Inexperienced writers tend to use longer, more complex sentences because they think they demonstrate intelligence. In contrast, strong writers know that a point is most forceful when it is conveyed concisely and directly. Although the purpose of this section is to teach you to improve on sentence variety, we also want you to be aware that simplicity should be your ultimate goal. Sophisticated thoughts will require complex sentences, but you should never complicate a simple idea for the sake of creating more intricate sentences.
Does this mean that the best essay will consist of all simple sentences? No. We stress this point only because most people have a tendency to start with sentences that are more complex than necessary, because ideas don't formulate themselves in our minds in the clearest, most direct structure. The best-written essays will feature steady variation in sentence length—but again with no sentences forced into a more complex mode.
The first step in simplifying is to identify what needs to be fixed. Usually the problem comes from trying to cram too many points into one sentence and using too many auxiliary clauses. Consider the following two sets of examples:
BEFORE: To this program I will bring a determined spirit, coupled with a strong background in research and volunteer work, which I pursued with energy and a focus on the future that grows ever closer to being within reach.
AFTER: I have pursued all my research and volunteer work with relentless energy and clear focus. To this program I will bring the same sense of determination that has made my once distant goals now close within my reach.
The total word count remains the same, but the ideas are now much clearer and more fully fleshed out.
BEFORE: Having long been interested in a career in law, which will allow me to combine my analytical thinking skills with the pursuit of social justice, I now feel that I have accumulated the necessary experience and education to begin a formal pursuit in this field, with X school offering the best curriculum for my needs.
AFTER: A career in law will allow me to combine my analytical thinking skills with the pursuit of social justice. Having accumulated the necessary experience and education, I now look forward to pursuing my long-held interest in law at X school, which offers the best curriculum for my needs.
OVERSIMPLIFIED: A career in law will allow me to combine my analytical thinking skills with the pursuit of social justice. I have accumulated the necessary experience and education. I now look forward to pursuing my long-held interest in law at X school. X school offers the best curriculum for my needs.
As you can see, the second version still includes a complex sentence, but separating one clause out makes the ideas much clearer. We are not by any means advocating the extreme simplicity of the third version. It is oversimplified not only because it sounds choppy, but because it has removed certain textual relationships that were in the original—most importantly, "Having accumulated — I now look forward."
Sentence variety is not just a matter of length; a well-paced piece of writing will vary its sentence constructions as well. Everyone can recognize what's wrong with the following:
"I walked into the room. The patient looked up at me. I greeted him with a smile. His eyes brightened."
Most people, however, would write something like the following without realizing their error:
"Having entered the room, I saw the patient look up at me. Sensing his discomfort, I tried to ease his concerns by greeting him with a smile. Appreciating my gesture, he responded with glowing eyes."
Every sentence starts with a present participle (a verb + "ing" —> adjective), states the subject, and gives the predicate. The following is a revision:
"I saw the patient look up as I entered the room. Sensing his discomfort, I tried to ease his concerns by greeting him with a smile. Although his brightening eyes showed that he appreciated my gesture, pain prevented him from responding any further."
The first sentence now starts with the subject, and the third sentence introduces a new kind of dependent clause with the conjunction "although."
If you have trouble finding ways to vary your sentence constructions, try some of the following basic ideas:
- Combine two short sentences into one compound sentence:
"The game had just started, and our seats gave us a perfect view."
- Use prepositional phrases, and vary their location:
"With only an hour left to finish, I knew I had to focus."
"I knew I had to focus, with only an hour left to finish."
- Use the many conjunctions available to you—however, when, while, as, because, for, since, although, though—and vary their location:
"When we arrived, I knew we were too late to stop the fight."
"We watched in disbelief, though we longed to intervene in some way."
- Use participles and gerunds (a verb + "ing" —> noun):
"Facing great risks, he nevertheless accepted the challenge without hesitation."
"Working at an immigration law firm has given me firsthand knowledge of the struggles people face in settling here."
Using just these basic tools, you can create a powerful and engaging piece of writing. The key is to keep changing your constructions so each sentence sounds fresh and new.
Next: Word Choice