Open a book you love to a random page and read one isolated sentence. Can you hear the author’s voice? Does it evoke an emotion? Does it draw you in? Now open your own work. How does it fare?

There are so many things that go into writing an enjoyable book. Chief among them is the ability to make stellar word choices and form beautiful sentences.

Much has been written about sentences. Lists of favorite sentences abound, including the longest and shortest, with opening and closing lines getting special attention. But in a great book, every sentence carries its own weight. Each is a stepping stone on a wondrous path.

The overarching factor that contributes to good sentences is the writer’s voice. Great writing flows from voice. A strong voice means every word is well-considered. Logic flows. You’ll find no unnecessary extras and the content is interesting. While it’s hard to achieve, it’s easy to recognize when a book isn’t there yet.

The isolated sentence test

Try this on a book you really like. Open to a random page and read one sentence. Chances are it will stand well by itself. It certainly should.

You might not know all the details it describes, but you won’t be confused by it. It won’t be broken or have unclear antecedents. You will be able to make good sense of it grammatically. It won’t be fragmented, it won’t be rambling or tangential. It won’t look like a piece of fluff clinging to a new suit that someone neglected to pluck off. It will be the fabric of the suit, and if really special, perhaps an ornate button.

A quality sentence will describe concrete detail and actions. It will be relevant. You’ll immediately get your bearings and be able to proceed into the story. It will put an image in your mind or evoke an emotion. It will impart an essential fact or reveal more of the plot. At its best, it will make you stop and think or read it again and again to enjoy its beauty.

In a well-written work, you might get a feel for what the entire book is about from a single sentence. Sentence-testing is often the way we browse books in a bookstore, looking for something that draws us in. We know very quickly if we like the style and tone of the author.

Open the book again and repeat. Every sentence should sing.

What you are really doing is testing for the writer’s voice. It is set at the opening line and continues to the end. It works to make all sentences feel like they belong. Finding your voice will substantially improve all your sentences and how they flow.

You are also testing for polish. Do it as many time as you need to to prove how strong all the sentences in a well-crafted, fully-imagined book can be.

Now pick up your draft. How does it fare? Does it pass the isolated sentence test?

If yes, great! If not, you have places to fix.

Learning to write great sentences requires a range of skills. Are your selected sentences limp, plain, or lacking interesting words or thoughts? Do you have to skim other sentences to glean meaning?

Test a range of books, including your own. Test early drafts and the works-in-progress of others. This comparative effort can be a great way to intuitively gain an understanding of good sentence structure and form. When a sentence hits you right, consider its features. When it hits you wrong, look even more closely.

This reading habit, done enough, will give you the comparative basis to craft better and better sentences. In the end, each sentence should be a masterpiece on its own.

 

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Related Posts
Developing a Distinctive Voice in Writing
Finding Your Voice As A Writer
What’s Worse: Tangential, Rambling, Or Missing Content?
Choose Words That Convey Your Meaning
Imagine The Page As You Write Your Book

 

Dawn Field

About Dawn Field

Dawn Field has written 62 posts in this blog.

Dr. Dawn Field is a book lover interested in what makes great writing. After a 20 year career as a research scientist, her first book, Biocode, was published by Oxford University Press. Now a columnist of The Double Helix, Dr. Field is exploring new writing venues and writing a second book. Based in Virginia, Dr. Field is looking to collaborate with a range of fiction writers as a writing coach, editor, and consultant on the publishing process: fiedawn@gmail.com.

22 thoughts on “The Isolated Sentence Test

  1. This is a brilliant, even brave, article. Try its key suggestion: it’s a great way to test a key aspect of your writing.

  2. Nestling Robins beneath my bedroom window shouldered into my dream, harshly urging an immediate response to their hunger. A red-breasted sweep past the window sill changed the “Feed me” to “Feed me first”.

    I wondered; who was tolerating that insistent sound the best; the harried mother bird or the human wakened from dreaming of a beautiful walk in an English meadow?

  3. Good test for budding authors and experienced ones too. Thanks a lot! What happens if this does not work? Must we try, try again? I think so. Writing interesting sentences is hard, thoughtful work but it should pay off in the end, or is it the end of my book! Ah!

