4.3 Sentence Variety

Preview

This section of Ch. 4 will cover the following topics:

  • sentence patterns
  • awkward constructions

There are three for effective writing:

  • important content
  • correct mechanics
  • variety in expression

A writer has to have something to say, then write it correctly and in a way that engages the reader. That last point is one that many student writers overlook. How can the way you write have variety and be engaging?

Varying Patterns

Student writers have a tendency to reuse the same sentence patterns in their writing without realizing they do so. Experienced writers consciously use an assortment of sentence patterns, rhythms, and lengths.

Read the following sentences.  What do they all have in common?

  • John and Amanda will be analyzing this week’s financial report.
  • The car screeched to a halt a few inches from the boy.
  • Students rarely come to the exam adequately prepared.

The repetition is subtle, but a reader can feel it. The subject is at the beginning of each sentence, followed by the verb, followed by the object. The subject + verb + object pattern is the simplest sentence structure and commonly used, but an entire essay composed of sentences that all begin with a subject followed by a verb followed by an object will eventually put a reader to sleep.

Here’s an example of writing that could be expressed more effectively:

I have achieved several goals during my time in office. I have helped increase funding for local schools. I have reduced crime rates in the neighborhood. I have encouraged young people to get involved in their community. My competitor argues that she is the better choice in the upcoming election. I argue that it is ridiculous to fix something that isn’t broken. If you reelect me this year, I promise to continue to serve this community.

Notice the short, simple sentences throughout? Writers often mistakenly believe this makes the information more clear, but the result is a choppy, unsophisticated paragraph. Also, notice how many sentences begin with the word “I”? While grammatically correct, that kind of repetition is deadly.

Now read this revision:

During my time in office, I have helped increase funding for local schools, reduced crime rates in the neighborhood, and encouraged young people to get involved in their community. Why fix what isn’t broken? If you reelect me this year, I promise to continue to serve this community.

Starting with a prepositional phrase varies the opening and provides a context for the information. Deleting some of the “I” statements reduces repetition. Combining the short choppy sentences into one longer sentence creates a sense of parallel points. Introducing a short question among the longer sentences changes the rhythm. That is what is meant by “varying sentence structure.”

Here are four tips to inject sentence variety into your writing:

  • Vary the length of your sentences. Don’t be afraid to write long sentences, but don’t be afraid to write short sentences either. The key is diversity. If you notice a paragraph filled with short sentences, combine some into longer, more complex sentences.  If you tend to write lots of long sentences, break a few into shorter sentences. The change in rhythm will keep your reader engaged.
  • Use different transition words. A transition can be a (“and,” “but,” “because”) or an (“however,” “therefore”). Choose transitions to say what you intend, but don’t repeat favorite words again and again. (See Ch. 6.1 for more on transitions.)
  • Start your sentences in different ways. Many sentences begin with the noun or pronoun subject. Try starting a sentence with an adverb or a preposition instead.
    • with an adverb: “She turned the corner slowly.” → “Slowly, she turned the corner.”  Read those two sentences aloud and notice the different rhythm.
    • with a prepositional phrase: “Teenagers exchange drugs and money under the railway bridge.” → “Under the railway bridge, teenagers exchange drugs and money.”
  • Use questions occasionally. All sentences do not have to end with a period.  Questions stimulate a reader’s mind, encouraging them to wonder about the answer you will provide.

Like any writing techniques, these should not be over-used. Starting lots of sentences with adverbs is worse than starting no sentences with adverbs and asking lots of questions is worse than asking none.

Exercise 1

In your notebook, revise the sentence groups below so they are more diverse. Combine sentences using interesting transitions, turn one into a question, vary sentence length, or change the way a sentence begins.

  1. Heroin is an extremely addictive drug. Thousands of heroin addicts die each year.
  2. Michael Phelps won eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics. He is a champion swimmer.
  3. Shakespeare’s writing is still relevant today. He wrote about timeless themes. These themes include love, hate, jealousy, death, and destiny.
  4. Prewriting is a vital stage of the writing process. Prewriting helps writers organize their ideas. Types of prewriting include freewriting, questioning, and listing.
  5. Martha has asthma and she lives where wildfires are frequent.  She considered moving and decided not to. Both her doctor and her husband are concerned. She is reconsidering her decision.
  6. The dog next door barks all the time.  The owner is trying to train his dog.  The dog is still barking too much.

Awkward Constructions

Tip

The great writer George Orwell developed a set of rules to improve most people’s writing. He ended his list with one bit of advice: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright .”

Reorganizing patterns can make writing fresh and interesting.  It can also lead to awkward sentences.  For example:

There should be more effective treatments for viral infections developed by non-profit research institutions.

Wait! Are the research institutions developing viral infections? A better sentence would focus on the nouns that are actually doing something, like this:

Non-profit research institutions should be developing more effective treatments for viral infections.

Also, not all prepositional phrases can be placed at the beginning of a sentence. For example:

I would like a chocolate sundae without whipped cream.

The prepositional phrase “without whipped cream” describes the chocolate sundae, so it cannot be moved to the beginning of the sentence.  It would be silly:

Without whipped cream, I would like a chocolate sundae.

Awkward sentence structure also happens when a subject gets buried. Avoid sentences that begin with “There are” or “It is.”

There are many good reasons for losing weight. → Many reasons for losing weight are good.

It is better to lose weight slowly. → Losing weight slowly is best.

Beginning with a vague pronoun that doesn’t refer to anything specific creates confusion for a reader.

Although variety can breathe life into boring writing, beware of excess. Remember that clarity is a writer’s primary goal.

Takeaways

  • Sentence variety reduces repetition and adds emphasis to important points.
  • One way to create variety is to use different length sentences.
  • Variety can also be created by starting a sentence with an adverb or a prepositional phrase.
  • Although variety is important, sentences need to be organized with clarity as the main goal.

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1, 2, 3 Write! by Gay Monteverde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.