Sentences: the Building Blocks to Powerful Writing

Peter B. GiblettStarred Page By Peter B. Giblett, 29th Mar 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Tips

When writing it is important to be understood, indeed powerful writing is founded on the use of sentences - they are the basic tool to help the writer communicate, sentences must flow well to facilitate understanding and keep the reader interested. How good are the sentences you write?

Not just a Sequence of Words

I remember seeing a comment stating that one specific writer used long sentences (but this was not commenting about my writing) yet in all honesty there is really no reason why sentences MUST be short, what is far more important is that the right meaning is conveyed, however many of you will say that was the way we were taught when young, true, I also received many of those same lessons, however this is one of the ways in which conventional wisdom limits many peoples abilities as writers, truth is if words are the foundation to our abilities in language then sentences are the building blocks that writers have to use in order to invigorate the reader's imagination or understanding of the specific subject matter at hand and the importance of the sentence cannot be understated in this respect. Write well and you will be understood no matter the length of the sentence and with a human audience there is always a need for variety.

Many people will grew up using newspapers as their staple diet for reading and it is certainly true that for that media they publish both in short sentences and short paragraphs (often only one sentence long), it is necessary, particularly for the tabloids, which are a smaller format, here the column format limits the lengths of paragraphs because the reader's mind is attuned to seeing regular breaks in order not to lose where they are on the page and navigating a page is much more complex than a book. Writing on the Internet is however a different proposition to newspapers because each 'column' has its own page and thus a writer should always consider the media they are writing for.

Powerful writers of the twentieth century have written great works of literature, including action novels that contain long sentences to convey action scenes, yet the people reading the book would never question that it was all action all of the time, it is about portraying the story in the right way and carrying the audience. Other than words, we normally regard the primary components of a sentence as a collection of phrases or clauses grouped together to make a complete and meaningful sentence, yet any sentence may be simple or complex, and may introduce many levels of abstraction in order to completely discuss a topic.

Professor Brooks Landon of Iowa State University has studied the way that we use sentences and has published a course "Building Great Sentences - exploring the writer's craft" which is highly recommended and educational. Not every sentence we write needs to be long but it does need to be crafted wisely to give the reader something of value, something to take away, something to give them pause for thought. Indeed the sentence is where we should start in order to understand why some writing captivates us and other writing leaves us totally unmoved.

Sentence Tactics

When writing sentences we do not seek to fit it into a mold but they are here to convey meaning and the writer may adopt several tactics within the sentence in order to convey their message, according to Landon each proposition will employ at least one such tactic and can broadly categorised as:

  • Predicative
  • Subordinate
  • Conjunctive
  • Cumulative
  • Suspensive
  • Adjectival
  • Interruptive
  • Cohesive
  • Extensive
  • Balanced
  • Serial
  • Also kernel and master propositions.

At this stage it is not necessary to know what each of these sentence types mean, the point is that a writer can employ any of these tactics in telling their story - and let us be clear even if writing a non-fiction piece you are still telling a story and even this work is one of many possible stories and to do this we must create and use sentences. Shaping sentences will be driven by the writer's specific purpose, their aim, their goal, the reason they created it, their need to communicate, at a minimum each sentence consists of a kernel, a subject phrase linked to a verb phrase, for example "the cat went out" but there's no reason we cannot be adventurous with our sentences because they are the building blocks of prose. Don DeLillo once stated "This is what I mean when I call myself a writer, I construct sentences", this quote gives me a vision of a great thinker like Socrates with a chisel carefully crafting his sentences in stone, but it also leaves me to conclude that if a builder can make grand buildings then surely a writer can make grand sentences and as DeLillo used the word "construct" then it also tells us this should be done carefully and according to a plan.

A sentence should do more then simply convey information, it should be able to provide the reader with emotional stimuli whether pleasure or pain and knowing how to put ideas together is an essential part of the writer's craft. Sentences are shaped by content and driven by the writer's specific purpose and there are perhaps an infinite number of ways any idea can be expressed but there are some strategies to give them a greater impact because to be better writers we have to create better sentences. Professor Landon states "sentences are sequences of words, but adding words together does not create a sentence" a writer has to follow the rules of construction. Landon introduces the idea that "the basic unit of writing is the proposition, not the word or even a sequence of words, and we build sentences by putting propositions together" so it is vital to understand what a proposition is and how they build sentences.

What is a Proposition?

A proposition is normally the most basic form of a sentence, for example it could be a simple statement of fact to be accepted or rejected in its entirety, such as "the piano is red" and you will notice this obeys the rules for creating a sentence in that it has a noun phrase (the piano) and a predicate or verb phrase (is red) but on its own this would be a pretty boring sentence unless it were part of a story and was spoken by a particular character. Generally sentences should contain one or more related propositions and if you think about it most sentences express multiple ideas thus we build up a series of propositions to make good sentences.