  4. Caryn Green says:

    My lifelong habit has been to apply what I’ve called the “random sentence test” at libraries and bookstores. I let the book fall open as it will and light upon a – yes – random sentence. If I like the sound of it, I look further. If it’s kinda – meh – back on the shelf. So it was a HUGE kick to receive this post from Book Baby. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Don A Campbell says:

    I’ve found that having the text read to me, even by a machine voice gives me a better test than a slow read. It is amazing what you hear that you don’t see. Each of use has two critics inside us use them both.

  6. Diane Turner says:

    Their frenetic correspondence was almost two years old when Florentino Ariza, in a letter of only one paragraph, made a formal proposal of marriage to Fermina Daza. From Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

    The method does, in fact, work. Thanks for the wonderful post.

  7. Chris says:

    Dear Dawn,
    As a year 6 student this article was awakening I love the idea of opening a random book and finding a random sentence and reading it in isolation to the rest of the text. I will improve on my writing by acting like someone will read a random page, so I will make every sentence interesting.
    Thank you from Chris.

  8. Year 6 says:

    Hi Dawn,

    I will definitely use this in my writing more. I’m in year 6 and I need new strategies and this will definitely help. It will intrigue the reader to read more and more. It will really help my books. I really need to ensure that My writing can be read isolated sentences. After I tried flicking to different pages trick. Every sentence I picked was a isolated sentence. It is crazy. It makes me want to read and write more.

    Once again thanks Dawn

  9. Charlie says:

    Thanks Dawn,
    For helping me with my Reading and Writing next time I will add more descriptive sizzling starts and more detail to my text in general.Thank you for helping me figure this out in year 6.

  10. Year 6 says:

    Dear, Dawn
    Your text relates to my book because you say that every sentence is like a stepping stone and it all has to carry it own weight. As I’m in year six this will assist my writing throughout the year and into high school.
    From Thomas

  11. Yr6 says:

    Dear Dawn,
    Thank you for helping me with reading and writing and now in my writing I will add a sizzling start and use more punctuation.

  12. Millie says:

    Dear Dawn,
    Thank you for your interesting and helpful text. The book that I am reading at the moment has passed the isolated sentence test although I have read texts in the past where this has definitely not been the case. I will definitely use this testing method in my own writing in the future. My name is Millie and I am in year 6.

    Regards, Millie

  13. Ashton says:

    Hi dawn, I don’t often do this and usually (not very smartly) judge a book by its cover. I will use this in the future. Thanks Dawn.
    From Ashton.

  14. Darcy says:

    Dear Dawn,
    I am in year six and in my class we use sizzling starts and Dinamic dialog in the texts we write, and with our reading we do a thing called the five finger rule.

  15. Ned says:

    Dear Dawn, your article makes a good point in any well written text this applies, fiction or nonfiction whether it tells a story or tells information as long as it’s well written there will always be an isolated sentence that can create a hook. It’s hard to notice this when I read but when you point it out it seems quite obvious, I have a passion for writing I have had lots of good feedback from my family and teachers this article has tought me to treat every sentence like a hook.
    -Ned

  16. JOHN says:

    Thanks Dawn for your help with my writing now l will do sizzling starts to ensure I engage my audience.

  17. Louis says:

    Hi Dawn in this text you talk about weight in sentences, that is in a lot of the books/texts that I read. I feel like if I incorporate these sentences into my text it will make my books a lot more engaging. We use similar sentences like sizzling starts by the way my name is Louis and I am in year six.

  18. Boyd Knight says:

    Small suggestions can have a big impact. It’s nice to hear someone articulate and clarify an idea that may be floating in your brain like fruit in an unset Jello salad. Thanks.
    When I want to see writing at its best I turn to Lincoln or Churchill to see how I can say more with fewer words.

  19. Nekesa Sepiwe says:

    “I carried you in my womb for eleven months as if you were my child; you became a part of me in ways I cannot explain even to myself, so Bintu,its going to take awhile for me to accept the fact that I was simply your host.”

    When writing, I type in my header “sight, sound, taste and color” to remind me that ’emotions’ should conjure these elements.

  20. Bonjour Dawn,

    I experimented the “random sentence test” with my script and found the exercise very practical. Your suggestions in the article are excellent. Thank you.

  21. A fascinating article and I had some fun randomly opening the book my mother has written ‘An Unexpected Journey: A Woman’s Role’ and got this, which sums up their life abroad in countries on the eve of independence – sometimes in isolated locations in regions of political instability and unrest…

    ‘Whatever glamorous impression has been given by books or films, our lives were by no means luxurious and household servants were a mixed blessing.’

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