Writing Sentences With Impact

How many times have you encountered a writer who had great ideas and a knack for compelling characters, but just didn’t use the rights words to say it all?

Yeah, me too.

If there’s anything that makes me cringe about my old writing (and there’s a lot) it was my misunderstanding of what makes a good sentence. Looking back, my work was pocked with ambiguous adjectives, crooked constructions, and an annoying knack for saying in twenty words what could have been said in five. My early stories read like I wanted to convince people I was smart — and this always conveys the opposite effect, trust me — instead of being truly smart by using psychology to create impact with shorter, more powerful sentences. It took years to realize that instead of compelling readers I’d been writing sentences that had alienated them, that I was dropping syntactical speed bumps that were slowing down my stories.

Hopefully I can save you some trouble. Consider this column a guide to writing more active, more immediate, more urgent sentences. Here’s a few tips on how you can rely on the sensory and the specific to grab readers’ attention and make them remember what you’ve written.

Restrict use of passive voice

Reliance on passive voice is one of the most common problems I see in “sleepy” writing, simply because it’s so pervasively ingrained in written culture. We’re a world raised on Shakespeare; we study writers who were masters of form but probably a bit Aspergersy in their day-to-day communicative endeavors. Look, there’s nothing wrong with passive voice. In fact, it’s the default for research papers, legal briefs, technical writing, journalism, and pretty much all “formal” letters, be it “classic” literature or correspondences to a colleague. But its formality often renders it pointlessly baroque in fiction; it softens the sentences. My advice is this: if you’re looking for impact, skip the ruffled pantaloons and go straight for the gut.

In case you’re unaware, passive voice is a sentence that describes a subject receiving an action. In an active voice, the subject performs the action. A typical passive sentence would be “The ball was thrown by Tom.” An active version of the same sentence would be “Tom threw the ball.” See the difference?

The active voice follows the standard “verbal” rule of subject-verb-object. In the passive voice, the object becomes the subject, so the formula becomes object-verb-subject, with the verb taking the past participle form.

Passive:

The men were told by their sergeant to march.

Active:

The sergeant told his men to march.

Active voice is a superior communicative tool because it does just that — it describes action. The object takes a backseat to the verb committed by the subject. Verbs entice the senses; they provoke readers to see action. When readers see action, they’re much more likely to feel an empathetic connection with the sentence and thus, the story. In passive voice, the “responsibility” of the action is removed from the subject to some other agent. The use of active and passive voice is a matter of emphasis: passive makes the subject emphatic; active places emphasis on the action. Another way of thinking about it is that passive describes, while action performs. Passive is rhetorical. Active is pathological. Passive is objective. Active is personal. Passive is formal. Active is informal. Passive is written. Active is verbal.

Passive:

That book was written by me.

Active:

I wrote that book.

Passive:

The factory employs her.

Active:

She works at the factory.

Passive:

Room service is provided by the hotel.

Active:

The hotel provides room service.

Passive voice can be useful when you want to call attention to the effect an action has on the subject. Many also find passive voice “mystifying,” so it sets a suitable stage for dream sequences and flashbacks. So, feel free to use passive voice alongside the active, but remember to use it sparingly.

Get specific

For some beginning writers, there's this bewildering assumption that "good" writing means obfuscating your story, that advanced storytelling somehow entails making fundamentals abstract. Contrary to popular belief, purposefully leaving out essential details does not make you sound more “literary.” It just alienates your reader. Avoid abstraction in your writing, and equally avoid summary. Get concrete. Get specific. Get to the point.

Specificity should especially be used in description. This is the stuff metaphor was made for, because the writer can go beyond descriptive syntax and instead offer a corollary that whittles the image down to a fine-tuned anomaly. Compare these two sentences:

“The woman had red hair.”
“The woman had red hair like an old barn door.”

Which sentence casts a better visual? The second sentence offers a more specific, visually alluring description that asks the reader to conjure a certain image, and in this case, a litany of cultural adjuncts. 

