Disclaimer: the following writing advice is base on the author’s personal experience of writing and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.
The Plight of the Back-loaded Writer
Do your sentences ramble with a bunch of important details attached to the the ends? Like the equivalent of remembering relevant information for the story you’re telling your co-worker, but only after you’ve told most of it. A lot of your sentences start off with simple phrases like “The dog ran to the house” but tack on all nuance later, such as:
The dog ran to the house like a streaking comet as if carried by angels under his feet.
These sentences are fine. You know they’re not great, but fine. Maybe a period or two could break them up into manageable chunks. But what of when each sentence looks like this? The details, clauses, prepositions, and such all dwindle toward the end. The subject>verb>object pattern always happens at the beginning. Over and over. Rinse and repeat.
When you notice your sentences always or often follow this pattern, you may begin wondering how to fix this. Add more punch. Sprinkle your sentences with style, like those writers whose sentences pulse through the page like magic.
Below, check out how to mix your dull and extraneous sentences up and bring them to life!
Enter: Subordinate Clauses!*
To recap your basic English lessons from middle school, parts of a sentence fall into two categories:
- the main clause
- the subordinate clause
Main clauses tend to come first and stand on their own, while subordinate clauses tend to come last and depend on the main clause to exist. Kind of like me with my relationship to my day job.
But subordinate clauses don’t have to come last. In fact, mixing up the order adds power to your writing. Not every sentence works better when mixed up so you just have to feel whether the rearrangement adds more punch to your intended meaning. (Spoiler: it almost always does.)
In the above sentence, the main clause appears in the form of: “You can pronounce spinach like stomach.” Subject = you; verb = pronounce; object = spinach. Subject>verb>object, the most basic building block of sentences. One we writers repeat over and over as we string words together to form meaning.
The subordinate clause takes the form of: “if you’re not a coward.” That’s a sentence fragment on its own, buddy. We know it depends on the details of the main clause to make any sense.
To switch up the boring usual order of this sentence, we can just move the subordinate clause to the beginning (and add a comma) to read like this:
If you’re not a coward, you can pronounce spinach like stomach.
Boom. Now I don’t have to read yet another subject>verb>object sentence after another.
Enter Also: Prepositional Phrases!*
Another sentence block that lends itself well to rearrangement is the prepositional phrase. Prepositions are the connectors that link the verb to the object, so any words like for, in, on, around, over, through, beneath et cetera.
Dictionary.com definition: a phrase consisting of a preposition, its object, which is usually a noun or a pronoun, and any modifiers of the object.
In the above example sentence, the prepositional phrase appears at: “for someone who does not teach writing.” Preposition>object>modifiers. Once again, this is a sentence fragment that cannot stand on its own without the main clause!
To switch things up, put the entire prepositional phrase at the beginning of the sentence (and add a comma).
For someone who does not teach writing, I spend an unreasonable amount of time devising of writing class topics, modules, and lessons.
Hid that subject>verb>object sentence order there in the middle again. Nailed it.
Enter As Well: Similes!*
In our sentence rearrangement endeavors, the final movable sentence block I want to discuss is the simile. You might remember similes from when you had to annotate poetry in high school. The easiest elements to highlight/underline and make yourself look like you knew what you were doing were phrases starting with like or as.
Because I could find ZERO tweets of mine containing any similes going back two years, and because I’m determined to keep things consistent, I tweeted this status just for the sake of example.
In the above sentence, the simile begins at: “like a pleb.” Similes are just comparisons, but they go great at the beginnings of sentences to usurp the subject>verb>object position.
Like a pleb, I just had to write this tweet for a blog example.
Better examples might look like: “He shot through the sky as fast as a speeding bullet” > “As fast as a speeding bullet, he shot through the sky.”
Basically, putting your as or like clauses first hints at the flavor of the main clause to come.
How I Learned This Skill
As mentioned above, back to back sentences all starting with the subject>verb>object pattern become tedious. They bother me to read, they bother me to write. I dislike seeing ‘the _____ (whatever noun)’ descriptor begin sentences again and again. Of course, those sentences matter as basic building blocks of communication. But they project more emphasis to meaning when used with intention.
Got any questions about rearranging sentences for better impact? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any stories about how YOU learned tricks for rearranging sentences, I want to hear them!
*Excessive exclamation points brought to you by recent excessive listening of enthusiastic podcasts.
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