Great Writing Gets the Gig — 4 Tips for Crafting Killer Sentences

Great Writing Gets the Gig -- 4 Tips for Crafting Killer SentencesWant editors to trust you?

Well, you could flash your portfolio of published blue-chip writing their way.

Don’t have that? Show them great writing, with one concise, interesting sentence after the next.

I’ve been doing that for a decade, since a producer from Macmillan Publishers asked me for help debugging their e-books. They soon asked me to write their website copy. They were the first of many editors who trusted me — all because I learned the craft of writing well. That edge has paid off for me and others — and it’ll pay off for you.

Wondering how to craft sentences that make editors sit up and say “yes”? These four tips will make it happen:

Choose active voice

Using passive voice is a rookie mistake — one that’s so common it bores editors to tears.

Active voice, on the other hand, is a mainstay of good writing. Why is that so?

Let’s begin with the recipe for passive voice:

  • the “to be” verb,
  • the past tense of the action verb,
  • and optionally, but often, the “by” preposition.

Examples:

  • “The ball was dropped by the CFO.”
  • “The ball is passed by the center player.”
  • (Or even worse: “The ball had been passed…”)

Let’s contrast with active voice, where the action takes center stage:

  • “The CFO dropped the ball.”
  • “The center player passes the ball.”

Passive voice creates convoluted sentences, adding needless parts of speech and hiding the actual action—especially if your sentence is meant to be present tense.

Read these sentences out loud. Listen to how the flow of the passive examples is rougher compared to the active ones.

But be careful before you rule out any sentence using “to be” as passive. You can write perfectly good, active-voice sentences with “to be.” For instance, “There were elephants.” Here the state of being is truly the action verb.

So why does passive voice exist? Because sometimes you can’t specify the agent that’s executing the action, or the agent isn’t as important as the object acted upon.

Examples:

  • “Mistakes were made.” The agent isn’t specified.
  • “The prime minister was squashed by elephants.” The prime minister being squashed is more important than that the cause was elephants.

Despite these counter-examples, for the most part you want to avoid passive voice. Conciseness makes your sentences sharp.

Use the best words

And by “the best words” I don’t mean breaking out your thesaurus and blindly matching words to synonyms. Every word has its own nuance, and you should understand those differences. Being sloppy here does you no favors with editors.

Here are some examples from Thesaurus.com.

“Replied” is matched to both “retorted” and “acknowledged.” The words are like night and day. “Retorted” implies an argumentative response, while “acknowledged” implies calmness.

Compare the impact of the two versions of this sentence:

  • “‘That butterfly is a species of the genus Vanessa,’ she retorted.”
  • “‘That butterfly is a species of the genus Vanessa,’ she acknowledged.”

The first implies an argument between butterfly watchers, while the second might be something they’d say over a cup of tea on a lazy afternoon.

“Identify” is matched to both “analyze” and “spot.” The differences here are more subtle, but they exist. “Analyze” implies more thought and less action, while “spot” implies a quick eye.

Again, compare the impact:

  • “She analyzed the monarch on the tree branch.”
  • “She spotted the monarch on the tree branch.”

The nuances of words aren’t always straightforward, which is why I suggest pairing a thesaurus with a dictionary — to keep you from sounding ridiculous.

Note that choosing the best word sharpens your sentence, making it specific and flavorful without bloating with extra words. You don’t have to write, “She replied curtly.” Instead you write, “She retorted.”

Breaking this rule is sometimes necessary depending on the reading level you’re aiming for. Sharper words often require higher reading levels, so you’ll need to find the sweet spot for your audience. If the most fitting category for a drug is “it’s an analeptic,” for a mainstream consumer audience, you’re going to need to resort to “it’s a hard drug.”

Remove redundant conjunctions

Every time you use redundant conjunctions, an editor cries themselves to sleep over the slush pile. And probably rejects your submission.

A conjunction is a connecting word between sentences. Examples include “and,” “but,” “therefore,” “however,” “yet,” and “though.” Because they connect sentences, you might think you need to sprinkle them liberally in your work to indicate the relationship of your sentences to one another.

