Writing Sentences With Impact

COLUMN BY JON GINGERICH NOVEMBER 9, 2011

How many times have you encountered a writer who had great ideas and a knack for compelling characters, but just
didn’t use the rights words to say it all?

Yeah, me too.

If there’s anything that makes me cringe about my old writing (and there’s a lot) it was my misunderstanding of what
makes a good sentence. Looking back, my work was pocked with ambiguous adjectives, crooked constructions, and an
annoying knack for saying in twenty words what could have been said in five. My early stories read like I wanted to
convince people I was smart — and this always conveys the opposite effect, trust me — instead of being truly smart by
using psychology to create impact with shorter, more powerful sentences. It took years to realize that instead of
compelling readers I’d been writing sentences that had alienated them, that I was dropping syntactical speed bumps that
were slowing down my stories.

Hopefully I can save you some trouble. Consider this column a guide to writing more active, more immediate, more
urgent sentences. Here’s a few tips on how you can rely on the sensory and the specific to grab readers’ attention and
make them remember what you’ve written.

Restrict use of passive voice
Reliance on passive voice is one of the most common problems I see in “sleepy” writing, simply because it’s so
pervasively ingrained in written culture. We’re a world raised on Shakespeare; we study writers who were masters of
form but probably a bit Aspergersy in their day-to-day communicative endeavors. Look, there’s nothing wrong with
passive voice. In fact, it’s the default for research papers, legal briefs, technical writing, journalism, and pretty much all
“formal” letters, be it “classic” literature or correspondences to a colleague. But its formality often renders it pointlessly
baroque in fiction; it softens the sentences. My advice is this: if you’re looking for impact, skip the ruffled pantaloons and
go straight for the gut.

In case you’re unaware, passive voice is a sentence that describes a subject receiving an action. In an active voice, the
subject performs the action. A typical passive sentence would be “The ball was thrown by Tom.” An active version of the
same sentence would be “Tom threw the ball.” See the difference?

The active voice follows the standard “verbal” rule of subject-verb-object. In the passive voice, the object becomes the
subject, so the formula becomes object-verb-subject, with the verb taking the past participle form.

Passive:

The men were told by their sergeant to march.

Active:

The sergeant told his men to march.

Active voice is a superior communicative tool because it does just that — it describes action. The object takes a backseat
to the verb committed by the subject. Verbs entice the senses; they provoke readers to see action. When readers see
action, they’re much more likely to feel an empathetic connection with the sentence and thus, the story. In passive voice,
the “responsibility” of the action is removed from the subject to some other agent. The use of active and passive voice is
a matter of emphasis: passive makes the subject emphatic; active places emphasis on the action. Another way of
thinking about it is that passive describes, while action performs. Passive is rhetorical. Active is pathological. Passive is
objective. Active is personal. Passive is formal. Active is informal. Passive is written. Active is verbal.

Active: The hotel provides room service. Many also find passive voice “mystifying. Passive: The factory employs her. the sensory is the gateway to empathy. because the writer can go beyond descriptive syntax and instead offer a corollary that whittles the image down to a fine-tuned anomaly. This is the stuff metaphor was made for. Close your eyes. Because writing transcends the visual however. Then write it out. When you entice the senses an interesting thing happens: you’re not simply describing a scene for readers. Your writing is going to be a lot more effective if you employ well-fitting and appropriate nouns and verbs in your description instead of a barrage of two-cent adjectives and adverbs. and in this case. and equally avoid summary. the sounds it makes. Get specific. purposefully leaving out essential details does not make you sound more “literary. Get to the point. get specific. Active: I wrote that book. that advanced storytelling somehow entails making fundamentals abstract. So. a litany of cultural adjuncts. see the scene and look for details.Passive: That book was written by me. not summary of action. Passive: Room service is provided by the hotel. feel free to use passive voice alongside the active. Reduce modifiers Remember: readers want action. Specificity should especially be used in description. Active: She works at the factory. Passive voice can be useful when you want to call attention to the effect an action has on the subject. What does something look like? Again. Make sure to engage all of the senses.” Which sentence casts a better visual? The second sentence offers a more specific. Describe the way a house smells. you’re making them participants in it. Avoid abstraction in your writing. Get specific For some beginning writers. Get concrete. Speaking of visually alluring.” so it sets a suitable stage for dream sequences and flashbacks. Compare these two sentences: “The woman had red hair. remember to entice the senses. there's this bewildering assumption that "good" writing means obfuscating your story.” “The woman had red hair like an old barn door. visually alluring description that asks the reader to conjure a certain image.” It just alienates your reader. but remember to use it sparingly. Contrary to popular belief. . description shouldn't be limited to the visual. We’re a species that learns everything from empirical data.

