Writing Clear Accessible Sentences

downloadI’ve blogged about most every aspect of fiction and nonfiction, from the big picture to the nits. Today’s subject jumps out at me in almost every student’s manuscript:convoluted sentences that stiffen the language and zoom out the camera.

Writing Tip for Today: How can you write clearer, more accessible sentences in your fiction or nonfiction?

Watch Those Prepositions

In the student work I regularly review, stilted language is often surrounded by a lot of prepositional phrases. Look for words such as from, to, of, with or other prepositions. If you’ve already identified an object or person, you really don’t need another prepositional phrase to repeat that info. Here’s an example: Hot tears rolled down my dusty face as I gently held the tiny chick in my hand. Do you see the redundant phrase? If the narrator was holding a tiny chick, it would likely be in her hand. A much cleaner version might omit the prepositional phrase in my hand. Go ahead and draft your copy without thinking about redundancies or prepositions. Later, when you revise, be on the lookout for these sneaky phrases that weigh down your sentences.

Go Concrete, Not Abstract

Along with those needless prepositional phrases, the use of abstract or formal language can make your prose seem as thick as slow molasses. Readers want to get caught up in your story. They are disappointed if they run into twenty-dollar words that are vague or abstract. Unless you’re writing a thesis or drafting a congressional bill, stay away from formal language in your fiction. Never use a big fancy word if a simpler everyday word will suffice. This is especially true in dialogue. If you write dialogue in a formal manner, all your characters will sound affected. Readers will expect the tone of both the narrative and the dialog to be consistent.

Be Intimate With CSD

Finally, strive to be as intimate with your reader as possible. You want readers to lean in, to wonder what happens next, to be actively engaged with your characters and story. By using Concrete Sensory Detail (CSD) you give readers a specific world and/or picture to imagine. Readers crave stories that make them feel a part of what unfolds. As I said earlier, go ahead and draft the scene or chapter without regard to “Rules.” But when you revise, be vigilant about rewriting formal, stiff sentences and sentences containing redundant prepositional phrases. Be a champion for your characters by keeping the camera close in and you’ll be writing clear, accessible sentences in no time.


About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

9 comments on “Writing Clear Accessible Sentences

  1. In historical novels when speech patterns were very different from today, is it permissible to use more formal language? I am specifically thinking of Castillian Spanish speakers. Their language was quite stilted compared to our more moder phrases. I have some Castillian characters.

    • Carol,
      Great question! I do think you need to embrace the spirit of the time and the language used at that time. But since none of us was there, we don’t know for sure how verbal language was handled. Ever wonder why movies about ancient Rome always seem to have characters with English accents? You want to convey the culture’s flavor without distancing readers by using stilted language. I’d say, take a middle road with formalities and don’t rely too much on the insertion of Castillian words in the dialogue. You won’t write American slang, but neither do you want to have readers reaching for the dictionary. Read other novels set in the period and place for more ideas.
      Thanks and keep writing!

    • Marilyn,
      Since I know your novel is historical, I’ll say that 90,000 words is not too long. Accepted lengths are anything 50,000 words on up is a novel-length book. Mainstream/Women’s Fiction is often 80-90,000 words or more, while a category romance might be only 50,000. Historical and Fantasy are two genres where readers often desire a longer book–sometimes as much as 150,000 words. That said, you should write your book to be as long as it needs to be to tell the story best. I mean you don’t want to pad your story just to fit a genre, but you also want to make sure your word count isn’t too low due to summarizing scenes which would be better acted out.
      Hope this helps.
      Keep Writing!

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