You’re wrong.

I’ve just proven it. You know that the sentence, “You’re wrong,” is a response to the previous one. You know that despite the paragraph break. You know that, “I’ve just proven it,” is further connected despite another paragraph break.

That’s the magic of context, which makes your connections for you.

A simpler case of the redundant conjunction is using two of them together, particularly if they’re closely related in meaning.

Here are examples of excess conjunctions. Assume these are the initial sentences of an article:

  • “So this week I visited the circus. And additionally I didn’t know Annabelle was a clown there!”
  • “There weren’t enough deck chairs. And yet I found places to sunbathe.”

In the first sentence, “so” is a conjunction that connects to… nothing. It’s not needed. “And additionally” is repetition. Arguably you could remove both conjunctions in this case, resulting in, “This week I visited the circus. I didn’t know Annabelle was a clown there!” An obvious relationship, as “circus” is the location and “there” indicates that location.

For the second sentence, “and yet” is also repetition. But in this case, “yet” might remain, because the cause and effect relationship between “There weren’t enough deck chairs,” and “I found places to sunbathe,” isn’t strong.

You could sharpen the sentence still further. Consider, “There weren’t enough deck chairs. I found places to sunbathe anyway.” The addition of “anyway” indicates the relationship without conjunctions.

Lack of repetition and needless conjunctions sharpens your writing and helps you write sentences that get you hired.

Remove useless adverbs

Otherwise known as, “You wouldn’t dump that whole box of salt into the soup pot, would you?”

An adverb is simply a word that modifies a verb. In novice writing, adverbs are often sprinkled throughout the text to an obnoxious point. Sometimes it’s because a writer doesn’t know the best word to use. And sometimes it’s because a writer thinks more adverbs add more “flavor” to the text. Too bad it’s more like turning soup into brine.

Let’s consider the following examples:

  • “The gazelle ran quickly over the gracefully swaying grasses of the veldt, analytically dodging the lions that doggedly chased it.”
  • “The lions retired hungrily and exhaustedly to the waterhole, guardedly watching the buffalo angrily stomping across the river.”

Try reading these sentences out loud. You’re probably tripping over all the adverbs, because they make the writing unwieldy.

“Ran quickly” is redundant, because running already means quick movement. If you want more flavor than “ran,” trying using the best word for the context instead, like “dashed.”

“Gracefully swaying” is redundant in that it’s not terribly important that the grasses are graceful — plus the mental picture of the grass swaying already implies a sense of grace.

“Analytically dodging” is ridiculous. Analysis implies careful, conscious effort, while dodging implies instinct. The adverb contradicts the verb.

“Doggedly chased” is redundant. We already know the lions are motivated, and chasing partially implies that all by itself.

I’ll leave it up to you to discern the needless adverbs in the second sentence.

Now try reading the following edited versions:

  • “The gazelle dashed across the swaying grasses of the veldt, darting away from the chasing lions.”
  • “Hungry and tired, the lions retired to the waterhole, cautious of the buffalo stampeding across the river.”

They read smoothly. They’re more concise (if not perfectly so), and they’re sharper in word use.

Don’t go overboard on this tip and start eliminating all adverbs from your writing. An adverb is fine if it adds meaning that otherwise isn’t part of the best word you’re using. “Whispered softly” is redundant, but “whispered hoarsely” adds information.

Final tip here: Remember, there are few situations where the word “very” adds anything. See how I could have used “very few” there, but it really wouldn’t have made a meaningful difference? Right.

The four qualities of great sentences

Why did we go through all this? Because these tips help you achieve great sentences in your writing, getting you closer to being published.

Great sentences:

  • read smoothly,
  • aren’t bloated with excess words,
  • are sharp about the words they do use, and
  • are smart about the context in which they exist.

Remember: Every great sentence in your article creates more trust in the editor reading it. If you make every sentence great, you’re on your way to getting the edge on that article, post, or staff position.

Knock ’em dead.

