Additional Elements and Exercises for Good Writing Help
Vary Sentence Length and Subject-Verb Positions; Use Parallel Construction
Here is a passage from my memoir, A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief.
With the box of Seth's ashes by my feet on the passenger side of the car, I realized that I wanted to take pictures of the wedding site, so we stopped again to buy a disposable camera. One hour outside of Denver, snow was falling over aspens. When Seth was a student in Colorado, we had visited him here and hiked this forest. We sat on rock ledges in spring and in fall, quiet and dwarfed, overlooking the Continental Divide, feeling overwhelmed by the majesty we were viewing. My life now was a Continental Divide. One continent with Seth on the earth with me; the other one without him here.
When I read this passage, I notice that the first three sentences start with prepositional or adverbial phrases that modify the subjects I, snow, and we. Then the next two sentences have a simple subject-verb structure: "We sat on rock ledges;" "my life now was a Continental Divide." And I end the paragraph with two sentence fragments joined with a semicolon. Each fragment has noun phrases but no verb. So, I have varied sentence length and subject-verb positions in groups. My last group of two fragments sounds right to me because it is a description of a fragmented life.
Write a passage about a time that you felt the reality of something that had happened—something tragic or joyful, frustrating or mysterious. If your sentences sound good to you, check out what you are doing with your sentence construction. Try to see where you have varied construction and where you have repeated it.
If your sentences sound dull, see what you can do to create a variety of sentence lengths and word positions as well as introductory phrases. Can you combine some sentences to make things interesting? Can you add modifying material by using the "-ing" form of words (participial phrases such as "feeling overwhelmed by the majesty") as I have?
See what happens when you change things from dull to more varied:
This kind of editing can come after you have written. In doing the editing, you start to hear music where it may have been lacking before and you rekindle your interest in the passages you are writing. When you sound interesting, your readers will be more interested and apt to continue reading what you've written; but most importantly, when you realize you can make yourself sound interesting on the page employing sentence variety, you will be less upset with the sound of your first drafts and you will keep writing, knowing you can go back and make new sound on the page.
The ear likes both to recognize what is coming and to be surprised by how what comes is different than what the ear expected; the ear likes to feel it is on a ride, a sail, is in hiding or dancing in the sunlight, whichever rhythm, tone, and sound most evokes the mood of the subject. Some of this sound will come naturally as you immerse yourself in your subject; but often we have to go back to our work, and, like a conductor guiding an orchestra, help our words do their work.
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