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3 Strategies to Build Sentence Fluency

July 8, 2024

A few summers ago, I attended a Christian writing retreat. The event gifted attendees a mug with Psalm 48:14 printed on it: “For this God is our God for ever and ever; He will be our guide even to the end” (NIV).

 

Someone asked the host why he selected this verse. He explained that, when we write, we need to invite God to join us. We can trust Him to be with us through all of the ups and downs, edits, rewrites, and frustrations. 

 

His response stuck with me and reassured me. I’m not creating in isolation. God works in and through my words, much more expansively than I can ever imagine. I remember when a woman saved one of my poems from a magazine and years later she came across the clipping while cleaning. Its message made her reach out to me in gratitude. Wow! 

 

Understanding the power at our fingertips, honing our craft is essential. Not because it might increase our writing’s marketability—although that’s one advantage—but because we have a desire and responsibility to “better imitate God with intentional and artistic word choices,” as Story Embers Content Director Brianna Hilvety puts it.

 

An ideal place to start is sentence fluency, which involves arranging words in a specific order to facilitate smooth, expressive reading. Writing should stream seamlessly from word to word, from sentence to sentence, from paragraph to paragraph. In my own classroom, I can see the difference mastering this skill makes on budding writers. In fact, sentence fluency is one component of a popular teaching method called the Six-Trait Writing Process. Adult writers can benefit from some of these lessons too. 

 

1. Develop an Ear for Fluency

Ever notice how many Psalms form portions of hymns or praise songs? That’s probably due to the musical quality of the verses. When sentences flow easily from the tongue, the impact on the listener will be stronger.

 

You can train yourself to detect cadence by studying poetry and reading it aloud. Look at this piece by Lord Alfred Tennyson, for example.

 

The Eagle

 

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

 

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;

He watches from his mountain wall,

And like a thunderbolt he falls.

 

The rhythm contributes to the pacing, each line driving readers to the next until the poem arrives at a satisfying conclusion. Writers rely on similar techniques in prose to draw readers toward the next paragraph, like this excerpt from my book Offsides

 

     The adrenaline rush sent trembles through my body. I needed to go home, hole up in my room, find my center. If only I could shut off my curiosity. 

 

Tennyson’s poem is also loaded with pleasing alliteration, a repeated consonant sound. Clasps, crag, crooked. Lonely lands. The strategic use of this device serves the dual purpose of setting the tone. The harshness of the letter C contrasts starkly with the creature being described. If the poet had inserted softer phrasing, such as “he soars on swift and silent wings,” the emotions evoked would be more gentle and carefree. 

 

Since poetry is so compact, every syllable matters, which is yet another helpful trick prose writers can adopt—focusing on meaning-rich nouns and verbs. Even Scripture reflects this concept. Jesus could have said, “Come to me if you feel tired and worn out and I’ll give you rest.” Instead, He urges, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  

 

Tired versus weary. Worn out versus burdened. I know which version stirs my heart more! For the same reason, vibrant words with well-planned connotations enhance fiction.

 

Want to apply these poetic devices but aren’t sure how? Try this exercise: read a paragraph from your current project aloud. Notice the beat of the words and determine whether it fits your intended pacing. If not, pay special attention to the third point of my article. Then identify the areas where you could include alliteration or need to replace weak words.

 

2. Vary Sentence Beginnings

When I’m grading assignments, I commonly run across sentences like these:

 

     Julian scratched his head as he studied the paw prints on the floor. He then said, “I know what happened.” He walked to the kitchen pantry. He opened the door. He pointed at a tuft of fur. “Look there. The dog stole from the cookie jar.”

 

Cringeworthy, right? The issue stems from a stiff collection of sentences that all begin the same. He, he, he, he. (And no, I’m not laughing.) You don’t have to be a grammar wizard to realize that repetition leads to dull writing. 

 

Classroom teachers employ a handy method for pinpointing problematic sentences—one I’ve often borrowed to critique my own drafts. And it’s so simple! Pick a chapter from your WIP and highlight the opening of every sentence. Identify words that reoccur or are unnecessary. And if you notice a pattern—maybe every sentence begins with a noun followed by a verb as in the scene above—change the structure. Even tweaking just a few will improve the flow, as this revised version demonstrates: 

 

     Scratching his head, Julian studied the paw prints on the floor. “I know what happened.” After walking to the kitchen pantry, he opened the door. “Look there.” He pointed at a tuft of fur. “The dog stole from the cookie jar.”

 

You can also reverse a sentence. Instead of “he went to the store to buy more cookies,” you could substitute “since he needed more cookies, Julian went to the store.”

 

3. Vary Sentence Length

If you adjust the beginning of a sentence and it still rings flat, evaluate its length. Too many consecutive, identical-sized chunks will feel clunky. Imagine if Charles Dickens had monotonously introduced the characters in his classic A Christmas Carol!

 

     Marley was dead. No doubt about it. The clergyman signed the register. The clerk signed it too. Plus, the undertaker endorsed it. And the chief mourner. Even Scrooge added his name.  

 

Fortunately, Dickens understood that would have been a mistake and crafted this lovely snippet instead:

 

     Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it; and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’change, for anything he chose to put his hand to.

 

If you find yourself cranking out choppy segments, don’t be discouraged. You can practice mixing things up by combining simple sentences into complex or compound ones. When Dickens strings the clergyman, clerk, undertaker, and chief mourner together, he enables the emphasis to fall on Scrooge.

 

Also, consider how sentence length can slow down or speed up the action. In my book Inside the Ten-Foot Line, I alternate between different lengths to control the pacing.

 

Long: My teammates only talked about it in hushed voices during water breaks, but the news traveled anyway. 

 

Short: I wouldn’t jump to conclusions. Not yet.

 

Fragmented: Her words came out quiet. Hesitant. Ashamed. “Mom too.”

 

In general, longer sentences are leisurely while shorter ones pack a punch. However, that’s not always the case. Sometimes writers deliberately mirror certain sentences to accentuate a theme the way Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did in his “I Have a Dream” speech. Four times he states, “We cannot be satisfied as long as…” And at least seven times he begins with “I have a dream.”

 

He Will Be Your Guide

As Christians, our goal and hope is that we’re providing more than entertainment. Crisp, engaging, and fluid sentences empower our stories to reach beyond the borders of our limited influence, our limited years, and our limited vision. Author Tim Shoemaker once said, “Great writing can cause readers to think and change in ways they never would have if the same truths had been conveyed through nonfiction.” Friends, that’s why we need to make every word count and ask God to guide us to “the end.”

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