Sketchy Writing Advice: The Power of Rearranging Your Sentences

Disclaimer: the following writing advice is base on the authorā€™s personal experience of writing and does not represent any hard or fast rules. Your mileage may vary.

The Plight of the Back-loaded Writer

Do your sentences ramble with a bunch of important details attached to the the ends? Like the equivalent of remembering relevant information for the story you’re telling your co-worker, but only after you’ve told most of it. A lot of your sentences start off with simple phrases like “The dog ran to the house” but tack on all nuance later, such as:

The dog ran to the house like a streaking comet as if carried by angels under his feet.

These sentences are fine. You know they’re not great, but fine. Maybe a period or two could break them up into manageable chunks. But what of when each sentence looks like this? The details, clauses, prepositions, and such all dwindle toward the end. The subject>verb>object pattern always happens at the beginning. Over and over. Rinse and repeat.

Yawn.

When you notice your sentences always or often follow this pattern, you may begin wondering how to fix this. Add more punch. Sprinkle your sentences with style, like those writers whose sentences pulse through the page like magic.

Below, check out how to mix your dull and extraneous sentences up and bring them to life!

Enter: Subordinate Clauses!*

To recap your basic English lessons from middle school, parts of a sentence fall into two categories:

  • the main clause
  • the subordinate clause

Main clauses tend to come first and stand on their own, while subordinate clauses tend to come last and depend on the main clause to exist. Kind of like me with my relationship to my day job.

But subordinate clauses don’t have to come last. In fact, mixing up the order adds power to your writing. Not every sentence works better when mixed up so you just have to feel whether the rearrangement adds more punch to your intended meaning. (Spoiler: it almost always does.)

Tweet from @shapedforbattle: You can pronounce spinach like stomach if you’re not a coward

In the above sentence, the main clause appears in the form of: “You can pronounce spinach like stomach.” Subject = you; verb = pronounce; object = spinach. Subject>verb>object, the most basic building block of sentences. One we writers repeat over and over as we string words together to form meaning.

The subordinate clause takes the form of: “if you’re not a coward.” That’s a sentence fragment on its own, buddy. We know it depends on the details of the main clause to make any sense.

To switch up the boring usual order of this sentence, we can just move the subordinate clause to the beginning (and add a comma) to read like this:

If you’re not a coward, you can pronounce spinach like stomach.

Boom. Now I don’t have to read yet another subject>verb>object sentence after another.

Enter Also: Prepositional Phrases!*

Another sentence block that lends itself well to rearrangement is the prepositional phrase. Prepositions are the connectors that link the verb to the object, so any words like for, in, on, around, over, through, beneath et cetera.

Dictionary.com definition: a phrase consisting of a preposition, its object, which is usually a noun or a pronoun, and any modifiers of the object.

Tweet from @shapedforbattle: I spend an unreasonable amount of time devising of writing class topics, modules, and lessons for someone who does not teach writing.

In the above example sentence, the prepositional phrase appears at: “for someone who does not teach writing.” Preposition>object>modifiers. Once again, this is a sentence fragment that cannot stand on its own without the main clause!

To switch things up, put the entire prepositional phrase at the beginning of the sentence (and add a comma).

For someone who does not teach writing, I spend an unreasonable amount of time devising of writing class topics, modules, and lessons.

Hid that subject>verb>object sentence order there in the middle again. Nailed it.

Enter As Well: Similes!*

In our sentence rearrangement endeavors, the final movable sentence block I want to discuss is the simile. You might remember similes from when you had to annotate poetry in high school. The easiest elements to highlight/underline and make yourself look like you knew what you were doing were phrases starting with like or as.

Tweet from @shapedforbattle: I just had to write this tweet for a blog example like a pleb

Because I could find ZERO tweets of mine containing any similes going back two years, and because I’m determined to keep things consistent, I tweeted this status just for the sake of example.

In the above sentence, the simile begins at: “like a pleb.” Similes are just comparisons, but they go great at the beginnings of sentences to usurp the subject>verb>object position.

Like a pleb, I just had to write this tweet for a blog example.

Better examples might look like: “He shot through the sky as fast as a speeding bullet” > “As fast as a speeding bullet, he shot through the sky.”

Basically, putting your as or like clauses first hints at the flavor of the main clause to come.

How I Learned This Skill

As mentioned above, back to back sentences all starting with the subject>verb>object pattern become tedious. They bother me to read, they bother me to write. I dislike seeing ‘the _____ (whatever noun)’ descriptor begin sentences again and again. Of course, those sentences matter as basic building blocks of communication. But they project more emphasis to meaning when used with intention.

Got any questions about rearranging sentences for better impact? Let me know in the comments below. If you have any stories about how YOU learned tricks for rearranging sentences, I want to hear them!

*Excessive exclamation points brought to you by recent excessive listening of enthusiastic podcasts.


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#Spooktober2020 Day 28: Nightmare

On my way into the kitchen to make breakfast, I tripped over something soft and squishy. When I flipped on the a light, there was a teddy bear, sitting in the doorway. Facing the fridge.

I had no kids and owned no teddy bears.

Following the teddy’s gaze to the fridge, I found words spelled out with my letter magnets. Two words.

‘He’s coming.’

