The Draft

How to Write a Sentence

Be specific. Be human. Make every word count.

Illustration: Lulu Jiang

Welcome to The Draft, an advice column about writing and life from Eileen Pollack, former director of the University of Michigan MFA Program. We’re here to answer your questions about storycraft, writing, and telling the truth in words.

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Dear Draft,

I have a problem overwriting predominantly. That not only do I add unnecessary words, but my details are nearly always unwanted, misplaced, or confusing. Unfortunately I wasn’t taught English properly (ever). So where can I learn how to write in a manner that actually communicates my intended messages?

Signed,
Absent the Day They Taught Good Writing

Dear Absent,

No, you weren’t absent. Unless you attended parochial school, your teachers probably never taught anyone the rules of grammar. Be grateful: you would have died of boredom. And if your teacher had marked up your essays with a red pen, chiding you for every error, you would have simmered with resentment and stopped writing unless required.

Many teachers do make an effort to teach “good writing,” but their lessons are geared toward helping students produce a coherent essay that will earn them a decent score on their SATs.

How do most of us learn to write? By reading. Not what we are required to read, but stories, novels, and essays that send our hearts racing with excitement, make us feel less lonely and misunderstood, help us solve the mysteries of sex and love, and bring alive a time and place far different from those we live in. We pick up most of what we know about good writing by osmosis. But only if we read good writing. And only if we read a lot.

At times, we might find ourselves puzzled as to where a comma should go or whether we need to use “lie” or “lay.” But most such questions can be solved by common sense. Take this sentence: The thief jumped on my bicycle and pedaled off. Should a comma go after “bicycle”? No, because the thief in the first part of the sentence is not only jumping on the bike, he also is pedaling off. If you put a comma after “bicycle,” the thief won’t be able to perform that second action. What about: The thief jumped on my bicycle and my sister screamed. Here, the thief is jumping on your bike, but your sister is the person screaming. Unless you put a comma after “bicycle,” the thief will jump not only on the bicycle but also on your sister.

The few rules of grammar that aren’t rooted in common sense aren’t hard to learn. When I got hired for my first real job, which involved editing my boss’s speeches, I realized my education was riddled with holes, and I immediately ran out and bought a grammar book. Although listening to your eighth-grade teacher deliver a lecture on the pluperfect tense can be dull, teaching yourself a skill you actually want to learn as an adult can be fun. (In addition to the Dummies books on grammar, I recommend the Grammar Girl website.)

Still, Absent, just because a sentence doesn’t violate any grammar rules doesn’t mean it is clear, concise, or beautiful. Here are some basic principles that might help you fulfill your aims.

Most good sentences are specific.

The first time I taught nonfiction writing, I asked my students to write a sentence in which they conveyed the most essential fact about their parent or guardian. “My father is the most forgiving man in the world,” one student read aloud. When I (gently) challenged her to support this assertion — after all, my own father was a very forgiving man — she blurted: “My father’s father beat him so badly he broke both his legs. But now my father works two jobs so he can pay for my grandfather to live in the best private nursing home in the county instead of the shitty public one.”

Standing in front of that class, I realized my student had just illustrated the most important secrets of good writing. First, generalizations do little but cause your readers to beg for details that prove the assertion to be true, so why not offer the details in the first place? Second, revising for specificity will reveal what you are actually trying to get at. Here, the question the writer is dying to explore is why, exactly, her father is working both those jobs. Has he truly forgiven his father for breaking his legs? If so, how did he accomplish this? Or is he trying to prove that despite his father’s low opinion of him as a boy, he grew up to be a bigger success — and a better person — than the old man?

A good sentence conveys only one idea, image, or fact.

When my student replaced her generalization about her father with the details that proved the assertion to be true, she instinctively used two sentences instead of one. The idea she is conveying in the first sentence (her grandfather used to beat her father) is less complex than the idea she expresses in the second (her father now works two jobs to support the older man), but each sentence is meant to accomplish only one job, which is as much as any sentence should be designed to do.

Sadly, many writers stuff as much as they can into every sentence. As one of my teachers used to say, if you load 10 pounds of potatoes into a five-pound bag, you aren’t doing the customer any favors: the bag will only fall apart in the parking lot. As an editor, I often see sentences into which the writer has tried to cram every detail he can think of to help us visualize a scene. The tall, muscular man with the long black hair — he might have been Native American, or maybe Mexican — staggered along the litter-strewn river, carrying a guitar case slung over one shoulder, weaving unsteadily as if he might have been drunk or blind. Nothing is technically wrong with that description. But how can we tell which image or idea to focus on? Is the man’s height and muscularity what’s important — is he about to get in a fight? Should we be concerned that a Native American or Mexican is crossing the ranch of a white supremacist? Is this man a musician? An environmentalist? Is the point that the man is blind but often mistaken for alcoholic?

Similarly, your readers will have an easier time visualizing what is happening if you keep all the actions in chronological order — not only within your essay, but within each paragraph and single sentence. The girl got hit by the SUV, having ignored the stop sign and darted into the intersection on her skateboard. That sentence is grammatically correct. But after we imagine the girl getting hit by the SUV, we need to rewind the film, back the girl out of the intersection, then propel her forward again past the stop sign, after which we need to replay the scene a third time, with the girl riding a skateboard rather than, say, a bike.

