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Can anyone suggest resources or techniques I can use to improve my sentence construction when writing? I am a native English speaker and fairly well educated, but confess I didn't pay much attention in English class at school, something that's biting me in the behind now!

In recent years I have made efforts to write more regularly (mostly non-fiction such as a blog) and some technical writing at work, but I tend to find my writing isn't particularly nice to read. I find my sentences are either too long, too short (and therefore paragraphs have no flow) or I use commas or words in the wrong places. I am often able to improve things by re-reading and editing them the next day, but rarely do I end up with something I feel is engaging to a reader.

I do read a lot myself so it's not like I can't tell what good writing is, and yet because the writing is good you don't really notice it and the story takes over - this is what I would like to achieve, even if only in small doses.

I know there are resources online, but they tend to be one extreme or the other: either basic grammar rules that I do generally follow, or just suggest to keep writing and somehow it gets better - but I don't see how this can happen if I don't have some guides or lessons to learn.

  • Your question here reads reasonably well. Re commas, I personally would have used a few more: for example after 'speaker', and the comma after 'school' should be a colon. The parenthesis placement in the first sentence of the second paragraph is incorrect: it should close after 'work', not 'blog'. I would add a comma after the next ')', before 'or', and after 'myself' in para 3, and 'yet' and 'good'. You can best learn from the masters, but you do need to take the trouble to stop and see how they do it. – user207421 May 10 '18 at 0:05
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    Thanks. I was actually waiting for someone to critique my question, and as I read it back today, I can see how your suggestions would make it better. (I won't edit the question as it serves to illustrate my current level to other readers). – Will Appleby May 10 '18 at 7:54
  • I thought a critique of a sample of your actual current English would be useful. Good idea not to edit it. – user207421 May 10 '18 at 8:40
  • What you said about "re-reading and editing them the next day" has always been a big help to me. – Shawn V. Wilson May 10 '18 at 15:33
  • I actually find the structure of your title a bit jarring and hard to read. For that sentence in particular, I think the flow would be easier to follow if you preface with the most important bit. In general writing, how can I improve my sentence construction or flow? It's a common technique in journalism called the inverted pyramid. With this sentence in particular, I primarily find it awkward because you use an or clause between improve and in general writing. – Write Handed May 10 '18 at 16:34
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1. READ A LOT

I agree with @Cloudchaser that writing is a craft you have to practise. You should absolutely read these books that have been recommended to you. Read as many as you can on the craft of writing and if blogging is your thing, analyse the style of other successful blogs.

2. DON'T EXPECT TO GET IT RIGHT FIRST TIME

But no amount of reading will make up for writing and re-writing, drafting and redrafting. Very few writers get it right first time, even the best. Read this, you'll feel better:

https://writershq.co.uk/shitty-first-drafts-by-anne-lamott/

3. LET YOUR READER BREATHE

Writing in a style that is easy for a reader to understand is about balance. You can have long sentences, there's nothing wrong with that, but intersperse them with short sentences to give the reader a chance to breathe.

4. SEEK TO ENTERTAIN, NOT IMPRESS

Friedrich Nietzsche said that:

“Good writers have two things in common: they prefer to be understood rather than admired; and they do not write for knowing and over-acute readers.”

And I agree with that wholeheartedly. Focus on keeping your writing interesting and entertaining rather than seeking to impress (and bore) with a wealth of knowledge.

5. CUT CUT CUT

'Kill your darlings', that is: analyse coldly whether what is interesting to you is going to be interesting to the reader. Cut extraneous information and self-indulgent ramblings (not that I'm suggesting you do that).

6. GET FEEDBACK

Feedback from readers is gold dust because we often can't see the wood for the trees in our own work. Ask people you admire, who write well, to read your work for you. Ask them where they got bored, when they put the work down. Ask them if anything was difficult to read or understand. A professional writer who doesn't rely on feedback is a rare beast indeed.

