When you have a lot of ideas to put down, it can be tempting to just arrange them the easiest way possible. Most writers have a specific sentence structure or two that they lean on heavily while drafting. But if these make it to the final draft, the piece sounds labored and repetitive.
That won’t ensnare an audience, and with attention spans waning, writers need all the tools they can get to keep eyes on the page.
The good news is, repetitive prose isn’t hard to fix. Here’s a few quick tips for switching up your sentence structure to catch your audience’s attention—and hold it fast.
Why varied sentence structures will improve your writing
Boring sentence structure kills prose. While readers may not notice when sentence structure flows naturally, they will certainly notice when it doesn’t—even if they can’t put their finger on the issue. The piece will just feel awkward and uncompelling, and readers may question the writer’s expertise, as repetitive sentence structure is a no-go in professional publications.
Sentence structure affects tone. Prose with a good flow—the rhythm and movement from word to word and sentence to sentence—sounds natural and enables readers to focus on the content. Therefore, creating a natural flow is a vital skill for a professional.
Flow can also give readers hints. A short sentence amidst several longer ones gives readers a break from absorbing complicated info, making a definitive point. Longer sentences, on the other hand, can slow the pace down for leisurely, detailed description, or create a strong rhythm that pulls readers in.
What boring sentence structures looks like
Overuse of Long Sentences
Imagine a page filled entirely with sentences like this:
The Mega Plan is designed to accommodate multiple sites, templates, and plug-ins—from e-commerce to security and member login widgets—and has an in-depth knowledge base, with hundreds of how-to articles from experts, as well as a dedicated 24/7 phone support line.
Without a break between many long sentences, some details are sure to be overlooked as the reader tries to parse it all.
Overuse of short sentences
The overuse of short sentences makes the prose sound stilted and unengaging, and it can be hard to tell what information is most important.
Blue #5 is an artificial food coloring. It was invented in the 20th century. It originated in Texas.
Overuse of the same sentence structure
In the example above, you’ll also notice another common pattern—starting every sentence with a simple subject + verb construction.
But any sentence structure can become a crutch if repeated too often:
I leaped into the car, panicking, as screams sounded behind me. I turned my head, incredulous, when I heard a crash. I saw a rotted hand, oozing blood, reaching into the window.
How to vary your sentence structure
If you’ve noticed that your writing falls into some patterns, don’t worry—awareness is the first step toward improving!
Rather than laboring excessively over your first drafts, in the editing stage, search each paragraph to spot repetitive structure. Then, follow these tips to switch things up.
Learn the four types of sentences
Before you start analyzing your writing for patterns, ensure you know the four types of sentences so you can recognize when you’re over-relying on one and then shift to another.
- A simple sentence includes one independent clause.
Blue #5 originated in Texas.
- A complex sentence involves an independent clause and a dependent clause.
I leaped into the car, panicking.
- A compound sentence is composed of at least two independent clauses joined by a conjunction.
I slammed my purse into it, and the rotting hand retreated for a moment.
- A compound-complex sentence includes one or more dependent clauses on top of two+ independent clauses.
The Mega Plan, which is designed to accommodate multiple users, can support e-commerce, and it comes at an affordable price.
Change the subject
In the example above, note that all of the fiction sentences start with the same subject—I. What if the writer had started each sentence with a different subject?
I leaped into the car, panicking, as screams sounded behind me. A crash exploded in my ears, and I whipped my head back to see a rotted hand reaching in through the window. Blood oozed from its fingertips.
The example above is stronger, but every sentence still starts with subject + verb. If this is your issue, try switching it up by starting with a dependent clause or otherwise rearranging.
Panicking, screams sounding behind me, I leaped for the car. A crash exploded in my ears…
Vary paragraph rhythm by alternating sentence lengths
Consider each paragraph as a whole unit and aim for an abundance of sentence variety within. Split up lengthy sentences to give readers a breather. In general, it’s good to start with a few average-length sentences and throw in a longer or shorter one every so often, but feel free to experiment until you create a comfortable rhythm.
Have a point you want to emphasize? Make it stand out with a sentence of contrasting length to those around it. And if you have many shorter sentences, simply combine a few of them.
Sentence structure can easily be overlooked when reading or drafting, but it can make a big difference in reader comprehension and the overall tone of a piece. However, once you start to pay attention to sentence structure, creating strong paragraph flow will become second nature to you, and you’ll be well on your way to more natural writing that keeps readers turning those pages.