Traditional Publishing

Vary Sentence Structure

By G. Miki Hayden
Instructor at Writer's Digest University online and private writing coach – Saturday November 10, 2018

This past week I edited a novel written in a way meant to emulate the method used by a handful of successful mystery writers.

"He took the stairs down. He walked into the kitchen. He stood at the refrigerator. He got out a pitcher of cold water."

I understood that the author was trying to replicate a sparse, clipped, detailed style that has netted several lucky writing folks both money and fame.

However, in going back to the originals, as I just did using the “Look Inside” function on Amazon, I found that the innovators showed much more fluidity in the writing than this recent crop of followers. I might describe both the trendsetters’ style and the imitators’ attempts using the same words, but the more inventive work went by the creators’ artistic instincts (not to mention an undoubted lot of heavy editing). What is produced by the originators is an effect—and not just a grating one.

Let me also say that I see this same writing approach from any number of naive newcomers who aren’t at all aware of what they’re doing. They only know how to present short and simple declarative sentences.

So what’s wrong with producing one plain sentence after the other with a subject followed by verb?

Easy answer. A repeated sentence structure, as with any number of various recurring elements in a literary work, is simply boring to the ears. Yes, we read with our ears just as if we were listening to music.

In taking up a basic writing strategy, those of us slinging together words for human consumption are called upon to provide variation.

Which of the following reads better?

"He took the stairs down. He walked into the kitchen. He stood at the refrigerator. He got out a pitcher of cold water."

"Jerry took the stars down two at time. In the kitchen, he pulled a pitcher of cold water from the refrigerator. Eager to quench his thirst, he filled a glass to the top and drank."

Vary your sentence structure. Don’t bore our ears.

Try this pair to see which you like more:

"Dragging a chair behind him, he went into the drawing room. Listening to the music being played in there, he stopped. Sitting in the chair for a minute, he found himself tapping his toes to the beat."

"Dragging a chair behind him, he went into the drawing room where he stopped and listened to the music being played. He sat for a moment and tapped his toes to the beat."

Vary all types of sentence structures, and when you edit your own work, fiction or nonfiction, listen for whatever elements are repeated—and rewrite.

I love to give writing advice—and here’s some for mystery (and other genre) writers: . I won an award for this a few years back and have updated it in this edition.

About the Author

G. Miki Hayden is a short story Edgar winner. She teaches a mystery writing and a thriller writing and other writing classes at Writer's Digest online university. The third edition of her Writing the Mystery is available through Amazon and other good bookshops. She is also the author of The Naked Writer, a comprehensive, easy-to-read style and composition guide for all levels of writers.