A recent copyblogger post raised an excellent question: How do you determine whether you’ve written a strong sentence – or a weak one?
My answer is that I have to hear the sentence in my head. Here are three sentences I’ve written myself (sigh) that I’d like to nominate for today’s “weak sentence” award:
Keeping the library open on Sunday afternoons is something Dean Wilson and I agree on.
Taking a cruise was an option that didn’t appeal to me at first, but in the end I enjoyed it.
A widespread custom in many countries all over the world is for communities to plan festivals to celebrate the fall harvest.
Several features of these sentences bother me. (By the way, I’d be interested to know if you’re bothered by these sentences too – or is it just a quirk of mine?) I don’t like “is something” in the first sentence and “was an option that” in the second. More problematic – to my ears, anyway – is the way the first two sentences seem to sputter as they come to a stop.
The third sentence presents a different problem: it seems static. Instead of reading what a widespread custom is, I’d prefer to read what those communities are doing.
Here are my suggested revisions:
Dean Wilson and I agree: the library should be open on Sunday afternoons.
The cruise – which sounded like a bad idea at first – turned out to be a memorable vacation.
Many communities all over the world plan festivals to celebrate the fall harvest.
Problem solved, right? Not so fast! If it’s hard to write strong sentences, it’s even harder to explain how to do it. So I was delighted when I came across that copyblogger post: “3 Advanced Ways to Craft Better Sentences.”
Alas, the advice turned out not to be advanced at all. Use active voice. Don’t overuse a word. Don’t belabor a point. Examine your writing with a critical eye. (Anyone who already knows how to carry out that last suggestion doesn’t need to read articles about writing!)
Even worse, some of the writing – despite the promise in the headline – was weak. For example, author Stefanie Flaxman urges writers to use Google to double-check words and expressions that aren’t “straightforward.” How – I ask you – do you know when something you’ve written isn’t “straightforward,” and how can Google help? She doesn’t provide any examples – not one.
All she says is that she checks “anything that makes me question whether or not it is correct.” What is “it,” and what is the warning sign that makes you question whether it is correct? I think she’s trying to say that she looks up confusing words like compose/comprise and affect/effect. Good for her! But we’re still not an inch closer to figuring out how to write a powerful sentence.
Here are three strategies I use myself to write stronger sentences:
- Watch for that sputter I mentioned earlier. One trick is to end sentences with a noun rather than a weak word like it.
- The words thing, something, and – oddly – being often weaken sentences. I use all three words, but I always spend some time first to see if should replace them.
- Weak sentences often point to a deeper problem: I have nothing important, interesting, or fresh to tell my readers. It may be time to hit the delete key and start over.