Pro Writing Tips: The Sentence Level


Working as a professional writer and editor these past years has not only taught me a lot about writing; it's shown me much that I didn't even suspect I didn't know. Since I always try to have one hand reaching down the ladder to help folks below me up while my other hand reaches for the next rung, I periodically like to share writing insights I've gained.

Most author blogs these days are laser-focused on the business end of writing, with a particular emphasis on marketing. While salesmanship is an indispensable skill for all authors, today's post will tackle a subject that's woefully neglected in my opinion: the nuts and bolts mechanics of prose writing--specifically writing at the sentence level.

Hang out your shingle as a freelance editor, and you'll soon find that today's aspiring authors are saddled with a load of bad writing habits picked up from 90 IQ public school English teachers, social media, and movies. I can always spot writers who are more influenced by film and video games than books. That few people read much fiction written before 1980 compounds the problem.

Print media are not visual media. There are all kinds of tricks movies can pull that don't work in books. Then again, novels can get away with stuff that makes screenwriters jealous. To succeed as a professional, you have to know your medium. I'm here to help new writers increase their understanding. Because people who shun proscriptive teaching are bleeding heart hippies, Here are some common sentence-level vices to root out.

Pairing an -ing verb clause with a non-simultaneous action

Pulling the door open, Dave walked in.

Arranging the sentence this way indicates that the action on both sides of the comma is happening at the same time. In this case, Dave is either walking into the partially open door or somehow phasing through it-which would require prior setup.

To clearly describe a character opening a door and walking through it, write, Dave opened the door and walked in.

Compound sentence follies

A lot of writers these days have trouble with compound sentences. I'm not sure why. The rule is pretty straightforward: A compound sentence consists of two or more independent clauses--clauses that could stand alone as sentences--joined by conjunctions preceded by commas.

Here are some examples of what not to do:

Rupert set the gun on the table, and picked up the salami. "Picked up the salami" is not an independent clause. Thus the example is not a compound sentence, and a comma should not precede "and".

Eugene grabbed Rupert's gun but the mag was empty. Those are both independent clauses, so a comma should precede "but".

"It's raining cats and dogs," Olivia said and opened her umbrella. This is an especially grievous violation I've seen cropping up a lot lately. There's so much wrong with the above example, I don't know where to start. "And opened her umbrella" is not an independent clause, so this isn't a compound sentence. But the whole construction is such a mess, that's the least of our worries.

To see why this example is an abomination, take off the dialogue. We're left with, "Olivia said and opened her umbrella." Is she saying "her umbrella" while opening an umbrella? That's what the sentence indicates, even though the idea it's trying to convey is that Olivia is saying, "It's raining cats and dogs." Then she's opening her umbrella.

What we have here is an unnecessarily messy attempt to form a pseudo-compound sentence from a dialogue tag and a dependent clause. In the first place, dialogue tags should be invisible, and constructions like this draw undue attention to them. Moreover, there are much more elegant ways to handle such situations.

The right answer: "It's raining Cats and dogs." Olivia opened her umbrella.

Readers will naturally attribute dialogue directly preceding or following action to the acting character, so we can ditch the dialogue tag. Also, two short sentences flow better than one long sentence stitched together with conjunctions and/or punctuation.

Frag grenades

Likely due to misguided attempts to ape movies combined with common misconceptions about prose pacing, some writers massively overuse sentence fragments.

Plunging through the icy surface. Struggled in the black depths. Lungs burning. Air!

Some folks seem to think that staccato, fragmentary writing makes for taut pacing. It doesn't. Instead. It's choppy. And distracting. For. Readers.

The occasional sentence fragment is okay for economy's sake. Peppering your prose with sentence fragments means you're trying to be clever, which usually comes at the expense of clarity. If you take nothing else away from this post, remember this: When it comes to writing prose, be clear, not clever!

Head spinning

Shiro looked up at the smoke-blackened ceiling. A shout drew his eye to Fred, who stood wreathed in flames. Glancing all around, Shiro locked eyes on a fire extinguisher.

The whole point of writing in first person or third person close perspective--which all of you should be doing--is to firmly establish a single character through whose point of view we experience the story. If you do it right and clearly identify the POV character in each scene, there is no need to state that he's looking at something. You're making extra work for yourself by not simply describing what he sees. This is the real value of show, don't tell.

Now let's fix it.

Shiro stumbled through the black smoke rising to the chapel ceiling. Fred screamed in the aisle, his body wreathed in flames. A fire extinguisher hung on the vestibule wall. Shiro dashed for it.

Note how cutting out all that stage direction made room for lots more setting detail and action.

Now you're all out of excuses. For each of these errors I find in a manuscript one of you submits, I shall impose a penance of seven slaps on the wrist with a rolled-up copy of Strunk & White.


  1. Any attempts to write in the 2nd person shall be punished by stoning

  2. "People who shun proscriptive teaching are bleeding heart hippies..."
    The word you meant here is PRE-scriptive, not PRO-scriptive. The former means making or giving rules and the latter means outlawing or forbidding. The original meaning of 'proscribe' in ancient Rome was to make a citizen an outlaw by writing and posting up a public notice with his name on it.

  3. Great post Brian. I also think that people might be avid readers but just never actively paid attention to the mechanics of writing to the degree a writer would need to. That comes with practice.

    I’d see this with musicians too. Some people would listen to a lot of great stuff and have knowledge of it, but you’d never know from their playing.

    1. You bring up an excellent point that leads to another important piece of actionable advice.

      Authors should read books in their genre twice: first as a reader for pleasure; then as a writer, i.e. analyzing the text to learn which tools the author used so you can add them to your tool box.

  4. 4th paragraph: is "Here" meant to be capitalized? (I haven't finished the post I suspect it is a trap or ploy.)

    1. Nope. That is an actual error. Nice catch. I'll leave it as a reminder.

  5. As someone who is working towards being a full time writer, thanks for this post. (Gotta enjoy the decline, and I don't want to be working for someone else in the last days of Western Civ.)

    1. My pleasure. Newpub really is the only sector of the entertainment industry where a normal person can still earn a living.

  6. Great post you wrote there, I really needed this right now. It. Will be helping. Me. A lot! In the near. Future.

    Jokes aside, do you have other resources you recommend for writing good prose? And what about resources on story telling?

    1. Listen to the first four seasons of Writing Excuses. Those episodes have all the good foundational advice, and they predate MRK fruiting the place up.