To be or Was Being: Strengthening Your Syntax

When writing, you want your message to be powerful and long lasting. Each word should work together and build the sentence. Each sentence should strengthen each paragraph. You want each sentence to pack a bit of a punch, to be strong and noteworthy—or at least one in every paragraph or two. Sometimes sentences fall by the wayside and include a bunch of unnecessary filler that doesn’t add to the sentence. Great writers have strong, authoritative sentences and word choice. There are a few tricks to focus on to make your writing stronger.

Since grade school, we are taught “passive” and “active” voice. Simply put, this means that the main subject of a sentence is being acted upon rather than taking the authority of the sentence. For example, take the sentence “A great time was had by everyone.” In this sentence, the subject is a bit confusing is it the “great time” or is it “everyone.” Rearranging the sentence to say “Everyone had a great time” clears up the subject, and it just all out flows better.

Generally, passive voice can be identified by floating “to be” verbs. By “floating” I mean, when the sentence is rearranged, the verb is unnecessary. Another indication of passive voice is the word “by” or even an inferred “by whom.” The pill was taken by Fred. Or Fred took the pill.

Be on the lookout for unnecessary “helping” verbs or adverbs that can weaken the sentence, or even change the tone you are trying to set. “He started to run” implies that the subject is beginning an action, but something will soon prevent him from continuing that action: “He started to run, but the bully tripped him…” If the subject is carrying on the action with no impediments, the simplest form will do: “He ran.”

Remove any floating “that” or “very.” Mark Twain famously said, “Substitute ‘dame every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

“Very” tends to be an overused, lazy adverb. “Very quietly” adds no more to “quietly” when the word “silently” is just as good. With the word that, remember it is a pronoun (think, which chair? That chair.) Usually any other time it is used, it’s just a filler word. For example in saying something like “she thought that she needed…” the word “that” is doing nothing in the sentence. In omitting it and simply saying “she thought she needed,” the sentence flows better and each word has a purpose. Extra “that’s” can get in the way and distract from the power of a sentence. In a sentence like “he was told that his heart was failing,” the word drags the reader back and displaces them from the real meaning: “He was told his heart was failing.”

Of course, there are times when you can’t get around using an infinitive or a helping verb. There are times when “very” might add to the immensity of something. The biggest tip is to use these potential “weakeners” sparingly. If you are reading your work and think something may just sound off or not quite packing the punch you are looking for, try taking something out, or rearranging the sentence. Sometimes less is more. Focus on the tone you are attempting to create. Consider rhythm; read things out loud, and constantly ask “Is this as strong as it could be, is each word working with a purpose within the sentence?”

Shanelle Galloway Calvert is a MFA Candidate in Creative Writing at Roosevelt University and serves as a reader/editor for issue 43 of Oyez Review.

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About Oyez Review

Oyez Review is the literary magazine of Roosevelt University's MFA Program in Creative Writing. We publish high-quality fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and art from all over the nation and the world!
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