If you’ve been keeping up with this blog trilogy you know that our goal is to use the books in our homes to help us write. We’ve covered how to turn beloved quotes into engaging post prompts and how to end writer’s block by stimulating your vocabulary. Now we're going to look at how reading can keep your writing captivating.
It all has to do with sentence structure and variety. If every sentence you write starts the same way or is the same length, then you’re pumping out a lot of work just to lull your audience to sleep. Monotony is your copy’s worst nightmare.
Reflect on your own writing style for a moment. You might be someone who tends to write in short, bulleted statements and want to try being a bit more descriptive. Or maybe you never realized that you start every line of your social media post with ‘I’, ‘we’, or ‘The’. It’s possible that you write in long-winded streams of thought but need to learn to chop it up and write as you speak. Whatever it may be, we’re going to look at passages from our very own books to see varied sentences at work.
Okay, let’s address the elephant in the room before we keep going. The title of this blog. Can you really forgo a writing course if you just start reading more? Maybe. There are arguments that say children learn all the grammatical sentence styles they need through books. The more you read, especially when you include different genres and narratives, the more you’ll subconsciously acquire language rhythms. You’ll be able to implement subordinators and conjunctions even if you don’t know their definition - you just know what sounds good. But a writing course has its place, too. We’re just saying reading is an incredible way to improve your writing while doing something you love. There’s our tiny disclaimer, please don’t sue us.
There’s a time and a place for all sorts of sentence lengths. Shorter sentences are more digestible. They can deliver powerful statements to your audience. Longer sentences, on the other hand, can help paint a picture for your audience with subtle undertones and powerful descriptors, engrossing them in your words.
Dracula - By Bram Stoker
Before us lay a green sloping land full of forests and wood, with here and there steep hills, crowned with clumps of trees or with farmhouses, the blank gable end to the road.
Ah, so very descriptive. It's like we’re seeing the landscape with Harker. Now, imagine if the author had decided to write it in short sentences:
Before us lay a green sloping land full of forests and wood. Here and there were steep hills. They were crowned with clumps of trees or with farmhouses. The blank gable end to the road.
The sentence falls flat. It lost its flow and now sounds like listed facts.
However, this doesn’t mean that the entire book should be strings of flowy sentences, and neither should your blog or website copy. It's important to learn how to utilize both styles appropriately.
Let’s look at another passage from Dracula.
It took all my courage to say good-bye to my darling. We may never meet again. Courage, Mina!
Three short, simple sentences that pack a punch. Much better than if they were drawn out:
It took all my courage to say good-bye to my darling since we may never meet again, but I told myself, have courage, Mina!
While this second version has no technical errors, we’ve lost the urgency and fear in the character’s mind.
Remember that it’s important to follow extremely wordy sentences with simple ones. It helps keep your audience’s attention. Even if you’re great at writing breathy sentences, your readers will be exhausted halfway through your newsletter if all your sentences are as long as the first Dracula example.
One of the most common repetitive blunders is placing a pronoun at the start of every sentence. This happens often in cover letters, personal statements, and so on. Thankfully, it’s also an easy fix! Just adjust the word order or combine sentences.
Kingdom of Souls - By Rena Barron
Just picked this bad girl up from the library (thank you, contactless pick-up) which means I don’t own it, but it is technically sitting on my bookshelf in-between reading sessions so it still counts, right? If you’re looking for a new fantasy novel, this gal is a great read so far.
I digress. Here’s a passage that felt like a great mix of pronoun placement:
Essnai steps into the clearing behind him -statuesque and poised, a head taller than both of us. Purple powder covers her forehead down to her long lashes. The red beneath her midnight eyes and the gold dusted on her nose stand out against her umber skin. Her lips are two different shades of pink.
Here, the author has painted a vivid portrait of a new character. Now imagine if she had just put pronouns at the front of each sentence:
Essnai steps into the clearing behind him -statuesque and poised, a head taller than both of us. Her forehead is covered in purple powder down to her long lashes. Her umber skin stands out against the red beneath her midnight eyes and the gold dusted on her nose. Her lips are two different shades of pink.
Suddenly, the character’s description sounds lengthy and unimportant, it's a distraction rather than a compelling portrayal.
Poet Anderson...Of Nightmares - By Tom Delonge & Suzanne Young
He cursed, knowing he’d have to be smarter, faster. He gritted his teeth and then ran toward the unfinished hole in the wall, ramming his shoulder into the beadboard and exploding through to the other side. He toppled, and skidded across the floor or an empty room. He looked up. No doors. No windows.
First thing’s first. I love this book series and I adore Tom Delonge and his ever-expanding quest to unveil UFO’s and our governments’ lies. Truly. But that was not a great string of sentences in terms of pronoun placement variety. One or two of those sentences could have started with something other than ‘he.’
He cursed, knowing he’d have to be smarter, faster. Gritting his teeth and running toward the unfinished hole in the wall, he rammed his shoulder into the beadboard and exploded through to the other side. He toppled, skidded across the floor of an empty room, and looked up. No doors. No windows.
Reading is an awesome way to unconsciously soak up the writing knowledge of your favorite authors. The more you read, the more you’ll pick up on what sounds natural, even if you don’t know the literary definitions of what you’re doing.
You don’t have to hyper-analyze every sentence you write. That’s a sure way to drive yourself nuts. Simply sprinkle in drops of variety as you go.