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How To Improve Your Writing Style
Write Active, Engaging Sentences That "Show" Rather Than "Tell" (Part 1 of 2)

© 2007 Lori L. Lake


Lori L. Lake

The great writing teacher, John Gardner, has been quoted by every teacher in the business, but his famous comment bears repeating: "You are trying to create a vivid and continuous dream in the reader's mind and that dream is broken by bad technique."

Many writers focus on the plot, the characters, and the story concept and pay little attention to the "how" of putting their words together. But bad technique occurs at the very basic level - the sentence. You can't create a vivid and continuous dream for the reader if your sentences are awkward, twisted, dull, or say something that's contrary to what you intend.

The good news is that you can systematically search out sentences that are poorly constructed and rework them. Small improvements in two major areas can produce a big pay-off:

  • General sentence structure
  • Passive voice/Passive sentence construction

Let's review the first topic this month and the second one in Part 2 next month in the May issue of JAW.


Wallace Stevens once said: "Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor."
Truer words were never spoken. The real world can appear flat and boring if it's not described well. You want to provide your readers with colorful, emotion-laden, sensory detail and description. You fail to reach this goal when awkward or mundane sentences slow down your narrative. Lifeless and prosaic sentences prevent you from providing the reader with those ever-so-necessary images and metaphors.

In fiction writing, creating a vivid world where actions are clear and character intentions make sense contributes to readers losing themselves in your captivating prose. You want your readers to experience your writing like an uninterrupted dream in which they are one hundred percent focused. You achieve that goal primarily by using active sentence structures that engage the imagination and include an effective blend of ideas and images, heavily weighted toward the latter. You get ideas from newspaper reports; you want an experience from fiction.

Reportage vs Fiction

Study the comparison shown in the chart below. If you picked up a novel, which would you rather read?

Reportage Fiction
A twelve-year-old boy whose favorite book is about a youngster lost in the wilderness became lost himself on a Boy Scout camping trip and was found Tuesday a mile from camp in the wooded mountains of North Carolina. Dehydration and disorientation were issues he faced, but he stayed alive for four days before a rescue dog located him and searchers effected a helicopter evacuation. Robert trudged over slick stones next to an ice-encrusted stream. The brisk wind had long ago numbed his face into a frozen mask, and he couldn't feel the tips of his fingers. He slipped, nearly stumbled into the stream, and saved himself by grabbing at a jagged rock alongside the water. He fell to the ground and sat panting for a moment.

His Boy Scout troop had camped in the wooded mountains of North Carolina, and at first the trip had been a lark. He loved hiking, but somehow he'd gotten separated from his friends the day before yesterday. Or wait. Was it three days ago? His confusion about time bothered him. The sun had set three times, right? So is this Day Four?

No food, not enough water. Powerful thirst drove him to cup frigid water from the stream, but each time his hands took longer to thaw. He was afraid he'd get frostbite-if he didn't already have it.

Robert rose with effort. Every muscle in his body ached, and when he glanced at his hand, he saw red goo dripping from it. "What-" He heard barking in the distance, and then a whap-whap sound from above interrupted his thoughts. A giant black-and-white bird descended from the sky at an alarming rate. Robert cried out and slipped back to the hard ground. He squinted as a twisting snake dropped from the bird, wiggling in the wind. A baby bird slid down the snake and landed with a thump upstream.

A man, Robert thought. It's a man. This isn't how it happened in Hatchet.

Key differences between the reportage above and the fictionalized version include:

  • Passive language vs. Active language.
  • Brief abstract summary vs. a full-blown scene that is longer, concrete, and more enjoyable to experience.
  • Dry facts that Tell vs. image-laden description and details that Show, allowing readers to imagine and become involved in the situation.

Reportage is, of course, shorter. Books, films, and epic adventures can be summarized in their entirety in considerably fewer words than the original text or movie. But how enjoyable is a report? As John Hersey once said, "Journalism allows its readers to witness history; fiction gives its readers an opportunity to live it." To entice your reader to live in your story, you must create smooth, descriptive text that uses metaphor, imagery, detail, and good, solidly constructed sentences.

