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Back to Basics: Sentence Structure

Updated: Jul 7, 2022



For January, the Back to Basics skill challenge is sentence structure. Writing as a craft comes with so many different fundamentals that sometimes, it's easy to overlook a few. Sentence structure is often misunderstood but what does it mean? Walden University says sentence structure is “the physical nature of a sentence and how the elements of that sentence are presented”.


Sentence structure should consist of complete sentences. Complete sentences, as described in the University of Leicester’s Grammar Guide, are sentences that must always contain a verb, capable of existing on their own, and expressing a complete thought. Sources we use throughout the video will be linked in the description.


When we write, we also want to keep the audience’s attention, and sentence structure is a big part of that. We don’t want to fall into a pattern–a trap–of creating boring prose. Gary Provost does a great job of illustrating this problem when he says: ​​“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”


From this we can easily see the message and the importance of sentence structure. In this video, we will talk about how to improve your sentence structure.


Part 1: Create a rhythm/flow


With any sort of writing, it’s important to be able to keep readers engaged. Having a rhythm is a big part of that as it helps with immersion. You can create rhythm by playing around with the lengths of your sentences. Some sentences are short. Maybe some sentences are much longer with more information. You can have long sentences followed by short sentences and then more long sentences if you'd like. Regardless of what you decide, varying the lengths of sentences is a great way to help with flow. We see this in the example from Gary Provost’s musical sentences. Since we know a little more about creating rhythm, let’s try an exercise.


Exercise: Look at the following excerpt and see what you can do to give it some more rhythm. What additions or alterations can be done here?


Yesterday I went to the grocery store. At the grocery store I bought bread. I also bought some eggs. I wanted to buy some flour too but they didn’t have any more flour. I spent twenty minutes in the store. I bought everything on my shopping list. Well except for flour. I paid for my stuff. Then I drove back home.


Feel free to pause the video and either type or write out your version. Afterwards, I’ll share my own attempt at the exercise. Your attempt doesn’t have to mirror mine, the main goal is just to achieve creating rhythmic sentence structure.


My attempt: Yesterday I went to the grocery store to buy some bread and eggs. At the grocery store I bought bread. I also bought some eggs. I also wanted to buy some flour too. Unfortunately, but they didn’t have any more flour. After I spent about 20 minutes in the store. I bought everything on my shopping list. Well except for flour. I paid for my stuff and then I drove back home.


With my attempt, I combined the first three sentences into one which makes the story less choppy. The second sentence about flour is split into two shorter sentences. The rest of the changes are mostly minor things like removing or replacing some words. But the changes are noticeable, right? The first version felt stilted and inefficient but now, this excerpt has a better flow and rhythm. It reads a lot more smoothly.


Part 2: Avoid repetitive sentences/phrases


I want to preface this tip by saying that repetition can actually be used in writing if it serves a specific purpose. The blog post “17 Fantastic Repetition Examples in Literature” by BookFox for example lists two ways for how repetition in writing could work. “The repeated word has to evolve in some way. Every time it’s repeated, it’s the same word but in a different context, and by the end of the sentence we should be seeing that word in an entirely different light. Or: it has to be funny. Sometimes repeated words can just be funny, simply because you keep repeating them. Think about how many jokes rely on repetition.” With this in mind, if repetition doesn’t serve a purpose to the story, you should consider removing it.


Each sentence should feel like it’s saying something new and (if writing fiction) driving the plot forward. It’s harder to move the plot forward if you have several sentences saying something that could easily be said in one. Likewise, it’s very easy to fall into a pattern of saying unnecessary words. Here is a quick example:


I screamed loudly. In this sentence, the adverb ‘loudly’ can be removed since screams are already implied to be loud. Instead consider:

I screamed.


For some practice, consider the following excerpt:


I ran quickly for what felt like miles, I was positive of it. As I continued into the woods, I became surrounded by extremely tall and dark trees. My sore feet were covered in blisters, each new step I took was excruciatingly painful. This was a horrible day, a horrible, horrible new day. I let out a shaky breath of air as I rested my hand on one of the trees. Suddenly, I felt the tree grab my arm, I looked up to see that it wasn’t a tree. It was the man who had been following me. I screamed loudly in panic. What a horrible, horrible new day.


