Skip to main content

The Four Commandments of Writing Good Sentences

If you want to write a good sentence, don’t pay any attention to your grammar. In this article, Bonnie Trenga explains why.

If you want to write a good sentence, don’t pay any attention to your grammar. I don’t mean “a sentence this like OK is.” I mean don’t automatically think you’ve written a good sentence just because it’s grammatically correct. Lots of bad sentences are grammatically correct. Some of these bad sentences might even be yours.

(Take Control of Your Writing Career)

Quick, whom can you blame? I’m pinning it on Miss Whom, your grammar school teacher. Rather than teaching students to produce clear and meaningful sentences, Miss Whom promoted grammar rules and a word minimum. I remember BS-ing my way through a school essay that had to be at least 1,000 words. My ideas weren’t fully formed, so I tried to make myself sound knowledgeable by fluffing things up. (I fluffed grammatically, of course.)

Unfortunately, many of us still write this way. Until someone shakes things up, writers—especially nonfiction writers—will continue to produce bad and boring sentences.

I’ll volunteer to shake things up. To write good sentences, you must follow these Four Commandments:

  1. You shall not write passively.
  2. You shall not overuse weak verbs like “to be” and “to have.”
  3. You shall not fluff.
  4. You shall make every word necessary.

Of course, your sentences should also be grammatical. But remember that many grammatical sentences are also terrible. The most famous awful sentence of all time—“It was a dark and stormy night”—displays superb grammar. The following sentence is even more awful, and it breaks all my rules: The usage of perfect grammar but not an active style of writing has the effect of not just the production of dull words for readers’ intake but it also has the unwanted consequence of making readers want to snooze.

You might call this style formal or academic writing, or even business writing. I just call it bad writing. The only good thing about that 39-word sentence is the grammar. If Mr. T were here, he’d say, “I pity the fool who would write that fluffed-up sentence.”

Unfortunately, Mr. T couldn’t make it. Instead, I, Mrs. T, am asking you to examine this terrible sentence one commandment at a time. Well, two phrases in our sample sentence violate Commandment 1: “the usage of” and “the production of.” These passive phrases (nominalizations) are wordy and fail to mention who is doing the action. It would be better to write that “so and so uses,” and “so and so produces.”

The Four Commandments of Writing Good Sentences

A prodigious amount of passive writing gets written by writers—did you catch that?—and it has to stop. Passive writing is more than just passive voice (“was written badly by”). The following two passive sentences omit “who”: “The writing of poor sentences is prohibited” and “It’s important to be specific when writing sentences.” If you did omit, you must not acquit! You must state who is doing the action, except if you’re purposely withholding that information. (Usually this is a person, unless you’re describing dark and stormy clouds.)

Our terrible sentence disregards Commandment 2 because of these two weak verbs: “has (the effect of)” and “has (the unwanted consequence of).” Bor-ing! Expend a little imagination and use more descriptive verbs. (But don’t go over the top and use fancy SAT words.) Mr. T used a great verb when he said, “I pity the fool.” If he’d said, “I have a problem with the fool,” his sentence would have lost its impact.

Now on to Commandment 3. Where’s the fluff? Sadly, our awful sentence is all fluff. It puffs itself up with wordiness that communicates almost no concrete information. Unless you’re doing laundry, you’re not allowed to fluff. The best way to cut the fluff is to realize—and admit—that your writing is wordy. In your rough draft, you’re allowed to write down unfocused ideas and to ramble a bit. But your final, polished version must be much more concise. Put aside your draft for a while and then cut it down—perhaps way down. Examine every phrase and shorten, shorten, shorten.

This leads us to Commandment 4. We must examine our 39-word sentence and make every word necessary. When we rip away all the passive and wordy phrasing, we get an easier-to-digest sentence (remember, this is Writer’s Digest, not Writer’s Indigestion): Writers who use perfect grammar but not active sentence structure bore readers.

Ah, much better. Those dozen words offer substance, not hot air. Make the sentence your mantra. Likewise, make passive and bland writing passé. You don’t want to upset Mr. T.

Getting Started in Writing

When you take this online writing workshop, you'll discover your voice, learn the basics of grammar and examine the different types of writing. No matter what type of writing you're planning on crafting—nonfiction or fiction—you'll need guidance along the way.

Click to continue.

Benjamin Myers: On Fleeting Moments Becoming Finished Novels

Benjamin Myers: On Fleeting Moments Becoming Finished Novels

Award-winning author and journalist Benjamin Myers discusses the out-of-body experience of having the idea for his new novel, The Perfect Golden Circle.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: 7 WDU Courses, a Chat With Ran Walker, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce even WDU courses, a chat about flash fiction with Ran Walker, and more!

Christopher Stollar | How to Crowdfund Your Book

How to Crowdfund Your Book

Crowdfunding in publishing has received a lot of attention in recent months. Successful crowd-funder and author Chris Stollar shares his tips for realistic and practical tips to make crowdfunding work for you.

12 Dos and Don’ts of Revealing Critical Backstory in a Novel

12 Dos and Don’ts of Revealing Critical Backstory in a Novel

How much backstory is too much backstory, and how do we know when we haven’t given enough? Here, bestselling author Jenna Kernan offers six dos and six don’ts of revealing critical backstory in a novel.

How and Why To Turn Your Play Into a Novel

How and Why To Turn Your Play Into a Novel

Award-winning novelist and playwright Lynne Kaufman discusses the differences, similarities, and benefits of turning your play into a novel.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Thinking There’s Not Enough Room for Your Story

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Thinking There’s Not Enough Room for Your Story

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so this series helps identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's mistake is thinking there's not enough room for your story.

The Head and the Heart: 5-Minute Memoir

The Head and the Heart: 5-Minute Memoir

In this article from the March/April 2022 issue of Writer's Digest, Lauryne Wright writes about rejection, rumination, and staying true to the creative voice inside ourselves.

Sophie Irwin: On Connecting With Readers

Sophie Irwin: On Connecting With Readers

Author Sophie Irwin discusses her pipe-dream-turned-reality of writing her historical fiction rom-com, A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting.

Getting Started Writing a Beach Book

Getting Started Writing a Beach Book

Sun, sand, and surf are only a fraction of what a beachside setting can bring to your stories. Here, bestselling author Amy Clipston helps us get started writing a beach book.