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.
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