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Student Handbook|English 1010

Structuring Clear Sentences

As a writer, one of your key goals should be to create writing that clearly leads readers through your ideas.  You should want your writing to be clear and coherent, and you should want it to flow well.  Although these goals are not always easy to achieve (especially as the complexity of your ideas increases!), there are some basic strategies you can use to make sure that your readers don't lose the connections between your sharp ideas. 

Transitional Phrases

Both between and within paragraphs, transitional phrases help you identify the specific relationship between ideas.  If you want make a big claim ("Social media promote shallow friendships") and want to follow up with an example to support your point, you can transition the reader from the big picture to the specific evidence by using a transition to indicate that connection:

Social media promotes shallow friendships.  For example, a study conducted by sociologists John Hammer and Karen Jones showed that....

There are several types of relationships that can be indicated through transitional phrases.  You can find a more complete list in the section of the handbook titled Closed-Form Features.

Back-to-Front Structure

As you write sentences, one way to improve the "flow" of your writing is by using the idea/concept you've presented at the end of one sentence to begin the next sentence.

Many forms of social media have come into existence over the past decade.  In that time, a major shift in interpersonal relationships has begun. While interpersonal relationships prior to the "facebook era" were defined by both extensive and fleeting face-to-face and phone interactions, new, social-media-based friendships primarily involve very brief, non-physical encounters.  Such "distributed" encounters, according to some psychologists, typically create looser, less emotional bonds between participants.

In this example, each underlined section illustrates a back-to-front move.  In some cases, exact words are repeated, while in others, only the concept is being picked up at the beginning of the next sentence. 

Appropriate Sentence Length

There is no "magic" sentence length--the appropriate length will depend on the complexity of what you want to say as well as how much emphasis you need to place on a specific idea.  In general, more complicated ideas require longer sentences (in order to fully explain connections of ideas), and more important ideas require shorter sentences (in order to fully emphasize key information).  Generally, you should strive to find a balance that allows you to develop the logic of your ideas while also maintaining reader interest.  If you sense that your balance may be off, here are some tips for reshaping sentences:

Read your writing aloud.
More than any other technique, this simple strategy will help you recognize sentences that are too long (because you'll run out of breath before you reach the end of the sentence) or too short (because you notice that your speaking sounds "choppy").

Shorten your sentences. 
If your sentences are too long, look for places where you can break the sentence into two.  Then, use transitions or the back-to-front method to make sure that your new sentences still flow well.  Also, if your sentences are too long, look for places where you can "cut the fat"--that is, get rid of longer-than-neccessary wording.  Even very strong writers find that they can cut their sentences by 15-20% just by shortening phrases and by converting nouns into verbs.

Combine sentences. 
If your sentences feel choppy, look for ways to combine ideas.  (If you have too many short sentences, you're probably creating too many subjects in your paragraphs, which in turn makes it hard for readers to stay focused on your main topic.)  Generally you can turn some sentences into dependent clauses or into phrases within other sentences.


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