Great Writing Gets the Gig — 4 Tips for Crafting Killer Sentences

Editor

Great Writing Gets the Gig -- 4 Tips for Crafting Killer SentencesWant editors to trust you?

Well, you could flash your portfolio of published blue-chip writing their way.

Don’t have that? Show them great writing, with one concise, interesting sentence after the next.

I’ve been doing that for a decade, since a producer from Macmillan Publishers asked me for help debugging their e-books. They soon asked me to write their website copy. They were the first of many editors who trusted me — all because I learned the craft of writing well. That edge has paid off for me and others — and it’ll pay off for you.

Wondering how to craft sentences that make editors sit up and say “yes”? These four tips will make it happen:

Choose active voice

Using passive voice is a rookie mistake — one that’s so common it bores editors to tears.

Active voice, on the other hand, is a mainstay of good writing. Why is that so?

Let’s begin with the recipe for passive voice:

  • the “to be” verb,
  • the past tense of the action verb,
  • and optionally, but often, the “by” preposition.

Examples:

  • “The ball was dropped by the CFO.”
  • “The ball is passed by the center player.”
  • (Or even worse: “The ball had been passed…”)

Let’s contrast with active voice, where the action takes center stage:

  • “The CFO dropped the ball.”
  • “The center player passes the ball.”

Passive voice creates convoluted sentences, adding needless parts of speech and hiding the actual action—especially if your sentence is meant to be present tense.

Read these sentences out loud. Listen to how the flow of the passive examples is rougher compared to the active ones.

But be careful before you rule out any sentence using “to be” as passive. You can write perfectly good, active-voice sentences with “to be.” For instance, “There were elephants.” Here the state of being is truly the action verb.

So why does passive voice exist? Because sometimes you can’t specify the agent that’s executing the action, or the agent isn’t as important as the object acted upon.

Examples:

  • “Mistakes were made.” The agent isn’t specified.
  • “The prime minister was squashed by elephants.” The prime minister being squashed is more important than that the cause was elephants.

Despite these counter-examples, for the most part you want to avoid passive voice. Conciseness makes your sentences sharp.

Use the best words

And by “the best words” I don’t mean breaking out your thesaurus and blindly matching words to synonyms. Every word has its own nuance, and you should understand those differences. Being sloppy here does you no favors with editors.

Here are some examples from Thesaurus.com.

“Replied” is matched to both “retorted” and “acknowledged.” The words are like night and day. “Retorted” implies an argumentative response, while “acknowledged” implies calmness.

Compare the impact of the two versions of this sentence:

  • “‘That butterfly is a species of the genus Vanessa,’ she retorted.”
  • “‘That butterfly is a species of the genus Vanessa,’ she acknowledged.”

The first implies an argument between butterfly watchers, while the second might be something they’d say over a cup of tea on a lazy afternoon.

“Identify” is matched to both “analyze” and “spot.” The differences here are more subtle, but they exist. “Analyze” implies more thought and less action, while “spot” implies a quick eye.

Again, compare the impact:

  • “She analyzed the monarch on the tree branch.”
  • “She spotted the monarch on the tree branch.”

The nuances of words aren’t always straightforward, which is why I suggest pairing a thesaurus with a dictionary — to keep you from sounding ridiculous.

Note that choosing the best word sharpens your sentence, making it specific and flavorful without bloating with extra words. You don’t have to write, “She replied curtly.” Instead you write, “She retorted.”

Breaking this rule is sometimes necessary depending on the reading level you’re aiming for. Sharper words often require higher reading levels, so you’ll need to find the sweet spot for your audience. If the most fitting category for a drug is “it’s an analeptic,” for a mainstream consumer audience, you’re going to need to resort to “it’s a hard drug.”

Remove redundant conjunctions

Every time you use redundant conjunctions, an editor cries themselves to sleep over the slush pile. And probably rejects your submission.

A conjunction is a connecting word between sentences. Examples include “and,” “but,” “therefore,” “however,” “yet,” and “though.” Because they connect sentences, you might think you need to sprinkle them liberally in your work to indicate the relationship of your sentences to one another.

You’re wrong.