Having just stated that a proposition is a complete sentence, so why not use it that way? This would result in very short sentences but most people combine propositions even in short sentences, we do this through the use of joining tools like commas, the and, a but, or words such as "like" or "because", put simply it is how we add details or further explanations, besides keeping to the basic sentence structure would make our writing very staccato and probably difficult to follow. Most of the time writers build cumulative sentences because of the information they are providing, this type of structure uses additional phrases that build on the original information offered (the basic proposition) utilising these joining tools, to add value to the original statement. Ultimately we build paragraphs, sections and chapters by grouping together related information presented in sentences that all follows a logical path that tells the story.

Each sentence is deliberate and has a function, by crafting and combining propositional material correctly writers can become masters of their craft, for example the way a mystery novelist will build up a sentence, yet at the same time delay the delivery of crucial bit of information till the final proposition at the end of a complex sentence. They build their sentences deliberately with rhythm and structure in order to deliver suspensive information, yet they continue to carry the reader through the suspense to reach a climactic event.

Effective writing

Writing that anticipates, shapes and satisfies a reader's full need for information will have reached the criteria for effectiveness but in order to do that a writer has to craft sentences that provide the right nugget at the right time and deliver it in an interesting way, because if it isn't interesting then there are are a dozen writers others that will offer something that is.

There is another myth about writing, the rule which says don't use the same word twice in the same sentence, yet it is often possible to juxtapose multiple ideas in the same sentence using some form of repetition, indeed there can be a rhythm to building a sentence this way, a rhythm that allows flow, a rhythm that will allows thoughts to grow, in some respects it is poetic even when you are not writing poetry also many of us learn by repetition, but at the same time its important to get the balance right in order that the sentence is effective yet the value of the sentence is driven by its content.

We should not be asking whether a sentence is long but whether it is effective in delivering its results and that is a very subjective matter for it is possible to say exactly the same thing to two different people only to find they react in entirely different ways so in many respects this job of crafting sentences takes on a different dynamic as the writer has to be a psychologist as well and understand how others will react, wow what a job and we are paid little or nothing for doing it.

How Effective is your writing?

One thing I hope to have accomplished within the words of this page is have you question how you can improve or be more imaginative with the sentences that you write because it's possible to be so much more adventurous and get over your fear of failure.

Do you have something to say? To date the author (Peter B. Giblett) has published a wide variety articles on many subjects here on Wikinut plus others on a variety of other sites, these are the most recent articles published include:

Each person has a unique voice and Wikinut is great a place for you to share some of your wisdom, insight and knowledge, you could start by adding a comment, but perhaps you need something more in which case should join Wikinut, write then become connected to others who share a passion for writing, supporting one another, and learning on Wikinut.

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Comments

author avatar Jerry Walch
29th Mar 2014 (#)

You beat me to the punch on this one Peter, I was just getting ready to do an article on sentences. Great job!

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author avatar Jerry Walch
29th Mar 2014 (#)

Hey, did you really mean to write "proposition" od did you mean to type "preposition"?

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
29th Mar 2014 (#)

Proposition is correct.

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author avatar Jerry Walch
29th Mar 2014 (#)

Ok Peter, I learned in school that there were four basic types of sentences: Declarative, Interrogative, Imperative and Exclamatory with the declarative being the simplest. Perhaps proposition is a new term for declarative :-))

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author avatar cnwriter..carolina
30th Mar 2014 (#)

great piece Peter.... I was very good at English grammar at school but now I write it as it comes through and dont really think of sentences. The one thing I really do not like and which most people do nowadays is use so many commas....a sentence should flow without stops...anyway that is how I see it...

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author avatar Randhir Bechoo
30th Mar 2014 (#)

Informative article

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author avatar Ptrikha
31st Mar 2014 (#)

Excellent article- in fact a must read. And I am taking a printout of this to read at a leisure time.

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
31st Mar 2014 (#)

I appreciate that thought - I always print the helpful information that I find.

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author avatar Ptrikha
1st Apr 2014 (#)

In our technical world, we can compare such an article to a Checklist or a Guideline document and save it in our Versioning Tool :)

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author avatar Ptrikha
3rd Apr 2014 (#)

And I have taken the printout and it is now my companion and guideline tool for writing.

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author avatar Fern Mc Costigan
31st Mar 2014 (#)

Interesting post!

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author avatar MarilynDavisatTIERS
31st Mar 2014 (#)

Good morning, Peter, well done. I liked this: "..a writer has to craft sentences that provide the right nugget at the right time.." Your emphasis on the construction of sentences also provided good examples of this. Thanks for this. Marilyn

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author avatar Mariah
31st Mar 2014 (#)

I echo my previous comments Peter, in that you are a master of the craft.
Yet another valuable and impressive tutorial.. written in a very creative style.
Thank you.

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
31st Mar 2014 (#)

Mariah and Marilyn I do thank you both very much.

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author avatar Carol
31st Mar 2014 (#)

Great article about sentences Peter. I think mine tend to be long, not sure if I should shorten them?

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
1st Apr 2014 (#)

Carol, I do not believe yours to be too long, my final note in this article is about effectiveness and the writer should understand what makes each sentence effective, you should think of effectiveness rather than sentence length.

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