Improve Flow with Sentence Variation

I was going through my “treasures” the other day and ran across a letter I had written to my great aunt back in the day.

“How are you?  I am fine.  I love you.  I miss you.  My cat died.  I am sad.  See you soon.”

Yeah, it was way back and I’ve definitely improved my writing skills since then.  But this simple letter has a lot to say about the art of sentence structure and flow.

  1. Every sentence is the same length.  Exactly.  This makes writing feel stilted and flat.  After reading a handful of same length sentences, we begin to fall asleep.  We no longer hear the words, we hear the rhythm.  Bum, bum, bum. 
  2. Every last word is only one syllable.  This exacerbates the feeling of boredom.
  3. Four of seven sentences all start with “I”.  I don’t think this needs an explanation.
  4. There is no feeling of connection between sentences.  The ideas are thrown out there as if on their own, with no relation to the other sentences.  Transitions and conjunctions can be beautiful things.

If Great Aunt had been an agent she would have rejected this piece with good reason.  The writing stinks.  And while this example may look and sound simplistic, I have seen adult-written material that looks exactly like my sample.

Okay, maybe not exactly word for word, but you get the picture.

Dear Great Aunt,

I’m just checking in to see how you are doing.  Fluffy died last week.  Losing her makes me sad, but a visit from you would cheer me up.  I miss you so much and can’t wait to see you. 

Much love~me

Not great reading by any means, but it flows one heck of a lot better than my first attempt.

How do your manuscripts flow?  What areas of do you struggle with?  What are your strengths?  What other tips can you give for smooth writing?


20 responses to “Improve Flow with Sentence Variation

  1. I think my dialogue is strong, but I find writing the exciting, action-y parts very difficult. I have such vivid movies of the events in my head, and I never seem to be able to quite convey what I see with words.

    I’m not sure, however, that I’m in a position to give any smooth writing tips just yet! 😀

    • Michelle,

      Roz at Dirty White Candy had a great post on this today. Her link is in my sidebar.

      Not to mention, I think you do a wonderful job of conveying your thoughts beautifully.


  2. Personally, I like the first letter. I thought it was AWESOME.

    Bum-bum-bum is how you feel when you’re in the ring with Riddick Bowe and he’s in his rhythm, bum-bum-bum and you’re on the mat and who the heck opened the skylight and let in all those stars.

    I mean: “My cat died. I am sad.”

    Brilliant. Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five used the same sentence over and over to illustrate a certain human apathy: “So it goes.”

    He’d use it like this:

    “Twenty thousand people died that day in the bombing. So it goes.”

    “They shot the schoolteacher for trying to steal a teapot. So it goes.”

    Those three words really stuck. So do these words from you: “I am sad.”

    I don’t even want to think about my writing points right now. Too much of that already…

    – Eric

    • Eric,

      Yes, but Vonnegut interspersed his three word litany between a variety of other sentences. And he was brilliant. I was young.

      Admittedly, though, the “I was sad” part was the best of the letter.


  3. LOL To continue to go with your samples, I would suggest beefing up the emotional quotient in your second attempt. Let us feel the sorrow of that little girl and your writing won’t be the only thing that flows. ;D

  4. I tend to use sentence fragments in my ms – sometimes I overuse them. A lot. I have to read it out loud to see how the flow is – because I’ve read them so many times inside my head I know how it’s supposed to flow 🙂

    • Jemi,

      I am so with you on this front. I don’t use them too often in my manuscripts, but my blog posts are riddled with them. Comments, too!

      You also bring up a great point about reading in your head. It’s much harder to hear how well things flow because our brain makes all the necessary adjustments so our fingers don’t have to.

  5. This is some excellent advice on flow. It is easy to see when a piece isn’t flowing but it is really hard sometimes to figure out why it isn’t. Or maybe it is just hard to explain. Thanks so much for sharing this.

    • Hey, Cassandra. I’m so glad you made it back from vacation safely. From reading your blog posts, you have no worries about flow. Your writing is almost poetic.

  6. That’s such a cute letter! This is a really great post. My strengths are transitions and sentence variation. I went to a Catholic school where all the teachers drilled “good and proper” writing into our little heads. I had a knack for grammar and writing anyway, but I certainly never forgot those lessons!

    • Nuns are good for discipline! It never hurts to know how to write well–especially if we call ourselves “writer”.

      • LOL! Actually, none of my teachers were nuns. I don’t think many nuns teach anymore because Catholic school requires you to have your teaching certificate now (in the old days, you just had to have a college degree. Not that nuns don’t go to college; I’m sure some do). But most of my teachers themselves went to a school in which the teachers were nuns, so I think they were definitely influenced!

      • Sounds nun too complicated!

  7. I have a tendency to write very long sentences once in a while. It’s not a conscious effort to vary sentence length, but more a stream of consciousness flow that needs to be fixed during the revision process. I find these monster sentences easiest by reading my work aloud.

  8. I’ve been told I mix it up pretty well between long and shorter sentences. I think I struggle at times with not echoing. I also struggle with dropping back story in here and there, versus a back story in one huge mass. 🙂

  9. Hmmm…I most definitely struggle with run on sentences. One of my professors said that his regular classes’ papers were riddled with fragments, while his honor students didn’t know when to stop an idea. That’s me in a nutshell. I have been to kown to write an entire paragraph with nothing but commas and one very lonely period. We all have our weaknesses, lol. But that’s what other eyes are for.

    • LOL, Elisa. It’s a cross that you must bear, but at least you’re aware of it. That goes a long way in my book to help out in the editing process.

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