Speaking of visually alluring, remember to entice the senses. We’re a species that learns everything from empirical data; the sensory is the gateway to empathy. What does something look like? Again, get specific. Close your eyes, see the scene and look for details. Then write it out.

Because writing transcends the visual however, description shouldn't be limited to the visual. Make sure to engage all of the senses. Describe the way a house smells, the sounds it makes. When you entice the senses an interesting thing happens: you’re not simply describing a scene for readers, you’re making them participants in it.

Reduce modifiers

Remember: readers want action, not summary of action. Your writing is going to be a lot more effective if you employ well-fitting and appropriate nouns and verbs in your description instead of a barrage of two-cent adjectives and adverbs. Look, if you write an engaging work of fiction we’ll know you’re smart. You don’t have to elucidate your perfidious erudition. If that last sentence doesn’t annoy you, there’s a problem.

If there’s one thing you should spend an inordinate amount of time on when constructing your sentences — and you should work hard at this — it’s finding the right verbs that accurately, perfectly describe the action being committed. The best sentences aren’t the ones that make readers reach for the dictionary. The best sentences are the ones that make the reader realize you’ve said something they’ve always felt but have never been able to put into words.

Fine-tune your sentences

Hey! Short sentences demand readers' attention. What they lack in poetic panache they make up in urgency.

Get rid of pointless constructives and idle words: instead of saying “it seemed to be a gun,” write “it was a gun.” Remove needless transitions between clauses like “however” and “nonetheless” whenever you can. Here’s another one: I’ll bet your sentences probably don’t need the word “that” so many times. Look out for redundancies (e.g., “He was an unmarried bachelor.”). Cut down on qualifiers: use metaphor and analogy, but use them sparingly. Adverbs should be approached with caution; we like to think they refine action but they're actually abstracting it. Always ask yourself: what could this sentence do without and still retain its intended meaning?

Refine your sentences for emphasis. Psychology tells us the human brain looks for meaning at the end of a string of ideas. Whether you're writing in passive or active voice, the most important element should go at the end of the sentence, then the front. Your least important ideas — the interchangeables — should reside in the middle.

Make sure to write in parallel structure. The ideas presented in a sentence should be delivered in equal proportion. The sentence "He'd never had a dog before, let alone a dozen of them" should be revised to say "He'd never had a dog, let alone a dozen of them."

Employ the power of speech

Listen to the phonetic qualities of verbs. Words like “chirp” and “grind” sound incredibly similar to the actions they describe. Use them for double effect.

Repetition is one of the most powerful tools writers can use to get their point across. The best orators of all time understood the power of repeating a word or phrase to imbue pathos and carry their message to a thundering crescendo. Listen to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Pearl Harbor Address” or Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech to get an idea of what truly awesome power repetition has in sentences.

Vary your sentence lengths. The "acoustic" qualities of sentences are one of the reasons we enjoy them so much. Don't write each sentence in the same structure unless you're deliberately employing repetition. When you want to call emphasis to a particular sentence, give it shorter length.

Stand back and look at your writing. If you find you're spending too much time analyzing secondary details, edit them down. Make sure your paragraphs employ the same structural awareness as your individual sentences: start with important ideas, pontificate on them in the middle, and succinctly sum up the totality or meaning of these ideas into one grand idea at the end. The last sentence is where your aphorisms or pithy truths belong. Finally, make sure your last sentence serves as a transition into the next paragraph. 

Finally, read your work aloud. I was fortunate enough to take a class on public reading earlier this year, which oddly proved to be an eye-opening experience on editing. I brought several copies of my stories to class, and when I read them aloud couldn’t believe how unnecessarily long some of my sentences were. I ran home and took out the red pen, and I now have a habit of editing all my stories this way. After you’ve finished writing your first draft, print out a copy and read it to yourself, aloud. Make sure to read the sentences slowly. You’ll be amazed at all the stuff that needs to go. When in doubt, always listen to your ear.