In "reality" (outside fiction) everything is rather hackneyed and clichéd. We say that the weather is warm, the child grew big, the fire was hot, the dinner was huge… But all these descriptions say next to nothing. They give the IDEA of something (size, temperature, amount, etc.), but fail to provide any detailed visual or sensory information. How huge was the meal? You need to hear more precise data: The steak was a full sixteen ounces and covered half my plate. The baked potato was as big as the baby's head!

So rather than using idea-based description, write description composed of strong nouns, powerful verbs, and detail. Not big man - try: six-foot-five brute. Not smelled nice - try: carried the fresh scent of eucalyptus. Not the music was loud - try: the pounding bass and squealing guitar gave her an instant headache.

Become Aware of Your Sentence Starters
One of the first techniques you can use to identify less-than-optimal sentences is to do a Global Search on the following sentence starters:

It is It had There is There had been These
It was It would There was There would Those

In particular, IT and THERE sentences are a slow slog for the reader. Consider the following sentence:

It was a cold and windy day.

What "it" is this referring to? The first thing the reader has to do is figure out what "it" means. She's in her analytical brain, then, not in her imagination. In addition, nobody - no character - is experiencing this state of the weather. Instead, the reader has to think intellectually about what "it" refers to and try to assign some level of meaning to it. How different if the author writes this instead:

The brisk wind had long ago numbed his face into a frozen mask, and he couldn't feel the tips of his fingers.
Now the reader feels with the character. She knows what it's like to have a numb face and freezing hands. She can imagine it so well that she may actually feel like shuddering.

Sentences that start with "there" also fail to communicate much:
There was a big rainbow in the sky.
What "there" is this referencing? Who's seeing this? The reader has no clue and has to do all the work to visualize it. She's been given a flat "Telling" of a fact, not an image that projects a scene in her mind's eye.

Drab writing wears at a reader, even though the reader may not realize that's what's happening. This lackluster construction can be such a struggle that readers may eventually give up and not finish the book or story, which is not what any writer intends.
A rainbow, luminescent with neon green, blue, purple, red, and orange, arched over the distant schoolhouse, lighting up the morning sky. Savannah walked toward it, wishing she could reach out and touch the brilliant colors.
Doesn't that rendition engage the imagination a great deal more?

When you find a sentence that begins with IT or THERE, try giving it some First Aid:
1. Make the subject of the sentence a solid noun (often the actor or subject is a character) that takes some action using a strong verb;
2. Clean up the sentence so that it clearly expresses what you mean;
3. Create a specific image or images for the reader to absorb.
Root out this type of construction, particularly at the beginnings of sentences or at the start of the second part of a compound sentence. Your diligent attention to these changes will liven up your writing, add sensory detail, and make your entire story and characters fresh and irresistible.

Time Out For a Tip: Using Global Search Effectively
Rather than pore through your document searching for a particular word or phrase, save yourself a great deal of time by having Global Search automatically track down and highlight it for you. The initial Global Search and highlighting described below requires an irritating number of steps, but once you get the hang of it, you can save hours of time by having your computer do the highlighting for you.
  • Open your Word document.
  • On the Formatting Toolbar, click Highlight - which looks like this: icon
  • Select a color.
  • Now pull down the Edit Menu and click on FIND (or use Control F).
  • This opens a FIND & REPLACE dialogue box.
  • Insert the word or phrase you're seeking in the box next to "Find What."
  • Check the box next to "Highlight all items found in" and use the pull-down to select "Main Document."
  • Click the tab at the top of the dialogue box titled REPLACE.
  • Insert the word or phrase you're seeking in the box next to "Replace With." (Must be the same as your "Find" word/phrase).
  • Click on the box called "More" so that the dialogue box will extend.
  • Click on the box called "Format."
  • Select "Highlight."
  • Now click on the box titled "Replace All."

From the beginning to the end of your document, each word or phrase you seek will be highlighted. You can move quickly through to determine if you want to change them or not.

Come back to read next month's issue of JAW to see Part 2 of How To Improve Your Writing Style: Write Active, Engaging Sentences That "Show" Rather Than "Tell." The main topic is Passive voice/Passive sentence construction.
© 2007 Lori L. Lake
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. Lori can be reached at and welcomes questions and comments.

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