Back to Basics- Sentences

I often read essays or books that have great ideas but still only leave a blah impression on me.  When I stop to wonder why that is, it almost always has to do with sentence basics.  How a sentence is structured is just as important as the ideas being stated.  When thinking about and crafting a sentence, there is a lot to consider:

-How simple or complex do I want the sentence to be?
A sentence’s simplicity or complexity needs to match the tone, genre, or character’s thought process, or it will feel wrong to a reader, even if s/he doesn’t know why.

-Is it punctuated correctly?
After many years of pondering, I’ve come to the conclusion that most people believe that if they don’t know a rule, nobody else will either, so they don’t bother to correct their punctuation errors.  The truth is, lots of people will notice.  And even when someone doesn’t know grammar rules, poor punctuation can make understanding what is being said more difficult.

-Does it use the right words for what I mean?
This doesn’t just mean the adjectives, although descriptions are important.  Even the use of a preposition (at, by, on, etc.), for example, should be considered; I read a lot of essays where the wrong preposition is used.  When the wrong word is used, I can often still understand what is meant, but it takes away from the reading experience.

-Is it clear enough?
While too much detail can be distracting or confusing, not enough can leave the reader in the dark.

Does it use cliches?
(See Avoiding Cliches…)
Cliches are easy to use, because they require no thought.  Someone else did the work to get the idea across.  But a great writer will come up with his or her own version of how to explain something.  This takes a lot of mental energy, but when it’s done right, it’s magic.

The bottom line is that every word in a sentence should be working for you.  If something isn’t, leave it out or change it.

On a separate note, my daughter and I are reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.  Watching productions of his work is always wonderful, but not one can match the wording in his book (Although I have found that The Muppet Christmas Carol uses more of his language than any other I’ve seen- not kidding).  If you’ve never read Dickens, I highly recommend doing so.  It is like tasting Godiva after years of eating dollar store waxy chocolate.

Have a Merry Christmas (or a wonderful holiday if you celebrate something else). I leave you with an excerpt from A Christmas Carol:

“Oh!  but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge!  A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire, secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and spoke out  shrewdly in this grating voice.  A frosty rime  was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.  He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

“External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge.  No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him.  No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty.  Foul weather didn’t know where to have him.  The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect.  They often ‘came down’ handsomely, and Scrooge never did.”

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