What tips do you have for writing killer sentences? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

Ava Jarvis is a Seattle-area freelance writer with the tech-savviness of a software engineer. 

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62 comments on “Great Writing Gets the Gig — 4 Tips for Crafting Killer Sentences
  1. Katy Reiber says:

    Great post, Ava! I admit, I’m an abuser of the word “so” at the beginning of sentences. I try, but it’s a hard habit to break.

  2. I had to come back to sign-up to be notified of comments. Somebody might have an encouraging word for me:)!

  3. You’re right on the money with these. I’m constantly making suggestions in critiques to address these issues, although they still creep into my own work occasionally. Writing is a tricky business, eh?

  4. This is so helpful. Thanks!

  5. Christine Mattice says:

    Thanks for the great post, James. It allows us to “hear” the music of the sentences when arranged in a certain way. Considering that the author is Gary Provost, a master of writing, that doesn’t surprise me. 🙂

  6. James Edmondson says:

    This Sentence Has Five Words
    by Gary Provost

    “This sentence has five words.
    Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

    Now listen.
    I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length.

    And sometimes,
    when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

    • Randy says:

      Wow, James thanks for distinguishing what I thought I was halfazzed unconsciously doing. I try to mix up the length of my sentences, so it doesn’t seem to drone on. Your post defines this rule for me. I can see me making music with my words. God I get inspired every time I come here.
      Thanks… Bye;
      I have to go write something!

    • Thanks James. I hear the music:).

  7. Claire says:

    Great article, thanks. I am just wondering about Book Titels. Do you use Google KeyWord tools or Longtail Pro to see what people search?

  8. Paula says:

    I’m loving all your tips and advice, Ava – here and on the forums. Thanks! I’m guilty of overusing conjunctions.

  9. Christine Mattice says:

    Great article! Thank you for the tips. I’m guilty of the redundant conjunctions more than any of the other ones. Sometimes paragraphs sound boring or choppy to me without using a conjunction occasionally. Are you saying to use conjunctions only when the connection between sentences is not obvious or could be confusing?

    • Ava Jarvis says:

      Hi Christine,

      I’m recommending that, yes. People often go overboard with conjunctions, relying on them too heavily to make their words flow. What really makes words flow is rhythm—not conjunctions. Knowing when to use short, staccato phrases, versus long and languid ones—I find that’s where the magic really lies.

      That said, rules can be broken—but be aware that breaking a rule should always be done with an awareness of the effect it has on the text and your audience. For instance, using a conjunction where it’s not needed will emphasize a connection, so using this technique for things like warnings makes sense.

      When you don’t need to emphasize the connection, conjunctions are a bit like talking loudly in a library. 🙂

      • Christine Mattice says:

        Wow, Ava. I never considered using a conjunction to emphasize a connection. I use “but” to start a sentence for emphasis or as an important transition sometimes. Setting a sentence off by itself in its own paragraph is also a good technique I use when necessary. Thanks to you, I have another tool in my writer’s toolbox. AND it has been a challenge to write all this without using conjunctions. 🙂 Thanks again for the great tips!

  10. Quinn says:

    Great article Ava – with not only great advice, but advice that you don’t normally see, and I really appreciate that!

    Congratulations!!

  11. Ava

    Great article with substance not just the common catch title that never delivers. Thank you for sharing.

    Janis

  12. Cat Johnson says:

    Thanks, Ava, for the informative, fun read.

    It’s good practice for us writers to switch into editor mode and make sure we’re writing as succinctly as possible—rather than throwing flowery prose all over the page.

    I look forward to reading more from you!

    Thanks, Carol, for the valuable guest post.

    Cheers,
    Cat

  13. Hannah Edia says:

    Thanks Ava for this great article 🙂 Will check out your [other] articles.

  14. Hannah Edia says:

    Thought as much. #bookmarked

  15. Hannah Edia says:

    Everyone can benefit from reading this post! I know I did. I see/hear/read a lot of people use “So” to start a sentence/speech. Good one pointing that out.

