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Knight’s Writing Tips: The Sentence

The inescapable reality every writer must realize is the inevitability of an imperfect sentence. A story is made up of hundreds, if not thousands, of these tiny structures. So how do we manufacture a sentence, let alone a good one? That is one of writing’s great tricks, because unlike mathematics which require exact values, language doesn’t have such order. A sentence has infinite possibilities, and a story has even more variables. Despite this, few stories succeed I am not saying this to discourage anyone, but it is the reality. As of writing this, there are approximately 129,864,880 published books, most of which are undoubtedly poor in value. Even more manuscripts have been left unpublished, discarded by either editors or their owners, and probably both. With so many possible ways of telling a story, the chance for failure increases exponentially, but I urge anyone who aspires to write professionally never to fear failure. It is always upsetting to hear others find your work unsatisfactory, but through failure, knowledge is gained; knowledge that, if the endeavor had proven successful, would never have been gleaned. Failure breeds more knowledge than success.

Hopefully my ever-enthusiastic words have yet to scare anyone off. So, how do we craft a perfect sentence? Again, sentences are simple in theory. All they require is a subject and predicate. Easy enough, right? Well, no. A subject and predicate make up a clause, but the greatest trouble I have found in reading others’ work is the issue of clarity. For example, a person may write the sentence:

"After writing for an hour, the paper looked good."

We have a problem here. The first part of the sentence is not a clause, as it does not have a subject and predicate, but it is a gerund phrase, which functions nominally and is nothing to scoff at. The problem is that the paper cannot write, which is what the sentence above describes, so we need to rework it.

"After he wrote for an hour, the paper looked good."

Perfect. A much better sentence, free of ambiguity. This is the real trick for creating a good sentence. They can be long, they can be short, but they should always be clear. It is also important to keep needless words excluded. Elliptical sentences are the best examples of this, as while parts of the sentence are excluded, the sentence is still understood.

"Thomas studied hard for the exam on Friday, but his friend did not."

Perhaps you never noticed information was left out, but it was. In this case, however, everything is clearly understood. If I asked you what Thomas’s friend did not do, you would be able to say he did not study hard for the exam on Friday. The full, “clarified” sentence in this case would look something like:

"Thomas studied hard for the exam on Friday, but his friend did not study hard."

Even that could be drawn out further to create perfect parallelism, but to do so is unnecessary. You understood the first sentence clearly, so to drag it out would serve only to create annoyance. There are, however, even more instances when words are clearly unneeded. I will take to calling it the “That Addiction.” It is an issue that occurs in many papers written by students unconcerned with English courses, which simply involves using the word “that” when it is entirely unnecessary. Here is an example:

"She noticed that the driver had lost his keys."

The word “that” in this context is unneeded. Remove it, and not only does the sentence still make sense, but it is also more concise.

"She noticed the driver had lost his keys."

Just for the sake of it, here is another example:

"He told the girl that there were snacks in the next isle."

Or even:

"He assured everyone that Charlie would not be a problem anymore."

Remove “that” and the sentences still work perfectly. There is no ambiguity created, and clarity remains. These are just a few ways to craft better sentences, but the best method by far is revision. Reread your sentences to see what can be tweaked, or even removed entirely. Sentences can be reshaped and reformed as many times as needed, so never fear a bad sentence. A great one may be just a revision away.

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