Taking Your Sentences From Good To Great

There are lots of things to love about books: Sweeping plots, great characterizations, relationships that make your heart pound a little bit faster. And I do love those things—but there’s another thing that I particularly love, which is always something I look for in books I read and in books I write:

Lush, gorgeous sentence-level writing.

Poetic writing is one of my favorite things in the world, and it’s always the standard I strive for in my own books. Sometimes, finding just the right turn of phrase is something that happens in revisions; particularly when I was a newer writer, trying to focus too much on the sentence level while I drafted only led to feeling paralyzed by a need for perfection and losing momentum to finish the story. As I’ve grown and matured as a writer, though, I’ve learned to focus more and more on line-level writing while I draft as well as when I revise—and over time, it’s come to be instinctual in a way that still allows me to draft fairly quickly and efficiently, but also means that my first drafts tend to be cleaner.

Sentence-level drafting isn’t for everyone. The #1 most important thing in a first draft is just to get the story down, however rough it might be; you can always revise later and strengthen things then! But if you’re interested in taking your first drafts up a notch, here are some of the tricks I’ve taught myself to be aware of in order to make my sentences stronger as I write, rather than only strengthening them during revisions!

1. I take some time to let a story “marinate” before I write it.

The amount of time varies, but I typically spend at least a few months thinking over a story idea before I get to outlining or drafting. During this time I come up with the basics of the story—the main character, the setting, at least a vague idea of the plot (though often it’s very, very vague until I get to outlining, when it becomes clearer)—but I also spend a lot of time thinking about the atmosphere I want my story to have. What sorts of feelings do I want the story to conjure up in readers: Wistful, gloomy, nostalgic, peaceful, funny, creepy?

Taking the time to ponder what kind of atmosphere I want my story to have helps when I get to drafting, because then I know what I’m aiming for, and I can make sure that my word choices support that atmosphere instead of detracting from it.

2. I watch for the sounds of words and the feelings those sounds elicit.

Think of the words creamy and thickened. Both can describe essentially the same texture; yogurt, for example, could be referred to by either one. And yet don’t they conjure up totally different feelings to you? Creamy, to me, sounds rich, luxurious, smooth, indulgent. Thickened, on the other hand, makes me think of the gelatin that forms in my homemade chicken stock if I leave it in the fridge—not a particularly appetizing image! Some of this is connotation—the way these two words are commonly used—and some of it is the sounds inside the words themselves. Creamy has a lot of smooth, open vowels that help to elicit the feeling of something, well, creamy; thickened, on the other hand, is broken up with sharp, hard consonants, which have the opposite effect.

It can be helpful to watch out for word sounds both as they relate to the specific feelings you want your reader to experience (sadness in a sad scene, comfort in a comforting one, etc.), and in terms of your story’s overall atmosphere. A ghost story might have a tendency towards words that sound eerie or spooky, while a rom-com might go for fun and flirty banter.

3. I keep an eye out for strong adjectives and adverbs.

Adjectives and adverbs are the building blocks of description—we as writers wouldn’t get very far without them. But all are not created equal; the tree was big, for example, doesn’t give us the same feeling as the tree was colossal, and the tree was immense is also different. “Big” doesn’t carry the same feeling of size that colossal and immense do, both because the latter two adjectives both specifically mean ESPECIALLY big, and because “big” is much more common and less likely to elicit specific feelings in a reader. As I draft, every time I get to a descriptor, I pause for about two seconds to see if I can think of a stronger one to use. If I can’t, it’s no big deal and I go on, but much of the time I can.

4. Likewise, I keep an eye out for strong metaphors.

I use a similar process in choosing metaphors for my descriptions—in fact, I wrote a whole blog post here about writing strong metaphors, which goes in-depth into my process!

5. Try to steer clear of “to be” verbs—unless they suit your story’s voice for a particular reason.

It’s pretty common writing knowledge that “to be” verbs (was sitting, is running, etc.) are much weaker than their active counterparts (sat, runs, etc.). As I draft, I try to be aware of the verbs I’m using as well, and use as many strong, direct verbs as I can. The exception to this is when those “to be” verbs help the voice of my story—in my specific instance, I write a lot of Southern novels, and Southern dialect uses “to be” verbs very heavily, so I often have more of them in my book than I would in a book told in the voice of a Yankee. (A fact that has caused several of my not-Southern critique partners to scratch their heads!)

Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is now gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. Find her on Twitter at @beingcindy.

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