    Thanks Carol

  16. Sarah says:

    The examples here make this SO HELPFUL! Thank you for a great sentence checklist to use before you turn in work.

  17. Daryl says:

    Can I play devil’s advocate for a second?

    I definitely agree with the first three topics, but the one I struggle with, and often disagree with a couple of writing coaches I’ve had, is the fourth – “bloated” sentences, overwriting, useless adverbs, they’re all in the same ballpark.

    I often think that editors seem to focus more on what an EDITOR wants, than the readers/audience themselves.

    Case in point was a short story I wrote on the spot at a writing workshop – while the attendees were impressed with what I wrote, the coach said it was good BUT overwritten.

    The question is, who are we trying to please? Does the reader *really* care whether or not I could have shortened that previous sentence by leaving out “The question is”? Are they as enamored by short, sharp sentences as editors are? Or do they simply want something that draws them into the world of the writer?

    That’s my 2 cents anyway.

    • Ava Jarvis says:

      Hello Daryl,

      Editors are concerned with what sells, I find, because what sells is what keeps everybody employed. So let me play devil’s advocate right back 😉

      1. Articles (magazine and newspaper): why would an editor praise something that was bloated with words when they need to make an article fit into a specific block and keep the reader’s attention? If it takes you 300 words to say something, and another writer 100 words to say the same thing, guess who gets the gig.

      2. Fiction: I like to read reviews on GoodReads and Amazon, especially when I was trying to break into books. It’s about a 50/50 split as to whether purple prose (i.e. overstuffing your words) results in readers dropping the book. It looks like if you’re an established author with loads of sales, you can get away with it after your first several books hit the NYT bestseller lists. If you’re a new author, you tend to get reviews like, “Over-stuffed, meandering writing that took ages for anything to happen is why I dropped the book.” That doesn’t bode well for your career.

      There are exceptions—the Inheritance series is very popular, but the good reviews are along the lines of, “The ham-fisted prose is part of the charm.” Which could work for you, I suppose, but it tends not to for new authors.

      3. Blogging: Readers are not known to have patience online. Taking 300 words to say something that could have taken 100 is not only bad for your share ratio (as people won’t finish reading it) but bad for your SEO.

      There are a lot of reasons to edit down bloated writing, or better yet, not hand something in with bloated writing in the first place.

      It boils down to: Editors trust you when they think your writing will sell, and experienced editor will have a lot more experience in this area than you think.

      • Ava, I loved the things pointed out in your article! I joined several (of those) “free kindle book,” facebook groups (I am not capitalizing this on purpose). I wish some of these authors had read and taken to heart, advice like this. Some of those (kindle) e-books have been so poorly written that I (have) counted over 100 mistakes BEFORE I stopped (counting.) I wrote to one author and asked her who edits her books – intending to tell her she needed a new editor. She (very) proudly wrote back that she was her own editor and … offered to edit something for me!!!

        I am not experienced, so my opinion may not count for anything, but I’m with Darryl on this one. You are talking big differences, he is speaking of small things. People like to read things written the way the person speaks. (Ass-u-ming they are well-spoken)

        You can edit what I just wrote but sometimes people need to read/hear your writing/talking not being completely perfect. It depends on the audience being spoken too.

        My two cents.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Daryl — readers DO care. That’s why editors care. 😉

  18. Sherri says:

    Great tips Ava! I love using adverbs so I’m guilty of breaking the “too many adverbs” rule. I usually catch and remove the excess in the final edit tho. 🙂

  19. Joseph Skinkis says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article.

  20. islah says:

    Hi Ava, how was like transitioning from computer science to writing interest? I thought it all about going to ‘ABORT’ for me, though.

    • Ava Jarvis says:

      Hi Islah,

      I’ve learned two things about myself. The first is that I’ve never left computer science behind. CS remains an integral part of my interests and is a topic I’ll continue to write about.

      The second is that I’ve never not been a writer. I always wrote every day. It may have been functional and technical specifications instead of My American Novel at times, but I still volunteered for the job.

