Thursday, 3 February 2011

Syntax - Crafting a Powerful Sentence

Syntax changes everything. It's not just about what we put in a sentence - the words we choose, the punctuation - but how we put that sentence together. A well-crafted sentence can make all the difference to a reader. It can convey the writer's message more clearly, more effectively. Careful syntax is the difference between a messy, meandering piece of writing, and a crisp, powerful piece of writing.

This is something we discussed briefly last week in our creative writing class. It's something that writers don't (and shouldn't) pay attention to in the first drafts of their writing. Though you may find a lot of your sentences are constructed efficiently first time around, this instinct for good syntax comes with practice and knowledge. It is definitely something a writer should think about when it comes to editing their work.

Things to think about:

Is this sentence clear in meaning?
Though you might want to use ambiguity as an effect, more often than not it appears in work by accident. Sometimes, when an idea is clear in your own head, you might not be able to recognise that it could be confusing for the reader. This is occasionally due to word choice (e.g. 'The witch stared at him. He became petrified.' - Does this mean she turned him to stone, or that he was frightened?). Other times, confusion arises due to incorrect or absent punctuation. The famous example that the panda 'eats, shoots, and leaves' comes to mind.

Is this sentence repetitious?

Have you said the same thing twice in your sentence, but in a different way? For example, 'Jimmy was only a toddler, so he had to reach up to the table because he was so small.' Here, 'because he was so small' is redundant, because we already know that from the use of the word 'toddler'. We often over-write in this way in our first drafts, as we're eager to purge the information. Yet when we read our work back, we can hopefully see where repetitious words and phrases can be cut, as we view the work from a reader's perspective.

Does this sentence end on the right word?
We're more aware of this device in poetry: using certain words at the end of lines or stanzas for impact. It's the same for prose. For example, 'In a rage, Mike threw the soap that he'd washed the blood from his hands with.' Ending the sentence with the word 'with' creates no sense of impact. Instead, try: 'Mike washed the blood from his hands, and threw the soap in a rage.'

Does this paragraph end with the right sentence?
Syntax is more than just looking at isolated sentences. You have to look at the writing as a whole, building it up piece by piece. Ending with emphasis doesn't just apply to sentences, but also to paragraphs. A paragraph should contain one idea or encapsulate one part of the action. The sentences should build up this idea, beginning with its seed and finishing in a blossom. This is something we think about when writing academic work, but it also applies to fiction.

Is this sentence passive? Passivity in writing is dull. It suggests to the reader that the writer is unsure of themselves, and also gives the impression that the action is happening at arm's length (although, this can sometimes be a deliberate device). The passive voice is initiated when an object becomes the focus of the sentence, instead of the force that is acting upon the object. For example 'The cake was eaten by Sophie' is passive, because 'The cake was eaten' becomes the main clause, excluding the greedy perpetrator from the action. 'Sophie ate the cake' is in the active voice, and is much more immediate. Nom.

Does this sentence create the effect I want?
There are many syntactical techniques a writer can use to invoke a response in the reader. For example. To create a sense of fear. Or foreboding. Or tension. The writer can use short, fragmented sentences. Or they could create long and winding sentences, with many sub-clauses, such as this sub-clause here, or the one before, in order to create a sense of confusion, or drawn-out pace, or similar. Or perhaps a comma here, and here, and here, creates a sense of rhythm. You get the idea. It's a matter of making sure the syntax matches the idea behind the sentence.

Our tutor, Jo Shapcott, suggested that we all become more aware of syntax when we read. Studying published work in this way will hopefully make us more aware of syntax as writers.

A fellow student suggested copying out passages from books (purely as an exercise, of course), to really get a feel for the way an author writes. This would probably work best for people who learn by practice, rather than by theory.

A really useful little book that is full of tips on style, punctuation, grammar, and general 'do's and 'don't's of effective writing is The Elements of Style by Stunk & White. You can find a link to a free electronic copy to this book in the sidebar of my blog. (Scroll down to Writers' Resources.)

What about you? Is syntax something you think about in your writing? Editing? What are your tips? How do you craft the perfect sentence?


  1. Hey Cap,

    Excellent post. I'm really poor at editing my own work. I've never struggled for ideas, or plots or characters, but when it comes to the actual writing, I often read my stuff back and think: DULL.

    Nine times out of ten it was more exciting in my head!

    I've copied this into a word doc (if that's ok?) and I'm gonna use it as a handy check list for editing.

    Nice one.

  2. Ah, thanks Rich! Course I don't mind - glad it was helpful :)

  3. I'm fond of writing and always search for useful tips for writers. I'm sure, the best way to improve your writing and develop your own style is to write every day. If you don't have wide experience in writing but must write an essay, use the help of this service:


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