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How-To Write a Clear Sentence

Aug 17, 2007
Writing is rarely easy. This is probably because writing developed over countless centuries. During this time writing was evolved to meet the need for increasingly more accurate communication both in writing between peoples. Writing became necessary to convey accurately what was impractical to say by word of mouth over distance and to record what was said in reply and finally agreed.

Writing is needed by people simply survive. The motive for the development of language and writing was not the desire to establish a literary tradition but to enable the transfer of views information and knowledge with reliability simplicity accuracy and precision between leaders who rule trade and wage war. From this need to survive the technique also extended to accommodate natural teachers of ideas in knowledge politics religion social arts and commerce to pass on the culture from the older generation to its young.

To become a good writer it is not too far fetched to expect good writing basics now in use and tested over time to be applied today by would-be writers.

Many people think a writer is not up to much who does not earn a million dollars a year. This is not the case. Whether a writer receives payment or not is more likely to be due to personality traits and choices which are separate issues unrelated to the author's ability to write. It is true incompetent writers will not be able to sell their work but these writers by definition are bad writers.

Most problems encountered in writing arise from confused thinking - not from the lack of creative power. If we feel we have no creative power this is more likely to be the result of a block of some sort. By block is meant not writers' block we hear so much about but a more basic block - a conviction we are not cut out for writing. It is not the absence of talent that blocks the writer but probably a misunderstanding of the exact structure of writing.

This article is the first of a series about dissolving this misunderstanding.

It is a simple truth - words are the basic bits of material with which a piece of writing is constructed. Words build into sentences. Sentences build into paragraphs. Paragraphs build into chapters. Chapters build books.

It follows if the writer can write a sentence then the writer can at least write a paragraph and so has the potential to write an article or even a book.

The sentence therefore is a basic building block of writing - from this everything or nothing flows.

Each sentence expresses in words one single idea. The sentence has a structure. If the sentence does not have this structure the sentence is meaningless - it cannot be understood because it contains an incomplete thought. Neither can it be edited until this structure is complete.

If the sentence is not properly constructed it cannot become part of a paragraph. No paragraph no article no chapter. No article no chapter - no book!

A sentence consists of three essential parts:

A Subject
A Verb
An Object.

These three parts must be present if the sentence is to have meaning.

Subject: who or what the sentence is about.
Verb: what is said about the Subject.
Object: what is affected by what is said about the Subject.

Subject The cat The sentence is about - The cat.
Verb sat What is said about the cat is it - sat.
Object on the mat What is affected by the cat sat - on the mat.

How do we decide on the order in which the words are written?

Consider the possible alternatives for word arrangement in an even simpler sentence:

1 Cats sleep often.
2 Cats often sleep
3 Sleep cats often.
4 Sleep often cats.
5 Often sleep cats.
6 Often cats sleep.

Of the six word order sentences only 1 - 2 and 6 seem to make sense.
1 Subject verb object.
2 Subject object verb. [This sentence appears to be a reply to a question.]
6 Object subject verb. [This sentence appears to be a reply to a question.]

Number one sentence is the most complete.

Most sentences are more detailed than this otherwise each part is too vague.

Which cat is the one in the sentence? The black cat.
How did the cat sit? Very still.
Where was the mat? By the open door.

Now we get:

The black cat sat very still on the mat by the open door.

Note: this sentence is still divided into its three-part structure:

The black cat | sat very still | on the mat by the open door.

Further information is only added with the part of the sentence to which it refers orlimits. The end of each sentence has to be linked with the beginning of the following sentence. This establishes a flow or story line for the reader.

The black cat with the torn ear | sat still and listening | on the mat by the open door in the freezing draught.
The black cat with the torn ear sat still and listening on the mat by the open door in the freezing draught.

It can be seen from this example how a complex sentence can be constructed retaining its basic simple form. This provides an easy way to get all the facts we want to use into the sentence without worrying too much about the writing.

The next step is to construct the second or following sentence.

This will depend on the direction we intend the piece to take. In a work of fiction the next sentence is obviously what happens next to the Subject - the cat - and should flow naturally from the content of the first sentence

The cat got up frightened.
Her black fur rose at a loud cry somewhere in the dark.

Group the sentences next - still listed one under the other - till those about the same specific part of the piece are together. Each group of related sentences form paragraphs.

The black cat with the torn ear sat still and listening on the mat by the open door in the freezing draught. The cat got up frightened. Her black fur rose at a loud cry somewhere in the dark.

We can edit these three lines as follows:

The black cat with the torn ear sat still listening on the mat by the open door in the freezing draught. The cat arched her back ready for any danger. Then her black fur spiked as she heard a long low moan of intense pain outside in the night.

Analyzing these three sentences we obtain the following structure:

The black cat with the torn ear sat still listening on the mat by the open door in the freezing draught.
The cat arched her back ready for any danger.
Then her black fur spiked as she heard a long low moan of intense pain outside in the night.

This is an example of how writing a simple three-sentence paragraph is actually written whether the writer is conscious of doing so or not. Having placed all the facts of the sentence in place we can check for ease of comprehension simplicity accuracy and precision.

Fortunately we have word processors now to make this task of editing easier than it used to be and sentences may be written as they come to mind in and out of context. We may then easily group the sentences for paragraph content and continuity by cut and paste until the paragraph is complete. The writer's original thought thread or idea has become clear in the final form of the paragraph.

Unclear thinking affects all writers to some degree. No writer is completely immune. Clear thought and expression is the essence of all the arts of which writing perhaps is the one key to understanding all of them.

Many writers strive to write high-density content even though their texts may already be crystal clear. Others aim to continually enrich and enhance their style. A few search endlessly for simplicity.

My very best wishes.
About the Author
John Blenkin is a retired architect who writes articles about writing articles. Find out how writing articles can be made easier by writing clearer sentences by visiting my web site which is at http://www.freefolios.com
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