7. Most important of all: READ IT OUT LOUD

When we read, particularly something we've written ourselves, our brains fill in blanks, filter, and drift in and out of deep thought. Reading out loud forces you to hear and develop your own unique voice. It draws attention to sentences that are difficult to say, and therefore probably difficult to read. It highlights when you're waffling on and maybe even boring yourself (let alone your reader). And it helps you to hear the rhythm of speech and develop a musicality from blending long and short sentences with short pauses (commas) and long pauses (full stops) in the right places.

Good luck!

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In terms of the most basic elements of good writing style, the classic text is called Strunk and White (after its authors). After you master that, I would graduate to Samuel Delany's About Writing. As one of the best writers alive, it's true that much of Delany's writing instructions are abstract, high-level and obscure. His technical advice, however, is practical, to the point, and aimed at understanding readability from the inside out, through structuring sentences properly. In short, it's exactly the kind of guidelines you're describing.

It's worth noting, however, that engaging writing is about much more than grammar and style. It's really about putting the reader in a certain frame of mind, where they understand the point you're making and are eager to get there with you. A lot of that comes down to building narrative, even in non-fiction.

Another way to put that is that much of the lucidity of writing comes from the motivation of the reader. That's why beginning essay writers are taught to do things like write explicit thesis statements.

  • Thanks. I've seen Strunk and White is available on Kindle for £0.49 so have just bought it and will get reading asap. Also, I take your point that good writing is about more than the technicalities, and I suppose it's that aspect that is built on practice. – Will Appleby May 9 '18 at 14:47
  • Whenever you feel like you want to go beyond Strunk and White, I can't recommend the Delany book highly enough. I've read it several times, and it's taught me new things each time. He has a lot of very sharp advice for the non-technical part of writing as well. – Chris Sunami May 9 '18 at 14:53
  • I've seen more than one essay denouncing Strunk & White for bad advice, from which I can conjure up no substance at the moment. – Anton Sherwood May 10 '18 at 3:50
  • I made a start on Strunk and White last night and so far so good. Even the basic rules of sentence construction and grammar are more useful than a lot of online resources I've seen before. – Will Appleby May 10 '18 at 7:47
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    @AntonSherwood The reason it has garnered both so much criticism and so much praise is that one or another version of it has been the one definitive guide to English grammar for an entire century now. It's like the fact that every philosopher criticizes Plato. – Chris Sunami May 10 '18 at 16:26
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There are a lot of non-obvious elements to writing that once you understand them and begin to work on them, can make a huge impact on the impressions that readers get from your writing.

There is a type of writing which usually focuses very much on these subconscious but still important elements, and that is poetry. The elements include:

  • Meter (which might be the aspect of English that has the greatest gap between its importance and how much it is usually taught)
  • Rhyme
  • Alliteration
  • Metaphor
  • Ambiguity
  • Word choice
  • Conciseness (including a lack of conciseness, when appropriate)

Studying writing that you enjoy will give you a sense of these elements, but to really master them you have to practice working on then, potentially in isolation. The elements take on their greatest importance in writing meant to be spoken aloud (e.g., play or film dialog, speeches, etc.), but they still have an impact in writing that is meant to be read silently, since most of us hear the words in our heads as we read.

For focused study and practice in these elements, I suggest the following:

  • Aristotle's works The Art of Rhetoric and The Poetics
  • 7 Types of Ambiguity by William Empson (note that the title itself is ambiguous - it's not The 7 Types...)
  • There's at least one free class on songwriting on Coursera.org from Berklee College of Music where these elements and others are discussed
  • If you can swing an annual pass at Masterclass.com there are several classes on writing, particularly the Aaron Sorkin class on screen writing (perhaps skip the writer's room episodes) followed by watching some or all of the first four seasons of The West Wing is like a crash course in rhythm and meter and persuasion.
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    Thanks, I do think all these things are what I'm missing when I write. Ultimately I aspire to write content that can even be humorous for the reader, but this seems like a real art (more than just telling jokes) and I suspect things like rhythm, metaphors and word choice play a vital part in this. – Will Appleby May 9 '18 at 19:15
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    @WillAppleby Ah comedy is something I'm trying to get a grip on for an application due at the end of the month. I've gotten as far as understanding it's about the unexpected (not a big secret). There seems to be a special art to encoding comedic timing into words that are meant to be read rather than spoken. I'm not sure how that works. One thing that will help with comedy is The Poetics. Of special note from that is the maxim that comedic characters are worse than real people, while tragic characters are better than real people. – Todd Wilcox May 9 '18 at 19:17
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One additional answer that I'd suggest is emulate, or at least analyze, the writing of writers you admire. Figure out what it is about their style that you like (and dislike), and then try to incorporate those positive elements into your own writing, for both fiction and non-fiction.

