Top 10 Sentence Structure Principles

By Manuscript Doctor

November 16, 2020

Sentence structure

To communicate our messages and stories well, we need strong sentences structures. Even the best stories will fail if readers struggle to understand your sentences or grasp the emotional weight of any particular moment. These 10 principles will help you connect your ideas with the minds and hearts of readers.

1. Let Action Verbs Drive Your Sentences

Verbs are the heart of your sentences, and if you want to paint vivid pictures and affect your audience emotionally, you need strong verbs. What makes a strong verb? A strong verb is one that not only communicates action but is appropriate for the situation.

For example, if you want to communicate that someone feels sadness after losing a loved one, you could do the following:

  • Skye felt sad after the funeral.
  • After the funeral, Skye’s heart fissured to its core.

The first example communicates that Skye was sad, but we don’t feel it like we should. Just writing that someone felt a certain way communicates little. People might be “sad” that they can’t have what they want for dinner. Losing a loved one is in another category.

The second example gives us a clear picture of heartbreak, a sadness that affects someone long term. The verb “fissured” drives the sentence, communicating a tone of heartbreak as well as the reality.

But be careful: you can fall in a ditch on the other side of the road too by being too dramatic for the situation.

Example: Charles amputated my warm and fuzzies.

Is amputated a good choice here? Maybe. It certainly communicates action, though not in the literal sense. Is it appropriate? That depends on the context surrounding it. If what Charles does around this sentence drastically changes the mood or the point-of-view character’s hopes, then amputated is a good choice. If not, then the sentence calls for a less dramatic verb.

Getting the verb right will immediately improve your sentence structure.

An important note: you should not abandon all “be” verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been). In 7th grade, my English teacher allowed us to use only two “be” verbs for entire papers. She intended it for good, but I came away thinking they were a product of dark forces or the Fall. “Be” verbs are important tools, but your goal should be to craft sentences around action as much as possible.

2. Avoid Unnecessary Repetition

You do not need to explain every detail. Sometimes, writers will repeat information to make sure the reader could never misinterpret it, but it often leads to poor sentences.

Example: Jake jumped into the pit, and as he was falling into the pit, he shot an arrow out of the pit toward his enemy.

The repetition of the pit distracts the reader from the meaning of the sentence. By detailing every movement, the writer has also kept the reader from using their imagination to fill in the scene. You want to paint a picture, but you want to allow the reader a few brushstrokes.

Revision 1: Jake jumped into the pit, and as he was falling, he shot an arrow toward his enemy.

This sentence is better, but the reader knows Jake would fall into the pit. If we’ve described the scene and action well, the reader can see Jake falling down after the word “jumped.”

Revision 2: Jake jumped into the pit, twisting to shoot an arrow toward his enemy.

This version has nothing repetitive in it and even adds a bit of action to Jake’s fall (twisting). The sentence is much tighter than the original but communicates a bit more.

Use repetition for good purposes, but in most cases, you’ll want to tighten up your sentence structure by cutting out language your audience can already visualize.

3. Avoid Nominalizations

Once you know what nominalizations are, you will see them everywhere. These words are nouns that should be showing the action of the sentence or providing key description. They often end in “ion” but not always, and using them will remove the action from many of your verbs.

Example: Sheila made a donation to the guild.

What did Sheila do? Did she make something, fashioning a new object out of parts? No, she donated to the guild. In the example, “donation” is a nominalization that hides the real action. “Made” is what we call an empty verb: a placeholder that seems to show action but hides what the character actually did.

In more complex examples, you can see the problem nominalizations cause. Which sentence is clearer and more driven by action:

  • His suggestion was that we make a decision on the proposal.
  • He suggested that we decide on the proposal.

The first example has two nominalizations: suggestion and decision. The verbs are the linking “was” and the empty verb “make.” The second sentence has verbs that show action: suggested and decide.

When action drives your sentences, your readers will feel the emotion of the moment, whether that’s urgency, sadness, joy, or something else. But when you consistently use nominalizations, you dull your sentences.

4. Reduce “Which” Clauses

When writers want to add descriptive information to the end of a sentence, they sometimes fall in love with “which” clauses. You often don’t need the “which” part of the clause at all.

Example: I’m making coffee, which is a strange choice because I’m meeting Jax for coffee in 30 minutes.

What does “which is” add to your sentence? Taking it out communicates the same information and makes the sentence more concise.

Example: I’m making coffee, a strange choice because I’m meeting Jax for coffee in 30 minutes.

This example more closely connects “strange” with “coffee”, a key goal of the sentence.

Sometimes, you will want to replace “which” with a more effective starting word or phrase for your clause.

Bad example: Kelsie threw her hat onto the ground and slammed the door behind her, which shocked her friends.