I woke up. I had my dream journal with me in bed. Pen in my hand. Half asleep, I had written two words.

‘He’s coming.’

In the dark morning outside, a tapping started on my window.


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#Spooktober2020 Day 27: Spellbound

Her influence started small, but she caught you up in her spellbound following early on. You obsessed with her – the pictures, the status updates, the videos. All about her.

You wanted to be her so bad. It didn’t matter that I said you were more than enough.

Coming home one day to find her in the house – you as her look-alike – shouldn’t have surprised me. But it did. Not a trace of you remained in her face.

She didn’t spellbind me the way she did you. The way you did me. You became a stranger to me.

I miss you.


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#Spooktober2020 Day 26: Culling

We started sticking together when more and more of us disappeared each night. At first we consoled ourselves with the story that those who went missing had made it off the streets. Reconciled with family. Gotten clean. Begged enough to rent an apartment.

Until seven of the homeless community vanished at once.

Huddled together beneath a bridge, we didn’t realize we had made culling us easier until unmarked white vans pulled up, surrounding us.

Leaving my belongings behind, I scrabbled away before city officials could hem me in. Covering my ears to block out the screams echoing in my wake.


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#Spooktober2020 Day 25: Purge

I fought against the tide of people shoving me from behind, pushed forward by indifferent forces funneling us into a featureless corporate building. I had seen creatives, my friends, enter this place and come out the other side wearing business suits and complaining about taxes. I knew what was coming, but I couldn’t escape.

As I stumbled through the door, I wished for the touch of guitar strings under my fingers.

Inside were cubicles as far as I could see. My mind drained of songs about life and happiness. Unresisting, I headed toward my designated cubicle. Purged of all individuality.


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#Spooktober2020 Day 24: Altar

Deep in the woods, I built a mound of dirt and twigs and pinecones, an altar upon which to make my sacrifice. Packed together with my bare hands, mud squeezed cool and alive between my fingers, under my nails.

Rain started drizzling through whispering pine needles. I laid my phone down upon a bed of dry leaves on the altar. Fire from my lighter caught on the leaves with a crackle. Plastic and metal began to melt. The glass screen cracked.

Soon the phone melted down to a black lump. All my contacts, all my apps, sacrificed.

For my freedom.


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#Spooktober2020 Day 23: Cauldron

The cold had seeped deep into my bones by bath time. Shivering, I lit a fire beneath my oversized cauldron hanging from a metal hook driven deep into the brick above my hearth. Deep enough to hold my weight.

I started to melt the moment I settled into the bubbling water. My skin began to slough off. Floating around on the water’s surface like eerie bits of soup.

Revealing myself for the lizard-person I was.

I would have to reapply a new human skin, but that would come later. For now, basking in hot luxury, I hissed a contented sigh.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – No Choice At All

A twinkling deep in the desert brought me to a choice. One that appeared as one light from a distance, but separated into three as I drew near. Beneath the star-splashed night sky, a lone figure stood. Cloaked in black. A bird’s face for a mask. Bone, etched with secrets and mystery.

A trio of candles sputtered upon an iron candelabra. The figure held the candles out toward me.

From beneath the mask, a deep voice reverberated with the tones of the desert. “You may choose, Wanderer.”

“What are the choices?” I asked.

“Blow out the candle that burns with your name, your path, or your past.”

All things I wanted. I considered the candles before me, but none of them showed their secrets. Closing my eyes, I hovered my palms over them, feeling for cold spots. Listening with my other senses. Nothing came to me.

Except.

The barest whisper. Replace me, replace me, replace me… Coming from inside the mask or… from the mask itself. Along with the scent of decay.

When I glanced back up at the figure’s face, the eye sockets of the mask wept tears of blood down the beak. One or two sizzled where they dripped onto hot wax.

“CHOOSE.”

In one huge breath, I blew out all three.

The desert grinned sideways at me.

From the darkness, the figure’s deep voice came. Distraught. Reproving. “That’s cheating.”

A bright flash of orange sparks and blue smoke illuminated the figure for a second. The mask had morphed into the rotting skull of a long-dead bird. The beak clacked once at me and then the figure vanished.

These desert haunts were canny foes. Annoyed at myself for falling for the usual tricks, I scuffed my toe in the sand. “Well, I think I won in the end.”


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#Spooktober2020 Day 22: Cursed

“Smile,” you said. “People will wonder what you’re up to.”

So I smiled. I couldn’t not. Your voice cursed my very bones with an alien desire to make you happy. If you wanted my smile, you could have it. Though inside I seethed with fury.

You never thought to wonder what I was up to, gazing at me in the closet where you had locked me up. Never read the formulas and designs I wrote on the walls. Planning your fall.

Through my smile, I recited my own curse. For your silence.

For your silence, I traded my hated smile.


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#Spooktober2020 Day 21: Vow

‘Til death do us part. That was the vow.

I knew that meant, since I died, that you should be free of me. Somehow, I thought you would be happy to see me. That I dug out. Yet as I shambled up our driveway, grave dirt trailing off my heels, I felt unreasoning rage.

Rage at the unfamiliar car in the garage.

Rage at your silhouette through the window, wrapped around someone else.

Rage that my funeral had just happened this morning.

Once I had vowed love. Now, as I opened the front door with rotting hands, I vowed revenge.


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