The best orators of all time understood the power of repeating a word or phrase to imbue pathos and carry their message to a thundering crescendo. Use them for double effect. and succinctly sum up the totality or meaning of these ideas into one grand idea at the end. and when I read them aloud couldn’t believe how unnecessarily long some of my sentences were. Finally. perfectly describe the action being committed. let alone a dozen of them. What they lack in poetic panache they make up in urgency. Adverbs should be approached with caution. there’s a problem. If you find you're spending too much time analyzing secondary details. Make sure to read the sentences slowly. You’ll be amazed at all the stuff that needs to go. Your least important ideas — the interchangeables — should reside in the middle. “He was an unmarried bachelor. Finally. The "acoustic" qualities of sentences are one of the reasons we enjoy them so much.g. read your work aloud. and I now have a habit of editing all my stories this way.” write “it was a gun. Whether you're writing in passive or active voice. You don’t have to elucidate your perfidious erudition. Repetition is one of the most powerful tools writers can use to get their point across. Cut down on qualifiers: use metaphor and analogy. Words like “chirp” and “grind” sound incredibly similar to the actions they describe. After you’ve finished writing your first draft.” Remove needless transitions between clauses like “however” and “nonetheless” whenever you can. The ideas presented in a sentence should be delivered in equal proportion. If that last sentence doesn’t annoy you. then the front. Psychology tells us the human brain looks for meaning at the end of a string of ideas. always listen to your ear. Look out for redundancies (e. aloud. Don't write each sentence in the same structure unless you're deliberately employing repetition. Stand back and look at your writing.Look. which oddly proved to be an eye-opening experience on editing.”). Fine-tune your sentences Hey! Short sentences demand readers' attention. . let alone a dozen of them" should be revised to say "He'd never had a dog. The best sentences aren’t the ones that make readers reach for the dictionary. make sure your last sentence serves as a transition into the next paragraph. give it shorter length.. Vary your sentence lengths. Listen to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Pearl Harbor Address” or Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech to get an idea of what truly awesome power repetition has in sentences. pontificate on them in the middle. I was fortunate enough to take a class on public reading earlier this year. The best sentences are the ones that make the reader realize you’ve said something they’ve always felt but have never been able to put into words. I brought several copies of my stories to class. The sentence "He'd never had a dog before. The last sentence is where your aphorisms or pithy truths belong. we like to think they refine action but they're actually abstracting it." Employ the power of speech Listen to the phonetic qualities of verbs. Always ask yourself: what could this sentence do without and still retain its intended meaning? Refine your sentences for emphasis. Make sure to write in parallel structure. but use them sparingly. print out a copy and read it to yourself. Make sure your paragraphs employ the same structural awareness as your individual sentences: start with important ideas. When in doubt. When you want to call emphasis to a particular sentence. Get rid of pointless constructives and idle words: instead of saying “it seemed to be a gun. edit them down. Here’s another one: I’ll bet your sentences probably don’t need the word “that” so many times. I ran home and took out the red pen. If there’s one thing you should spend an inordinate amount of time on when constructing your sentences — and you should work hard at this — it’s finding the right verbs that accurately. the most important element should go at the end of the sentence. if you write an engaging work of fiction we’ll know you’re smart.