Use as few words as you can.

Don’t tell your readers what you’re going to say before you say it. Sometimes, this means cutting your introductory sentence: I have always been afraid of public speaking. Whenever I need to give a speech, I feel I might throw up. Other times, you can save a clause by trusting your readers to understand what an action means: I wanted to avoid my ex-husband, so when I saw him, I ducked behind a potted plant. If you told us that when you saw your ex, you ducked behind a plant, wouldn’t we understand you were trying to avoid him?

Concision isn’t something you need to worry about until your next-to-last draft. But at some point, you should edit your work by looking at each paragraph and asking yourself if it relates to your central question, and, if it doesn’t, what you might lose by cutting it. Then, if the paragraph stays, ask yourself whether any sentence might be superfluous. Finally, look at each word within each sentence to see which can stay and which must go. Do you really need to say “at that point in time” when “then” would be four words shorter? Do you need to say your subject “took long strides” when “loped” would be more effective? Usually, I can cut at least a quarter of my verbiage — sometimes half. I treat this sort of editing as a video game, trying to see how many words I can kill without harming the essay’s meaning.

I’m not trying to embarrass you, Absent, but let’s play this game with the question you sent me. Look at your first sentence. Clearly, you need the words “I have a problem.” And we obviously want to know what that problem is, so you need the word “overwriting.” But what would happen if you cut “predominantly”? I have a problem with overwriting. That sentence is grammatically correct, focused on one idea, and doesn’t waste a word. Now, what if you cut “That” at the start of the second sentence? Would any of your meaning be lost? Not really. And the sentence would be one word shorter. That said, don’t get carried away: every remaining word in that second sentence is essential, including all three items on that list.

Nor do you need to cut everything that isn’t a noun or verb. Just be sparing with your adverbs and adjectives. Take this description of Olive Kitteridge, the cranky heroine of Elizabeth Strout’s wonderful story collection Olive, Again. Olive is visiting her cardiologist, a much younger man upon whom she has developed a crush, not least because the cardiologist saved her life. After a moment the doctor took his stethoscope and deftly slipped it through the opening of her gown to listen to Olive’s heart. The purpose of the sentence is clear: Olive is observing her doctor as he listens to her heart. Each action happens in chronological order. No word is superfluous, not even that adverb “deftly.” In fact, the absence of any clutter leads us to wonder why Olive bothers to notice the doctor’s “deftness.” Ah! She admires his professional competence. But he is also like a lover who deftly unbuttons his girlfriend’s blouse and slips in his hand. With a cardiologist this adept at listening to his patient’s heart, will he be able to hear how much Olive loves him?

Make each word count.

Suppose I write: There was something in the backyard, and it was making so much noise I was afraid the situation would cause the neighbors to do something. Don’t you want to know what “thing” is making all that noise and what the neighbors will do to make “the situation” stop? You might think this example is extreme, but I earn my living by asking writers to replace “it” and “thing” with concrete nouns, to avoid vague words such as “situation,” and to substitute active verbs for “was” and “is.” Usually, you will want a sentence to convey a concrete image, or an action your readers can visualize, or something specific they can hear, see, taste, smell, or feel. The rooster crowed so shrilly I was afraid the neighbors would sneak into my backyard with an axe and chop off his head. Not only would your readers now see the scene, they would hear the rooster crowing and cringe at the image of the neighbors chopping off his head.

Use down-to-earth language.

Yesterday, I read an essay in which the writer said she “faced food insecurity as a child.” I know “food insecurity” is the current jargon to describe poor families not having enough to eat. But the writer doesn’t sound smarter or more professional for using the phrase; she sounds less human. When I was a child, my mother often tried to feed all five of us with a box of mac and cheese. On a good day, she could afford Kraft instead of the generic brand.

Picking up jargon and euphemisms from the government, corporations, newspapers, the internet, and the people at work is easy. But abstract, artificial language leaves us guessing what you mean. Suppose you write: As a child who was perceived as “the other,” I was repeatedly traumatized by microaggressions and now I suffer from PTSD. Despite the high-flown diction, we aren’t sure if you were the only black kid in your Ohio town, or if were you a boy who liked to wear his sister’s dresses and lipstick and rouge to school. Did someone chalk a swastika on your locker? Did the older boys duct tape you to a tree, wipe the makeup from your face, and shave your head? By “suffer from PTSD” do you mean that even as an adult, the very mention of Ohio makes you break out in a sweat? Or that whenever a group of teenage boys approaches you on the street, you fight the urge to duck into the nearest alley?

I’m not saying to dumb down your prose. But the more complex an idea, the simpler and shorter your sentences ought to be. If you’re struggling to express what you mean, imagine you’re explaining your idea to your kid brother or aunt. If you think everyone but you is an expert writer, you might employ overly fancy language and syntax you can’t control. Relax, Absent. Try to sound like your best self when you write, but don’t try to sound like someone you’re not and don’t want to be.

Have a question about writing? Ask The Draft here.

Eileen is the author, most recently, of The Professor of Immortality, A Perfect Life, and The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club.

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