Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

How to Write Clear Sentences

A good essay, you can’t begin to start writing one, not really, unless you learn to write sentences clearly.

That is a bad sentence. When you hear me speak it, or when you read it on the screen, you probably feel that instinctively, but how would you fix it? Let’s take a second to analyze it.

The sentence is actually grammatically correct, but its priorities are out of whack. The first clause is ‘a good essay,’ which you assume is the subject – we’re going to talk about a good essay. The next clause tells you that you can’t begin to start writing one, but you don’t know in what way the author means. Is it because you don’t speak English? Because your best friend was killed by a rogue sentence? Because you refuse as a matter of religious principle? It’s not clear.

Next, you have ‘not really,’ which is an aside – a bit of the author’s voice that doesn’t add anything to the sentence (it actually makes it more confusing) – and then, finally, ‘unless you learn to write sentences clearly,’ where the point of the sentence is finally revealed, but it ends on the adverb ‘clearly,’ which may be confusing (‘does it modify ‘sentences’ or ‘write’?’ you might ask). The connection between the sentence’s subject and its intent couldn’t be further apart. Here’s the same sentiment, cleaned up:

You can’t write a good essay without learning how to write clear sentences first.

Or, more stylishly:

Clear sentences are the foundations of great essays.

Here’s the thing: while we all wish that we could write with perfect clarity every time we sat down to a pen and paper, that’s not realistic. Writing good, clear sentences is less about learning how to make sparkling, unicorn rainbows of text pour from your fingers than it is about learning how to fix and refine your writing after you’ve put it down (though you’ll get better the more you practice and eventually turn out pretty good sentences on the first try more often than not). To put that more simply: clear sentences emerge from careful editing.

Clear Sentences Checklist

Here’s a checklist of questions you can ask yourself to make your writing easier for your reader to understand.

Do all of the words in the sentence serve a purpose?

As we saw in the example sentence, one of the reasons it was confusing is there was additional information that didn’t serve the intent of the sentence. When you’re trying to fill space in a paper, suddenly adjectives, adverbs, and unnecessary asides often start popping up. Worse, many students, in the course of trying to reach minimum length requirements for a paper, start writing sentences with no substance at all. Let’s look at an example:

In the course of the novels we are given multiple chances over and over to become suspicious of Snape’s character, most importantly the multiple times that he harasses Harry and his friends for seemingly no reason at all even though they hadn’t done anything to him.

The sentence, an analysis of A-Popular-Book-Series-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, is pumped full of redundancies and ambiguous phrases that take away from the clarity of the sentence. First, we have ‘multiple chances’ and ‘over and over.’ As the writer, maybe what I think I’m saying is that Snape gives multiple reasons to doubt him on several separate occasions. Or maybe what I mean is that he does certain things enough times – i.e. ‘over and over’ – that there are multiple reasons to doubt him. It’s not clear, so it has to go. Let’s get rid of ‘over and over.’

Next, we have ‘most importantly the multiple times.’ We’ve already used ‘multiple’ in the sentence once, so let’s replace that with a synonym like ‘many.’ Also, what does ‘most importantly’ tell us? It seems to refer back to the ‘multiple reasons,’ but what is most important? If what the writer really means is to point out specific instances, he must be specific. Let’s replace ‘most importantly’ with ‘including.’

Next, let’s look at the last part of the sentence, ‘seemingly no reason at all even though they hadn’t done anything wrong to him.’ This is classic fluff, as ‘seemingly no reason at all’ and ‘even though they hadn’t done anything wrong to him’ express the same sentiment. Choose one – whichever you think is most effective. But we’ll clip the last part entirely and remove ‘at all’ since there’s no difference between ‘no reason’ and ‘no reason at all’; that last part also features ‘seemingly,’ a word choice that makes the sentiment weaker, not stronger. Are you still with me?

Finally, to backtrack to a matter of style, ask yourself: what does ‘In the course of the novels’ mean? What course are we talking about? Let’s remove ‘in the course of’ entirely and let ‘the novels’ speak for themselves and not make it an introductory clause but put it in the thick of the action. After our patented Sentence Weight Loss Plan™, here’s the lean, mean sentence we’re left with:

We are given multiple chances in the novels to become suspicious of Snape’s character, including the many times he harasses Harry and his friends for no reason.

Is the sentence in passive voice?

Look. Passive voice isn’t always a bad thing (and we’ll go into the problems with passive voice in greater depth in other lessons), but in general, you want to avoid it because it emphasizes all the wrong parts of the sentence and, worse, bores your readers. Check this out:

The new form of life discovered by the scientists will be remembered by generations to come.

We’re talking about discovering new life! Let’s not make it boring. In the active voice, the subject is the one performing the action – ‘Gladys sang a song.’ – but in the passive voice the subject is having the action done to it, as in, ‘The song was sung by Gladys.’ Here we’ve got a couple of passive constructions, so let’s fix them to make the verbs active again. Let’s change ‘The new life form discovered by the scientists’ to ‘The scientists discovered a new life form’. (See, now the scientists are doing the discovering, not having the discovering done to them). Then, let’s change ‘will be remembered’ to ‘remember’ and place it so that ‘generations’ are performing the action. So the whole sentence now looks like this:

The scientists discovered a new life form that generations to come will remember.

Much more interesting!

Have I made any common mistakes?

Finally, check to make sure you haven’t made any obvious errors. Are all of your commas, colons, and semicolons in the right place? Is anything misspelled? Do your subjects and verbs all agree with each other (singular to singular and plural to plural)? It’s important to edit and proofread your sentences because little mistakes make your sentences confusing and distract your reader from the point you’re trying to make. While your reader is staring at that misplaced comma, he’s completely ignoring the substance of your sentence. There goes all your hard work.

Listen to the Rhythm

Sentences have rhythms. They can be long and short, verbose, or simple. And sometimes they can go on and on, twisting and turning down roads and alleyways, rising, falling, tumbling over themselves, and gliding to a gentle finish – unless you don’t want that.

Read your sentences out loud – listen to them. If you find yourself getting lost, it’s time to edit them. Then, take those sentences and start making their rhythms play against one another – a practice that’s more boringly called ‘varying sentence structure.’ How they all fit together is what eventually makes up your unique style and voice.

Lesson Summary

To re-cap, a good, clear sentence:

  1. Is well organized.
  2. Has no wasted words.
  3. Is (usually) in the active voice.
  4. Has appropriate, strong word choice.
  5. Has a rhythm suited to the content.

Now go forth and write clear sentences! Happy editing.

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