What makes a standout sentence to you? Studying works you love can help you focus on writing great sentences that make an impact on your story and your readers.
If you are trying to write publication-quality text, pick six books you love as a “study set.” These books are your best possible writing teachers – besides yourself.
You picked these books because you love them and want to rival the quality. You can reference these books endlessly with your own questions about form and function, substance and style, but the “best-of-the-best” sentence search is a great starting exercise.
Read a few chapters of the first book and compile a list of the best sentences. Try to understand what makes them so great. Build up a library of favorite sentences from all six.
Now, try your hand at it. You don’t want to copy them, except in quality. Can you do equally well?
Yours won’t be mine
You need to select your own best sentences yourself, because the lesson is in trying to identify what appeals to you most. Do you lean in your pickings towards facts or fictions, literal or figurative, serious or lighter sentences?
The kinds of sentences you pick will also be dependent on the styles and genre of the books you choose. What makes a standout sentence to you?
Sometimes, very special sentences are widely shared as “best.”
If you read on a Kindle, are you finding your favorite sentences are also selected by many other readers or do you have more personalized tastes?
These “Kindle Highlight” sentences are by far the hardest to write. If you can do so, fantastic. Such sentences contain sentiments with universal appeal. They are often maxims, aphorisms, and other kinds of “words to live by.”
Content and context
After picking out sentences I love, or seeing lists from authors doing this exercise, I’m always surprised how much the intense “wow” of such sentences fades when you reread them in isolation.
This is how it should be.
Sentences, even the best quotes, are so much more powerful inside the texts in which they live. This is because of context. These power sentences are speaking to parts of the story that have come before — or that might come next. They are perhaps a great contrast, or summation, or they take the reader off in an unexpected direction.
Can you identify the context that is super-charging a selected sentence? This is perhaps the hardest part of writing the very best of all sentences — the deep tie-ins.
Now you have a list of gold standard sentences and solid ideas about why you like them so much. Can you write similarly effective sentences?
You can practice great sentence writing even if you are not working inside your text. Just pick a subject and write a list of sentences — or pick an element of your story and let yourself run wild.
You might be surprised by what you innovate in doing this. The sky is the limit for where you take things. You might discover great new aspects of your story you want to tell. You might even land on sentences that could be your Kindle Highlights.
If you add in your own sentences to your best-of-the-best mix from your study corpus, could a friend pick out yours or would they pass among the published highlights?
You can be terrific at story and still not yet be writing rich and readable prose. You just need to get all that good story language in there at sufficient density to fill out great sentence after great sentence.
Or, maybe you are just starting to write and are discovering your literary powers. Eventually, you will have enough skill and great content to write power-packed sentences.
Or, perhaps you know exactly what you are doing but are working on a first draft. Then, of course, you expect some lanky and awkward sentences while you work things out.
You need to be able to consistently write good sentences if you expect readers to enjoy your writing and you need to be able to craft some bests-of-the-bests if you hope to have your writing really shine.
An average length for a modern novel is 50,000 words and the average sentence length is around 9.3 words, so this means you’ll pen around 5,300 sentences. How many will be bests?
Set your goals high
Doing this exercise again and again, finding books you love, extracting the best sentences, and trying to write equally good ones will teach endless lessons about the marriage of story and language.
Why are your sentences failing? Why don’t they pack the punch you want? What changes when you do rise above?
Can you write good sentences but not yet ones that stand head-and-shoulders above the rest? Setting your goals high means you will always push yourself. You will have the best chance of succeeding if you emulate the best — and this means the authors and books you love best.
Dawn Field (July 20, 1969 – May 2, 2020)
In late 2015, Dawn Field submitted her first post to the BookBaby Blog. A molecular biologist, Senior Research Fellow of the NERC Centre of Ecology and Hydrology, guest professor at the University of Goeteborg in Sweden, and co-author of the book, Biocode: The New Age of Genomics, Dr. Field came to us hoping to find a forum to share her experience and love of language with an audience of writers. While many unsolicited submissions don’t quite meet the needs (or standards) of our readers, something about Dawn’s writing stood out. I posted the article, and to my grateful amazement that initial contribution flourished into a five-year collaboration resulting in nearly 100 posts published on the BookBaby Blog. Sadly, on May 2nd, a voice that was an inspiration to so many of us in the self-publishing community was lost when Dr. Field suddenly and tragically passed away at the age of 50. We will continue to publish the pieces Dawn had submitted (she was always months ahead of schedule) in honor of her commitment to teaching and to the craft of writing. Rest in peace, Dawn.
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“Context, Context, Context” is like “Location, Location, Location”
Use Expressive Words To Build Your Story World
Is it a love story or a romance novel?
The Isolated Sentence Test