How To Be An Invisible Writer

If you read the headline and expected tips on how to disappear so that your family, friends, and/or co-workers leave you alone so you can make your next deadline, sorry. However, if you have time, read on anyway. You just might learn something.

As a writer, you want your reader to be interested in your characters and the action, not your writing. You must remain invisible and not distract your reader from the story with obvious or strained writing. One way is to vary sentence length and variety.

Sentence Length Involves the Writer’s Purpose, Good Grammar, Variety, And Rhythm

The average length of a commercial fiction sentence is between 14 and 22 words.

Short sentences get to the point. Action scenes and male dialog need shorter sentences.

A loose, palm-sized rock perched inches from her hand. She reached out, twice, to grasp the support. Just out of range. Shifting slightly, she stretched again. Fingertips scraped the rough edge. Still too far.
Risking shoulder dislocation, she shot the hand out again. Little more… little more… finally, she closed her fingers around the stone.
Got it!
Vicky stabbed the crude axe into the surface, using the stone to work her way back up the slope. Anchor right toe hook into snow. Push. Dig in. Slide right foot up. Repeat.
“Hold on! I got ya.”
Heavy breathing covered hers. Powerful hands grabbed hers.

Short sentences are also effective when used to focus a reader’s attention on a particular point to create drama.

Piercing blue eyes. Long, straight nose. High cheekbones. Stubborn jaw. All revealed a European aristocratic lineage.
Christiaan.
Her blood ran cold. After what he’d put her through, what he’d taken from her, she should have let him fall.
And die.

However, if too many sentences are short, the prose sounds choppy, childish, or like a bad imitation of Ernest Hemingway.

Now, stop reading this, grab your current work in progress, and read any two pages. Don’t worry. I’ll wait for you. (Cue Jeopardy theme song.)

Okay, you’re back. Did you find sentences and/or paragraphs that looked like this?

Shirley looked at her watch. It said one o’clock. She glanced at the sidewalk café. It was empty. She started to walk away. Marty jumped out of a taxi.

Too many short sentences are easy to fix. The simplest? Combine them with coordinating or subordinating conjunctions.

afterassuming thatin order thatsinceuntil
althoughbecausein thatsowhen
andbeforeinasmuch asso long aswhenever
as ifbutnow thatso thatwhere
as ineven thoughnorthanwherever
as long asforoncethatwhether
as much ashoworthoughwhile
as soon asifproviding thatunlessyet
Pushing back the sleeve of her raincoat, Shirley looked at her watch. Three o’clock. She checked the sidewalk café for the tenth time and shrugged. As she walked toward the subway entrance, a taxi screeched to a halt in front of her. Marty jumped out, another cheesy forgive-me grin on his face.

Isn’t that better?

On the opposite extreme, long sentences offer more detail and thought. Narration and introspection are places to use longer sentences.

Being summarily dismissed was not something his highness Baron Christiaan Bernhard Jan Hubertus Godin van Laere was used to. Not even if the speaker was amazingly good looking, utterly fascinating, and temptingly kissable.
Women generally tripped over themselves—and each other—vying for his attention. They generally fell into two categories. Those who wanted to be filthy rich and those harboring a serious Cinderella fantasy.
Now, a third category… capable of single-handedly reversing the effects of global warming.

However, too many long sentences make prose difficult to read.

Now, stop reading this lesson, grab your current work in progress, and read another two pages. (Cue Jeopardy theme song.)

Okay, you’re back. Did you find sentences and/or paragraphs that looked like this?

Tom Sawyer made Becky Thatcher jealous by talking to Amy Lawrence, and then Becky was upset so she invited everyone except Tom and Amy to a picnic. Later, after Tom and Becky made up, they visited a cave where they played hide-and-seek and found a beautiful pool of water. But they got lost and used up all their candles because they were trying to find the right path out of the cave.

Too long sentences are easy to fix, too. First, figure out the main point you want to make and break the sentence into at least two shorter ones. Then, prune excessive phrases, words, and clauses.

Tom Sawyer made Becky Thatcher jealous by talking to Amy Lawrence. Upset, Becky invited everyone to a picnic except Tom and Amy. Exploring a cave after they made up, Tom and Becky became separated from their friends. Scared and lost, they used up all their candles trying to find a way out.

Isn’t that better?

Now, don’t jump to the conclusion that if you aim simply for medium-sized sentences, you’re on the right track. Wrong! First, the key to strong, readable prose is a variety of sentence lengths. Second, remember what we said each type works best for:

✔ Short sentences focus a reader’s attention on a particular point to create drama. Think male dialogue. Think action scenes. Think end-of-scene hooks. Think hot, hard-and-raw sex scenes. (Every pun intended.)

✔ Long sentences offer more detail and thought. Think narration and introspection. Think scene setting. Think sensual, romantic love scenes.

Give Prose Life and Rhythm with Sentence Variety

Just as sentence length is important to readable prose, so, too, is sentence variety. Remember when you were learning to read? How those first books had simple sentences?

The boat was big. The boat was blue. The boat was in the ocean. The big, blue boat was in the ocean.
See Dick. See Jane. See Dick run. See Jane run. See Dick and Jane run.

But now you can read and so can your readers. Sentence variety creates prose that grabs—no, demands—attention.

FYI… Twenty sentences in a row that start with “She went,” She said,” or “She grabbed” are fine for your rough draft, but for your final manuscript you need more than simple, subject-verb-complement sentences.

Lady Ann sat down at the banquet. She realized she was next to the Duke. She thought what an amazing coincidence.

One way to add life and rhythm is to arrange thoughts in a climactic order, or by what is most important.

When Lady Ann sat down at the banquet, she realized that, by sheer coincidence, she was next to the Duke.

Isn’t that better?

Adrian visited with Ramona and Katarina last summer to decide who should be the next Lady Arlington. Ramona was perfect. She’d been trained well and would be a wonderful chatelaine, wife, and companion. Katarina was very different. She lacked Ramona’s upbringing. But, Adrian noted, she possessed a passion for life he found intrigue and desirable.

Another way to add “umph” is to alternate short and long sentences as well as vary the sentence openings.

Last summer, Adrian visited Ramona and Katarina. He needed to decide who should be the next Lady Arlington. Ramona was perfect. Her upbringing ensured she’d be a wonderful chatelaine, wife, and companion. However, Katarina was different. What she lacked in Ramona’s knowledge and skill she more than made up for with passion. Adrian—and his manhood—found that truth hard to ignore.

Better, eh?

Be careful… sometimes when a writer starts moving stuff around they forget an important grammar issue: parallel construction.

Avoiding Chad no longer interested her as much as to confront the jerk.

Read the above sentence aloud. Sound funky? That’s because the main verb in the first part of the sentence—avoiding—doesn’t match tense as the verb in the second half—to confront. Parallel construction calls for writing all the similar parts of a sentence in the same way, meaning adjectives should be parallel by adjectives, nouns by nouns, clauses by clauses, verb tense by verb tense, voice by voice… get the picture?

Avoiding Chad no longer interested her as much confronting the jerk.

That’s much better. One more for kicks and giggles.

Archie was upset. He refused to believe his wife would leave him. He couldn’t believe his partner would betray him. And, he wouldn’t believe his research would be condemned by the world.</em

Hmm… not a bad set of sentences, but they could be so much better.

Archie’s life was over. He couldn’t believe his wife would leave him, his partner would betray him, and the world would condemn his research.

Yes, that’s much better.

Remember, a reader is interested in your characters and the action, not you or your writing. Remain invisible at all times.

Write on!

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