My Attempt: I ran quickly for what felt like miles, I was positive of it. As I continued into the woods, I became surrounded by extremely tall and dark trees. My sore feet were covered in blisters, each new step was excruciatingly painful. This was a horrible day, a horrible, horrible new day. I let out a shaky breath of air as I rested my hand on one of the trees. Suddenly, I felt the tree it grabbed my arm. I looked up to see that it wasn’t a tree. It was the man who had been following me. I screamed loudly in panic. What a horrible, horrible new day.


In this version, many repetitive words were cut out. The removal of these words doesn’t hinder the story greatly.


Part 3: Be Aware of How You Start Every Sentence


Be mindful of the way in which you start every sentence. Do you ever notice yourself falling into patterns? Maybe you start every sentence with ‘the’ or ‘I’. More times than not we don’t even realize how often we repeat these sentence openers. Similarly to part 2, you want to make sure to avoid starting sentences with the same words. The Purdue Owl in ‘Strategies for Variation’ writes that “If too many sentences start with the same word, especially The, It, This, or I, prose can grow tedious for readers, so changing opening words and phrases can be refreshing.” It’s a pretty simple rule, but also one that I find to be really effective. A great resource to use to make sure you’re not starting each sentence with the same words is to use a sentence length variation chart.


A sentence length variation chart works like this:

First Word

Number of Words in the Sentence

Sentence 1

Sentence 2

Sentence 3

Sentence 4 (etc, etc…)


The chart works well for small scenes or paragraphs of writing where the wording may seem confusing, or even boring. The idea is that you go back to each sentence, and write down what the first word in the sentence is. You can also see the number of how many words are in each sentence. This is really useful for finding out if you use a word too many times, but can also be useful for figuring out if a sentence may be too long or short as well. Charts like these can reveal patterns to your writing that you may not have even been aware of. In addition, you can also keep a log of how many times each word is used to start a sentence. I strongly encourage using this type of chart for any writing you may do. It might surprise you just how much you use certain words. Here’s one final exercise for you to consider.


Like the first 2 exercises, take a look at the excerpt below, and then try to modify the sentence openings. What are some unique changes you can make?


I went to the movie theater yesterday so I could watch the new Spider-Man movie. I wanted to see what would happen in it. My friends came along with me and we all watched it. I got myself a popcorn and a drink. It was so much fun to watch. I really loved the movie! I can’t wait for the next Spider-Man movie, I know it will be great.


My attempt: Yesterday, I went to the movie theater with some friends to watch the new Spider-Man movie. The most important thing for me was seeing I wanted to see what would happen in it. When I was inside the theater, I got myself a popcorn and a drink. It was so much fun to watch the movie. I really loved it! Now I can’t wait for the next Spider-Man movie, I know it will be great.


To replace the sentence openings, I either started with a new word, or introduced an entirely new phrase. Any of these changes are welcome. This is an area where you can really explore and play around with the different ways you could start a sentence. In the original excerpt, ‘I’ was the most common sentence opener used (5 times)! Now with the more varied sentences, ‘I’ only shows up as an opener once.

Sentence structure is one of those things that seems so small at first, but when you begin to look at it more you realize just how important it actually is to writing. The way each sentence flows helps pull your reader on a journey through your work so they stay interested and excited to the very last line.


The Challenge:

For this Back to Basics challenge, choose one of three objects to write a detailed description:

  1. A microwave

  2. A telescope

  3. A tree

In your description, make sure to utilize some of the skills we covered such as sentence variation, establishing rhythm/flow, utilizing complete thoughts in each sentence, and eliminating unnecessary repetition.



Thanks for joining us on Back to Basics. If you tried this month’s challenge, you can share it on our forum or on social media using #WWB2B. Better Writer subscribers can submit their challenge for feedback as soon as possible. If you liked this challenge, be sure to like, comment, and subscribe to our YouTube channel. You can find the Back to Basics intro video here.

 

About the Author: Izhan Arif is a Teaching of English major at UIC who loves to write in his spare time. Izhan is also a very big fan of comic books and comic book TV shows and movies, he hopes to write his own comic books at some point as well.

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