Why and How to Vary Sentence Structure
Just as music isn’t music without rhythm, writing isn’t good writing without rhythm. No, this doesn’t mean you have to write in iambic pentameter like Shakespeare. It means you need to vary sentence length and structure, also called syntax. Variance in syntax helps readers pay attention to your thoughts, and you can achieve this variance by combining and splitting sentences.
Why to Vary Sentence Structure
This paragraph is choppy. This paragraph is boring. This paragraph sounds immature.
However, this paragraph, with its complex, lengthy sentences, requires much attention on the part of readers, if they are to avoid missing any details. Readers will most likely feel overwhelmed, possibly even out of breath, as they continue reading on and on, and novice readers will most likely fail to comprehend the meaning. In fact, even writing this is a challenge, as I wonder whether it will achieve its purpose, which is to demonstrate that strings of long, complicated sentences can be just as hard or annoying for readers to process as strings of short, simple sentences are.
Certain situations (for example, giving directions) may require some short, simple sentences, and others (for example, describing abstractions) may require some complex sentences. But generally, a balance between long and short and between simple and complex is best. Readers don’t want to read pages full of paragraphs like the two previous ones. Every phrase will seem to have equal importance, and without variation in syntax, it’s hard to pay attention to each word.
You might think your writing already has a variety of sentence structures, but reading it aloud and counting the number of words per sentence may reveal otherwise. Besides, you should vary sentence structure when paraphrasing material from outside sources to help put their words into yours.
How to Vary Sentence Structure
You can structure a sentence in ways besides subject, then verb, then object. Here are six ideas to try:
- If you want to emphasize a word or phrase, put it at the beginning or end of the sentence, where readers are most likely to notice it.
- Use lists to avoid having multiple sentences that have the same subject or verb. For example, the choppy paragraph I wrote could be one sentence: This paragraph is choppy, is boring, and sounds immature.
- If sentences don’t share subjects or verbs but have some kind of relationship, combine them with coordinating conjunctions, such as and, but, or, and so.
- Use which- and that-clauses to reduce a separate sentence. I used which in the last sentence of my complex paragraph above to avoid creating a new sentence to state the paragraph’s purpose.
- If you feel out of breath when reading a sentence aloud, split it.
- Use more than one of these ideas in a sentence or paragraph.
Make your writing more interesting to read and easier to process by varying your syntax. Combining and splitting sentences are usually the quickest ways to do so. Reading your work aloud is the first step in seeing where your syntax needs some variety.
Photo: ed needs a bicycle, Flickr
About Darla Word
I'm a writing tutor and editor from Michigan. My favorite subject to write about is writing because making better writers is my calling. I also enjoy reading, singing, swimming, and cardmaking.