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  • M. Christine Benner Dixon

Variety is the Spice of Life . . . and Writing

Let's see how many cliches I can give you about why it's important to vary your sentence structure:

  • it's time to shake things up

  • don't let your writing get stuck in a rut

  • we don't just need more of the same

  • a rolling paragraph (?) gathers no moss

This is fun and all, but I do actually have a point here. The reason cliches are cliche is that we've heard them a thousand times before. The repetition starts to sound sing-songy and lazy. So it is with sentence structure. Whether it's an email, a speech, a grant proposal, a short story, or a research report, repetitious sentence structure can come off as monotone. Whether this signals dullness or nervousness to your audience, it's probably not the effect you're going for.


So what's a writer to do? Well, if you want writing that is boring, emotionally constrained, and/or simplistic, then carry on. If not, then let's start with a quick refresher on what we mean by "sentence structure." Every complete sentence in English has a subject and a verb. Some thing is doing something.

The rain fell.

The verb may or may not require an object. The previous example did not. This next one does.

The rain dampened my mood.

Simply saying, "The rain dampened" doesn't make any sense. That's because "dampen" serves as a transitive verb in this sentence. If you're a native English speaker, you probably know these rules instinctively. If not, you probably have some stories to tell about how this particular feature of English is kind of obnoxious. (Side note: transitive verbs are the key to understanding the elusive "passive voice"--this happens when a word that would normally be the object of the sentence jumps to the position of subject and makes the rest of the sentence do gymnastics to keep up: "My mood was dampened by the rain.")


So, there you have a simple sentence. It's the meat and potatoes of English (or just the potatoes if you're vegetarian). There are plenty of ways to decorate a simple sentence without materially changing its structure. Add descriptors:

The cold rain fell steadily.

Add information about time or location:

The rain fell on my roof.
The rain fell all afternoon.

Make some essential part of the sentence compound:

The rain and snow fell.
The rain fell and splashed on the ground.
The rain dampened both my sweater and my mood.

And, of course, you can do these things in any combination:

The cold rain fell hard on my roof and splashed over the eaves.

These are good things to know how to do, but if decorating simple sentences is all you're doing, your writing is still going to sound a little flat. If you really want your writing to sound like it's full of sophisticated, complex thought, you're going to have to do a little more than redecorate. You're going to have to reorganize.


You probably know about compound sentences--two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction. Anyone? If those words mean nothing to you, think of it this way: two complete sentences living as equal partners joined by holy matrimony. The two sentences

The rain fell steadily.
The rain dampened my mood.

become

The rain fell steadily, and it dampened my mood.

The second instance of "the rain" becomes the pronoun "it" to avoid unnecessary repetition. Compound sentences, even ones that are highly decorated, follow this same basic structure. A compound sentence unites two equal thoughts with a logical joiner: AND, BUT, OR, NOR, FOR, YET, or SO. Rather than just stating what is going on, you're showing that there is a relationship between the two ideas. They belong together. If the sentences aren't actually related, this is not a good choice.

The rain fell steadily, but I was hungry for pizza.

But don't stop there! Think about incorporating complex sentences, as well. Complex sentences use subordinating conjunctions to make the two formerly independent thoughts inextricable. (For more information about these conjunctions, check out this page.) The complete thought of a complex sentence needs both halves to communicate its full meaning:

Because the rain was still falling steadily, I decided to cancel the picnic.

And, of course, you can "decorate" complex sentences to your heart's content.

I did paperwork in my office while the rain pelted against the window all afternoon.

Complex sentences communicate complex thoughts. They get us out of a reportorial rut and start to show how ideas relate to one another and impact one another. Of course, even this fancy structure can be overused. Do the same thing too many times in a row, and you get stagnant writing:

Although the rain was falling steadily, I decided to go for a walk. Since I knew where I was going, I didn't take my phone. If you ever wondered about whether a person could get lost in their own neighborhood, wonder no more.

Good news! The options for varying your sentence structure only expand from here. As appropriate, you can ask questions, create lists, instruct the reader to do something, insert dialogue, insert prepositional phrases, and so on. You don't need to use all of them all the time--you just need to be sure you aren't using one of them all the time. For our final example, let's look at an email that fails to vary its sentence structure (painting the speaker as dull and disengaged) and then a revision that livens up the writing a little and builds more complex relationships between the ideas:


Hi Jess,
I went to see the project yesterday. The contractor gave me a tour. They are behind schedule by about a week. It sounds like the supplier has been struggling to meet deadlines. I'm disappointed. There's not a lot we can do, I guess. Maybe we could check with TramCo about filling the gap. Let me know your thoughts.
Chris

Becomes

Hi Jess,
I went to see the project yesterday and got a tour. According to the contractor, they are behind schedule by about a week. It sounds like the supplier has been struggling to meet deadlines. I'm disappointed, but unless TramCo can fill the gap, there may not be much we can do. What do you think?
Chris

This kind of change doesn't have to be revolutionary, but it can be quite meaningful. Varied sentence structure is not only more interesting to read, it sounds more natural, and it has the capacity to communicate more sophisticated thinking. Tune your ear to overuse of a single sentence structure, then get in there and shake things up!


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© 2019 by Christine Benner Dixon