Find out about Jon Gingerich's 'Fundamentals of Short Fiction' class, which begins April 23rd!

Jon Gingerich

Column by Jon Gingerich

Jon Gingerich is editor of O'Dwyer's magazine in New York. His fiction has been published in literary journals such as The Oyez Review, Pleiades, Helix Magazine, as well as The New York Press, London’s Litro magazine, and many others. He currently writes about politics and media trends at www.odwyerpr.com. Jon holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Some of his published fiction can be found at www.jongingerich.com.

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Comments

misskokamon's picture
misskokamon from San Francisco is reading The Moonlit Mind November 9, 2011 - 2:40pm

This is a really great article, Jon. It sums up everything I try to explain to people looking for my advice and it sounds better than anything I'd say. I'll be sending this article to all my buddies!
 

Anna Flaa's picture
Anna Flaa from MN is reading The Help November 9, 2011 - 5:15pm

So helpful.  Definitely things I need to remember myself, though I'll also be passing this along to others!  Thanks!

Stuart Gibbel's picture
Stuart Gibbel from California is reading Angel Falls by Michael Paul Gonzalez November 9, 2011 - 5:31pm

Nice article.  Thanks.  

derekberry's picture
derekberry from South Carolina is reading Eating Animals November 9, 2011 - 7:02pm

This was really awesome. I also really enjoyed your cliche column, so you're definitely a column writer I'm excited about. Helping a young writer edit down her story, she asked me if she "needed more adverbs, maybe."  I sort of laughed. 

But I had the same problem early on, that I'd write very long, very difficult-to-read sentences because... that's what Dickens did.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words November 9, 2011 - 7:37pm

thanks for the great overview - the passive voice is a pet peeve of mine, most often because it eliminates the subject. "The dog was kicked." by who? I'll moidah da bum!

keep 'em coming.

jl85's picture
jl85 from originally East Tennessee now Southern California is reading everything I can November 10, 2011 - 2:22am

Jon,

Great column man!! There is so much good advice in here that is really just common sense stuff so many of us stop thinking about when we write. Looking forward to more great articles!! Keep up the outstanding work!!

Stephen Brayton's picture
Stephen Brayton November 10, 2011 - 7:21am

Thanks for the reminder. We all need it sometimes.

Xander Davis's picture
Xander Davis from Downtown Tycho, The Moon is reading Casino Royale / Tomorrow Now November 10, 2011 - 9:15am

Great article. :)

nrpec's picture
nrpec from Savannah, GA is reading The New New Journalism November 10, 2011 - 9:57am

Thanks for taking the time to write and share these craft tips. Can't be said enough.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow November 10, 2011 - 1:28pm

Nicely done. I had a professor in college who graded my essays down one point for every passive voice construction--and some aren't as obvious as "The ball was thrown". Needless to say, I quickly learned what passive voice really was, and I feel like a changed person. While I still fall into lazy PV when I'm writing, I always amaze myself when I sit up and give that extra effort to write a strong active voice sentence. Wow, I wrote that?

Great article. I think we all could use frequent reminders to write powerful sentences!

Tzara's picture
Tzara from Everywhere, but originally Jersey is reading The Rum Diary and The Corrections November 11, 2011 - 7:41am

Reading out loud really does help. I found this out  last week when I was reading a new story of mine to a friend. I constantly kept stopping to say "what the?" Great advice on the voice too. Thanks

Nick's picture
Nick from Toronto is reading A Million Little Fibers by Steven McTowelie November 16, 2011 - 8:10pm

Sweet. Great, easy-to-apply advice.

Ash's picture
Ash from the dark ghoulish woods creaking just outside the unhinged door, the macabre biting at the heels. is reading Our Tragic Universe February 2, 2012 - 1:32pm

Tzara that sounds like good advice, I must try it. I'm forever reading what i wrote back in my head and mentally animating the voices. perhaps they're be more kick aloud.

Also this article's full of great stuff, Much appreciated.