I’ve just proven it. You know that the sentence, “You’re wrong,” is a response to the previous one. You know that despite the paragraph break. You know that, “I’ve just proven it,” is further connected despite another paragraph break.

That’s the magic of context, which makes your connections for you.

A simpler case of the redundant conjunction is using two of them together, particularly if they’re closely related in meaning.

Here are examples of excess conjunctions. Assume these are the initial sentences of an article:

  • “So this week I visited the circus. And additionally I didn’t know Annabelle was a clown there!”
  • “There weren’t enough deck chairs. And yet I found places to sunbathe.”

In the first sentence, “so” is a conjunction that connects to… nothing. It’s not needed. “And additionally” is repetition. Arguably you could remove both conjunctions in this case, resulting in, “This week I visited the circus. I didn’t know Annabelle was a clown there!” An obvious relationship, as “circus” is the location and “there” indicates that location.

For the second sentence, “and yet” is also repetition. But in this case, “yet” might remain, because the cause and effect relationship between “There weren’t enough deck chairs,” and “I found places to sunbathe,” isn’t strong.

You could sharpen the sentence still further. Consider, “There weren’t enough deck chairs. I found places to sunbathe anyway.” The addition of “anyway” indicates the relationship without conjunctions.

Lack of repetition and needless conjunctions sharpens your writing and helps you write sentences that get you hired.

Remove useless adverbs

Otherwise known as, “You wouldn’t dump that whole box of salt into the soup pot, would you?”

An adverb is simply a word that modifies a verb. In novice writing, adverbs are often sprinkled throughout the text to an obnoxious point. Sometimes it’s because a writer doesn’t know the best word to use. And sometimes it’s because a writer thinks more adverbs add more “flavor” to the text. Too bad it’s more like turning soup into brine.

Let’s consider the following examples:

  • “The gazelle ran quickly over the gracefully swaying grasses of the veldt, analytically dodging the lions that doggedly chased it.”
  • “The lions retired hungrily and exhaustedly to the waterhole, guardedly watching the buffalo angrily stomping across the river.”

Try reading these sentences out loud. You’re probably tripping over all the adverbs, because they make the writing unwieldy.

“Ran quickly” is redundant, because running already means quick movement. If you want more flavor than “ran,” trying using the best word for the context instead, like “dashed.”

“Gracefully swaying” is redundant in that it’s not terribly important that the grasses are graceful — plus the mental picture of the grass swaying already implies a sense of grace.

“Analytically dodging” is ridiculous. Analysis implies careful, conscious effort, while dodging implies instinct. The adverb contradicts the verb.

“Doggedly chased” is redundant. We already know the lions are motivated, and chasing partially implies that all by itself.

I’ll leave it up to you to discern the needless adverbs in the second sentence.

Now try reading the following edited versions:

  • “The gazelle dashed across the swaying grasses of the veldt, darting away from the chasing lions.”
  • “Hungry and tired, the lions retired to the waterhole, cautious of the buffalo stampeding across the river.”

They read smoothly. They’re more concise (if not perfectly so), and they’re sharper in word use.

Don’t go overboard on this tip and start eliminating all adverbs from your writing. An adverb is fine if it adds meaning that otherwise isn’t part of the best word you’re using. “Whispered softly” is redundant, but “whispered hoarsely” adds information.

Final tip here: Remember, there are few situations where the word “very” adds anything. See how I could have used “very few” there, but it really wouldn’t have made a meaningful difference? Right.

The four qualities of great sentences

Why did we go through all this? Because these tips help you achieve great sentences in your writing, getting you closer to being published.

Great sentences:

  • read smoothly,
  • aren’t bloated with excess words,
  • are sharp about the words they do use, and
  • are smart about the context in which they exist.

Remember: Every great sentence in your article creates more trust in the editor reading it. If you make every sentence great, you’re on your way to getting the edge on that article, post, or staff position.

Knock ’em dead.

What tips do you have for writing killer sentences? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

Ava Jarvis is a Seattle-area freelance writer with the tech-savviness of a software engineer. 

62 Comments

  1. Katy Reiber

    Great post, Ava! I admit, I’m an abuser of the word “so” at the beginning of sentences. I try, but it’s a hard habit to break.

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