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    That is a good idea. I guess the problem is that I tend to read my favourite authors for fun (I get sucked into the stories), and have never really tried to analyze them to understand how they achieve their results. Stephen King is probably my favourite author, even though I know some literary writers criticise his technique - I find him extremely easy to read and his descriptive prose really stimulates my imagination more than a lot of other writers. – Will Appleby May 9 '18 at 19:11
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    But there's a reason that you get "sucked into the stories", and at least part of that reason is the writing style. It might be easier with a work that you enjoy reading, especially if you've read the work multiple times, to reread the whole thing or sections of it with an eye to the style rather than becoming enthralled in the story. – John Doe May 9 '18 at 19:45
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Here are several suggestions that have helped me:

Short story collections: Short stories have to be carefully crafted for maximum impact. If you can find college courseware that has commentary or criticism along with short stories, you can gain insight into writing techniques that are successful in short stories. You can also gain insight into how phrasing and sentence structure have changed over time.

Long-form journalism collections and journalism guides: The AP's chief editor wrote a wonderful small book about style and language in good writing, called 'The Word.' It is focused on non-fiction, of course, but the advice applies to all writing. It is crammed with examples, and gets down to the nuts-and-bolts of phrasing, word choice, and elegant grammar. Here's an Amazon link: https://www.amazon.com/WORD-Associated-Press-Guide-Writing/dp/0917360044

Other textbooks used in journalism classes may touch on aspects of reporting and gathering facts, but there are also many, many books that cover the difficulties of conveying information in compelling, accurate form. That is what you really want to do as a writer, even a fiction writer -- you have a story to tell, and you want the writing to work.

Also, just my own advice, don't worry much about actual language in first drafts. All writing involves revision. Get the essence of your story on paper. You can prune and enhance, but the skeleton of the story has to be there first.

  • Thanks for answering. I agree short stories are a great source of learning for how to write efficiently - I think Stephen King mentions this in his book On Writing. I also agree that perhaps I'm putting too much stock in trying to write something good at the first draft, not appreciating that nearly all published work will have been edited many times in order to reach the standards they achieve. – Will Appleby May 9 '18 at 14:53
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The answer to this is a list of things, and many excellent ideas have already been presented. I'll just expand on one key area.

You do need to write frequently, daily if possible. But - there's great value in receiving feedback on your writing, not in an English class, but from other people focused on the same category of writing as you. For example, say you're writing fiction. Go to a local junior college, where you'll meet other writers. You want to be in a class where they'll have you share your writing with other members of the class, then mark it up and give it back to you.

Another way to receive feedback is to join a group of writers, which will carry on that same practice, and you can get ongoing feedback for your writing, and you can evaluate others' writing.

You should expect to get feedback in various forms:

  • "I don't understand what this sentence means."
  • "Wouldn't 'propitiation' be a better word in this instance?"
  • "Why did you suddenly switch from first person POV to third person here?"
  • "What page did that sentence start on?"

And thousands of variants. You'll re-write your work, or suggest an alternative wording, and when they say, "Ah, yes, now it makes more sense," you've hit gold.

This is easy to do for fiction - those classes and groups are commonplace. But for a blog? You may have to form your own group, but that's not a show-stopper. You might do that with some friends that write blogs, or form a group with other bloggers.

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Apart from this excellent answer, there is another option I did not notice yet explored.

Personally, I use Grammarly for almost all writing.

