No, you don’t want your individual sentences to be too complex to understand. But as you build a story, you can use good sentences as tools to help build suspense. You want your readers to hunger to know what happens next. Giving them suspense propels them to the next sentence without too much effort on their part. That’s what you want for your writing – to be effortless to read.
A sentence like…:
Jack had placed a letter under their door for them to find when they got home to their apartment.
…can be made more intriguing by adding some suspense:
Once inside the apartment, they found a letter shoved under the door.
Provoke someone’s anger or applause with polemical sentences.
Instead of this:
Many intellectuals tend to be atheists.
Unlike believers, many intellectuals are atheists.
Here you have a fat-free sentence that gets to the point and doesn’t hide an opinion behind objectivity. Great sentences take practice. Good luck working on yours!