Improving Your Sentence Structure
If you've chosen to try your luck as a writer, the chances are that you're fairly confident about your basic ability with language. Unfortunately, as any editor will tell you, some of the best writers still make elementary mistakes when it comes to sentence construction. Schools are not always very good at teaching such things, so even the most earnest students can be left with problems. Success as a writer depends on continually learning and improving, so don't be shy about your mistakes.
Basic Sentence StructureConstructing a proper sentence is all about logic. Often sentence structures can appear to be logical at first glance when in fact they are not. The easiest way to observe and understand the structure of a sentence is by breaking it down into smaller parts.
When you look at a long sentence, think about how it might be broken down into smaller ones. The easiest way to do this is to look at the verbs. Each verb connects to a subject and, sometimes, direct or indirect objects, to form a clause. Clauses can be made into sentences on their own, though if you do this you may find that you lose some information about how they relate to each other.
Sometimes a clause is split in the middle - as in this sentence, for instance - by another clause. This is a perfectly valid way to write and is sometimes the most effective to present a piece of information. Mistakes often happen, however, because writers fail to recognise that both parts of the split clause are part of the same logical sequence. This can lead to the addition of inappropriate prepositions, or to confusion over verb and person.
Keeping Track of VerbsA common problem writers face in creating compound sentences is losing track of what verbs are doing. This is a particular problem when it comes to tense. For instance, when reporting events, it can be appropriate to use either the present or past tense, as in "Jim said today..." or "Jim says today..." but this does not mean that it is okay to mix them. Often writers forget that they have begun a sentence in one tense, and end up finishing it in another.
The best way to deal with this sort of problem is simply to read over your work frequently until you get a feel for what's going wrong. If you think you're improving over time, look at some of your older work to see if mistakes, not apparent when you wrote it, now stand out. Be particularly wary about work you have revised extensively, as you may have missed changes in tense when you amended sentences.
Keeping Track of PersonJust as many writers lose track of verbs in complex sentences, they can lose track of people. Often writers forget whether they have identified themselves, or their narrators, as 'I', 'one' or 'we'. Similar mistakes can be made in regard to how they address the anticipated reader or readers, and in regard to assumed persons referred to when giving examples. Grammar checkers won't usually catch this sort of thing so you'll need to watch out for it yourself.
It's still important to keep track of person when the subject of a sentence is not animate. Sentences like "Too fast to follow in places, there is still plenty to entertain" are often produced by journalists, but lack logical coherence. Whilst each part of this sentence could be made into a functional sentence in its own right, they can't be joined together this way because the assumed 'it' in the first clause is not the same as the 'plenty' in the second.
Developing Your SentencesOne of the most common problems faced by new writers is that they take on too much at once. This applies to sentence structure just as it does elsewhere. Despite what you may hear, it isn't necessary to write long, complex sentences in order to make an impression as a writer. What's important is to be in control of language. Rather than getting ambitious and making mistakes, start small and develop your skills.
Whatever type of writing you do, clarity is vital to successful communication. Clear sentences whose internal logic is easy to understand should always be your starting point. You can develop them in more complex ways as you become more consciously aware of how they work. As in many areas of life, it's not that the rules can never be broken, it's that understanding how they work means you will never break them by accident. Only then can you do so for stylistic effect.