      So the process is less one of transition and more one of rebalancing the load. That said, the two worlds are very different.

      I don’t know if this answers your question. I think the answer varies for each person who does make this transition. If you’d like to discuss further, feel free to drop me a line at me@avajarvis.com .

  21. Thank you for the wonderful article.

  22. Randy Robinson says:

    Hi Carol
    Thank you for this article. It’s one of the finest instructionals I’ve read.

    I love the way you write.

    Thank you (((Carol)))

    • Carol Tice says:

      Randy…this one was written by Ava. 😉 But glad you’re enjoying the blog!

      • Randy Robinson says:

        Thank you Carol;
        This is what happens when you read until 3am. I have a hard time shutting the info-box off.

        Ava Jarvis; I have to apologize for not reading the byline. I gave Carol all the credit for your article.

        It’s a good thing you ladies aren’t working for me. I would have paid Carol, and given her a bonus for that one. 😉

        I love the way you write Ava!!!!!!

  23. Tom Bentley says:

    Solid, helpful advice, Ava. Even being an editor, as a writer I often re-read my stuff and slap my forehead at the redundancies and fluff. (I’ll start wearing a helmet.) Thanks!

    • Ava Jarvis says:

      Thanks, Tom! ^_^

      It took a few years of being edited and then thinking about why the edits were made to really knock the rules I learned from books into my head. I am especially appreciative of editors.

      Thank you for your editorial service!

  24. Patty Fogarty says:

    Very helpful reminders. Misuse intended 😉

  25. Matthew says:

    Great article! Thank you for the excellent, wildly entertaining, and analytically dodging read. 🙂

  26. Gayla Grace says:

    Hey, I recognize that name from PItch Clinic! Great job Ava on your post!

  27. Saima says:

    Wonderful Ava! I absolutely love way you demonstrate through your own writing what you want to say. Every sentence jumps off the page and demands to be read!

  28. Williesha says:

    These are great rules that I break all the time.

    I’m going to use articles like these as a checklist.

    • Ava Jarvis says:

      You wouldn’t believe the number of articles I’ve clipped to Evernote about writing craft. Or perhaps you would. 😉

      And then there’s my stack of writing books. (Used to be on the shelf above my desk, now they reside on my Kindle and iPhone.)

    • Carol Tice says:

      I agree that writing rules are made to be broken…but if you could see the edits we do in Pitch Clinic (which Ava just was in!), you’d see us cutting these extra words ALL THE TIME. It’s a really common problem, so I was happy to get this guest post and spotlight these quick ways to improve your writing.

      • The rules in this post should never be broken! LOL These are good rules! 🙂

        • Randy says:

          Awww Williesha… I use to think conjunctions were natural occurrences, like going to the bathroom. I was driven, as if it something I had to do.

          I really don’t remember where I learned that Conjunctions are king, but it’s a hard habit to break.

          The more I learn about writing, I find the less I know. Good writing is hard to do…

          • Christine Mattice says:

            I agree with you, Randy. At some point, I learned that conjunctions were mandatory, a necessary part of writing and the easiest way to vary sentence structure within a paragraph. Boy was I wrong. I’m learning that I have a lot to learn about the craft of writing. 🙂

  29. Mili says:

    I’m editing a novel I’ve been writing since I was sixteen. I keep seeing all these mistakes and more. English is my second language. I grew up on classic literature that is more descriptive than writing today. I keep wondering how much I can cut without loosing the picturesque beauty of the language or scene. When editing, I continuously ask myself: Does my reader really need this?

    Adverbs are killing me. 🙂

    Thanks for these tips.

    The tips that I have for writing a killer sentence: rewrite it, let MS Word read it back, leave it for a while, then hear it again before publishing.

    • Ava Jarvis says:

      Hi Mili!

      Yes, the times have indeed changed for writing—modern writing tends to be snappier. Especially for articles, but also in fiction.

      And yeah, when I wrote fiction, adverbs were a thorn in my writing.

      Having the computer read your text to you again as you follow it is an excellent writing tip!