It may be regarded as uncouth by writers and, it unquestionably does not achieve perfection without your proofreading (try typing them instead of then) but, it provides a useful source of input for improving writing.

Because many may not have seen the full toolset, I shall expound only slightly on a couple of the tools available to a writer rather than talking about other parts, such as the browser plugin.

If you use the full Grammarly writer on their website, you can select the form of writing per document to tune the style suggestions, e.g. business, technical, etc. Also, you have access to proofreading services to take further advice as to the style of your writing. It usually underlines wordiness and incomplete sentences. It shows an unnecessary comma or, where to put one in and, suggests transliteration of some in my work to semi-colon's where it detects that as most appropriate.

When done, copy and paste the entire thing; CTRL+A, CTRL+C then, into your document, CTRL+V.

I find writing with Grammarly enjoyable and rewarding. However, I am speaking of the paid version.

I have no affiliation with Grammarly.

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The scope of the original question is about improving "general writing". The "Plain Language" mandate, in practice by the FAA and throughout the US Government 1 since 2010, addresses some of what this question is looking for. The nice part is this information is available to the public.

The government guidelines presented to its employees helps them be better understood and captivating when they write to the public.

The guideline sections are short and well presented. They helped me improve my technical and letter writing skills and my occasional stabs at general writing.

The tutorials, especially the examples, help you get the flavor of writing in plain language. Now, when I review my writings, some of those guidelines come to the rescue. Here's one of the guidelines that I refer to frequently:


Guide them through the information. Think about what your audience knows about the situation or topic you’re writing about. Then, guide them through the information they need to know. To help you do this, try answering the following questions:

-Who is my audience?

-What does my audience already know about the subject?

-What does my audience need to know?

-What questions will my audience have?

-What’s the best outcome for my agency? What do I need to say to get this outcome?**


I believe the plain language approach is foundational in creating your own style.

  • Hi Bizibill. Welcome to Writing.SE! Generally, our policy here is that answers should be self-contained, and should only use links as a source, or to send for additional information that's not directly relevant to the answer. Whatever relevant information the site you target contains, you should summarise it here. If you could do that by editing your question, it would be very helpful. You can find out more about how Writing.SE works on our tour and How to Answer pages. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jan 22 at 0:23
  • Will do. This is a great platform and I'll tweak my input as necessary to be as helpful to others as others have been to me. – Bizibill Jan 22 at 1:19
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I think you are approaching this wrong.

I get the impression that you are hoping for a tutorial on how to write well. Something like a grammar book that will help you understand "good" language, so that you can construct it. But that's not how writing works.

You say you "didn't pay much attention in English class at school", but that's not your problem. I haven't learned speaking or writing my mother tongue (which isn't English) in school, but by "doing" it. Writing is more of an unconscious process. When you speak, you don't think of grammar rules and vocabulary and build your sentences from that.

I like to compare writing to swimming or riding a bike. It is not something that you can learn by having it explained to you. You just have to try it again and again until something sort of clicks for you and suddenly you can do it.

Writing is like that. Therefore, what I would suggest is that you simply write. You seem to be able to tell what doesn't work when you write, so what you can do is take the texts you have written, after letting them rest for a while, and then correct them. And as you say, that works, if only to a certain degree. But it will work better with time, just like riding a bike took some time from the fist wavy lines and through some painful falls until you can (I guess) now cicle through city traffic confidently.

It will take a few years to achieve the smoothness you admire in other writers, but you will surely get there.

Have fun!


A reply to comments.

In my answer I wrote that "I like to compare writing to swimming." I attempted to use an analogy that I hoped readers of my answer would understand to help them understand what I think how learning to write works. My comment about my successes as a sports coach were not related to writing at all, but to a comment that learning sports doesn't work that way (for the commenter). Maybe the analogy was bad or unnecessary.

The fundamental problem I see in people who want to learn writing (or drawing or a foreign language) is that we, as I have pointed out, live in a culture where art and language instruction is usually rule based and cognitive: teachers explain grammar, style, and proportion and students are expected to learn these rules and construct sentences, texts, and human figures with them. This works to a degree, and for some learners, but the majority of pupils never learn to draw or write well using this method.