Good example: Kelsie threw her hat onto the ground and slammed the door behind her, an outburst that shocked her friends.

By replacing “which” with “an outburst,” we reinforce what Kelsie did instead of adding an empty word.

Especially in fiction, you will often use a descriptive phrase or clause after the main clause. If you constantly use “which” to introduce those clauses, you will create a more difficult reading pattern and longer sentences. Taking out “which” will also allow you to write more descriptive clauses without sounding monotonous.

5. Avoid Interruptions

Interruptions occur when you break up the main clause with other content.

Example: The main problem, though we certainly have other issues to deal with, is that we can’t get through the security door.

The information set off by commas breaks up the subject and verb of the main clause. The reader must connect the main clause together in his or her mind even though the clause is disconnected in the sentence. That structure creates comprehension and memory issues.

To fix this, consider moving interruptions to the beginning of your sentences or cutting them altogether.

Example: While we certainly have other issues to deal with, our main problem is that we can’t get through the security door.

6. Introduce Old Information before New

When readers approach a sentence, they bring previous knowledge from two different sources: (1) previous experience and (2) what they’ve just read in your piece. Readers understand new information better when it’s preceded by something they know.

Example 1: Many of the books I’ve read recently have felt meaningless, though some communicate interesting themes. The struggles of foster children is the topic of a book I just read.

Example 2: Many of the books I’ve read recently have felt meaningless, though some communicate interesting themes. In one book, the author highlights the struggles of foster children.

Why is the first example harder to understand? Because the topic of foster children is new information. When we lead with new information, we do not give readers the context they need to make sense of it. The final sentence in Example 2 leads with an introductory phrase that connects with previous content. 

7. Put the Topic of the Sentence in the Subject of the Main Clause

The subject of a sentence contextualizes the rest of the sentence. The subject tells us what the sentence is about and provides focus. In general, you want to put the character (doer of the action) or the sentence topic in the subject spot and comment on that topic in the predicate. This principle leads to plenty of active sentences:

Example: The boy slashed the dragon with his sword.

The sentence is about the boy, so we put him in to the subject spot, making it an active sentence. However, this principle will sometimes lead to passive sentences as well:

Example: The president was given medication to help him rest.

This sentence is passive, but if you want the sentence to be about the president and not who gave him the medicine, you would structure it this way.

In general, use your subjects to provide focus while balancing this principle with others.

8. Put the Information You Want to Emphasize at the End

While the beginning of the sentence provides focus, the end of your sentence provides emphasis. You want your predicate to stick with readers so put the key point or takeaway at the end.

Example:  The flood will destroy the entire neighborhood.

Example: The entire neighborhood will be destroyed by the flood.

The first example emphasizes the destruction of the neighborhood. The second example emphasizes the power of the flood. Depending on what you want to accomplish, you could pick either one. In a vacuum, I’d rather put the focus on the flood and emphasize the neighborhood destruction.

Be intentional about how your sentences end. Your readers will emphasize the ending more than the beginning.

9. Shift Secondary Information to the Left

Use your main clause to communicate the important part of the sentence. Secondary information often works well as an introductory clause or phrase.

Example: As the light shone through the canopy of leaves, Edmond climbed toward safety.

Because of how this sentence is structured, we should assume the major point is to communicate Edmond’s climb. The light shining provides scene information, but that is secondary to the action. If we primarily wanted to communicate the light shining, we would structure it differently:

Example: As Edmond climbed toward safety, he saw the light shining through the canopy of leaves.

Because we have put the action in a dependent clause, it is secondary to the light shining. That’s a good choice if the light is significant; perhaps Edmond has toiled in the dark for some time.

You will not shift every piece of secondary information to the left, but that content often provides necessary context to your primary content. Shifting it the left will help you reinforce the meaning of the sentence.

10. Break the Rules When You Need To

I can’t stress this point enough. Writing principles work for you and not the other way around. If you let them control you, your work will suffer. Sometimes, you should write in the passive voice, use nominalizations, and write more words than you need to convey an idea. You just need a good reason for doing so.

Also, these principles will be in tension with each other at times. You will have to break one to fulfill the other. Good writers can identify the right choice for the situation, accomplishing their goals for a particular paragraph, scene, or chapter. So don’t let these principles paralyze you. Focus on telling your story or making your argument and use the tools at your disposal to do that well. 

Also, these principles will be in tension with each other at times. You will have to break one to fulfill the other. Good writers can identify the right choice for the situation, accomplishing their goals for a particular paragraph, scene, or chapter.

If you are looking to study writing in college, see our top 10 list of Christian universities for writing majors. You should also check out the Top 10 Free Online Writing Resources to help you hone your craft at home.

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