The reason why we use these inefficient methods is a historical one. Art and language instruction has not been developed by pedagogues, but by scholars who studied the final outcomes of speaking, drawing, and writing. Linguists and art historians have looked at language, texts, and art and attempted to find construction principles in them. They have then begun to teach these construction principles as rules to students. They did this, because artists and speakers cannot usually explain what they do and how they learned it. If you ask any one how they learned to speak their mother tongue and why they say things the way they say them, they are often at a complete loss. They do not know the rules (if there actually are any, which is debated by linguists) and they do not know how to teach or learn languages (or they would all have the best marks in school), and yet they have learned and can speak. The same goes for art. If you ask anyone who draws well, mostly they will show you, because they cannot explain. And if you ask them how they learned to draw – and I have conducted a survey among artists! – they say: "Draw!" I swear by God, that is what published illustrators and comic artists tell you. Draw. Not, learn proportion, or, read how-to-draw books, but: Draw.

Scholars – not artists or speakers – invented art and language instruction, and their methods have been institutionalized. But they don't work for most. Many students never learn to speak a foreign language properly, despite wasting years of their lives in language classes. Most students never learn to draw a realistic likeness, even those that want to and pay a lot of money for courses and books. They believe they have no "talent". But research has long shown that you do not need "talent" to learn a language or art. Betty Edwards has published a method that teaches drawing by abandoning rules and learning to look. With her method, the majority of people can learn to draw well. Psychologists have found that you learn language best through immersion. Not by learning the rules of grammar and memorizing vocabulary, but by listening to speakers and attempting to communicate. Like children do all over the world.

And the same is true for writing. Writing is not architecture. You do not write by assembling a structure from pre-defined building blocks. Writing is doing language, and you learn it – best – in the same way that you learned to talk as a kid: by writing.

Of course there are questions about writing that can be answered with an explanation. But those are the questions that concern genre conventions ("How old should a MG protagonist be?"), market expectations ("Does my book need a happy ending?"), the publishing industry ("How long should the sample be that I send to an agent?"), law ("Can I use trademarked names in my novel?"), psychology ("How can I overcome writer's block") and so on. But everything that concerns writing as a skill, can and must be answered by:

Write more.

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    You can't learn all about how to swim or ride a bike by having it said to you, but many or most people can't learn to swim without having some things explained or shown to them. As a triathlete (only once so far), I've learned a lot of non-intuitive things about swimming and biking (and running) from reading, watching videos, and discussing points of technique with others. Writing is something we can learn the basics of intuitively while writing, but the finer points are definitely not obvious and often require focused instruction, study, and practice before they can be mastered. – Todd Wilcox May 9 '18 at 16:40
  • @ToddWilcox Yes, that's what psychologists call "model learning". In writing, the model is other texts, and you observe how others "swim" by reading. The OP already does that, so I didn't explicitly address it in my answer. – user29032 May 9 '18 at 17:14
  • Maybe I misunderstood your answer. I certainly don't consider writing well, swimming well, or cycling well to be unconscious processes at all, and I have learned most of what I know about all three by having things explained to me. – Todd Wilcox May 9 '18 at 17:18
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    Thanks for your answer and interesting discussion. I actually like the swimming analogy as I'm a competitive swimmer myself with nearly 30 years' experience, so I can appreciate that it does take a lot of practice to become really proficient. Maybe I am expecting too much too soon. At the same time, I am definitely the type of person who benefits not only from practical experience but through research and education too, which is why I asked the question for additional resources. – Will Appleby May 9 '18 at 19:08
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    "Write more" is great advice, and an answer to pretty much any question on here, but I find this answer misleading. Learning structural rules is not enough to make someone a great writer, and doing more reading and writing is a way to intuitively pick up structural rules, but the implication that there are no learnable rules that provide a shortcut to a better mastery of the craft of writing seems just plain wrong. – Chris Sunami May 10 '18 at 16:33

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