How to Write Great Sentences

by TutorPhil

Hi. Do you want to raise your grade by a full letter on your next essay? Then pay attention. I’m about to teach you how to write great sentences that your instructor will love.

Has your instructor ever inscribed the word awkward, or verbose, or wordy, or redundant, or something to that effect next to some of your sentences? If so, then the grade you received definitely suffered. If you learn and use the technique I’m about to show you, you’ll avoid most of these annoying notes that make very little sense anyway but, most importantly, keep you from that long-awaited A. Let’s dive in.

Use this technique over and over while proofreading and editing your next essay, and you’ll get a grade higher by a full letter. I call this technique Sentence Cleanup. It involves getting rid of all the unnecessary fluff in order to end up with a clean and to-the-point sentence.

So, let’s do some sentences right away:

Many people say that when childhood finishes, problems begin to exist.

Can we clean this one up? What can we do here to make this sentence sound more like it was written by a mature writer? Remember, Cleaning Up usually means making it shorter – cutting out unnecessary words. Here’s the first and main step of the Clean Up formula:

Step 1. Ask yourself this question: Can I cut out one or more words from this sentence without it losing its meaning?

So, can we do that with the example sentence? What if we cut out just the last two words? What will happen to the sentence?

Many people say that when childhood finishes, problems begin.

We just removed the last two words (to exist). Has the sentence lost its meaning? I think that if you read both versions again, you will see that not only has it not lost its meaning, but the sentence has become more elegant. And this is what usually happens when you do the Sentence Cleanup.

Now, Step 2 is simply repeating Step 1 until the sentence can no longer be shortened without losing its meaning.

Let’s do one more:

She was a complete total stranger to Bryant Park.

Step 1: Can we cut out a needless word from this sentence? Let’s try. How about this:

She was a complete total stranger to Bryant Park.

Better. We’ve just cut out a word, and the meaning is still the same: we have improved the sentence. How do we know that? Well, what’s the difference between a complete total stranger and a total stranger? If you’re like me, you see no difference except an extra word – the meaning is the same. Let’s do Step 2:

Step 2: Repeat Step 1 and see if any more words can be cut out.

She was a total stranger to Bryant Park.

Okay – we’ve just cut out another word! Can we do that without the sentence losing its meaning? Well, let’s see: what’s the difference between a total stranger and a stranger? I hope you see that it is impossible to be a stranger only a little or a lot. You’re either a stranger or not. And so, the sentence has lost another word, but still stands.

Can we cut anything out again? Let’s read the Cleaned Up sentence one more time:

She was a stranger to Bryant Park.

It doesn’t look like we can Clean it Up any more. And notice how elegant the sentence has become. Now it looks like it could have come from a good novel or a great essay. But before it sounded a bit immature, not to mention wordy, or verbose, or whatever your instructor wants to call these things.

If you get into the habit of using Sentence Cleanup every time you proofread or edit your essay, you’ll begin to consistently get higher grades while earning the respect of your instructors.

We’ll do more of these examples on this blog – just stay tuned. And don’t hesitate to post comments!

Questions? Post them here.

Tutor Phil

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

school grants July 16, 2010 at 9:14 am

nice post. thanks.

Reply

TutorPhil July 16, 2010 at 9:52 am

You’re welcome.
Stop by again.

Tutor Phil

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michael October 3, 2013 at 9:34 am

it reallyt helped me i wasnt sure how to fix my problem butt u diid toutor phill

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TutorPhil October 3, 2013 at 10:02 am

You’re welcome, Michael :)

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KITOSDAD. August 27, 2010 at 7:17 am

Good afternoon Phil. I am so impressed with both the amount and quality of work you have put into this site. You are a great teacher, and your informal attitude to teaching is heart-warming. I hope this site goes from strength to strength.
Your years of experience shine through your teaching articles. I’m sure many of your students bless the day they found your site. Not only will they improve, they will do so very rapidly were they to take note of all you have to impart.
I wish you every success with this venture.

Kitos.

Reply

TutorPhil August 27, 2010 at 11:05 am

Kitos,

Thank you so much for the warm words. As a teacher, you probably know the feeling when someone commends your work or thanks you for the positive impact. It’s the greatest feeling. So, I have to say that the amount of work you do on your site at English-test.net is greater than mine – I just do this very part-time. But I see your comments on that site every day, and I’m amazed at your enthusiasm and patience. Keep it up! And thanks for stopping by,
Phil

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mahmut August 29, 2010 at 1:18 am

Hi Phil.

I understand from your article that we should proofread in order to avoid using unnecessary words. But the problem is i generally can not manage the time and whenever i write an essay, i can proofread it in only 2 or 3 minutes.
Clearly it isnt enough for the last control of the essay.
Even i tried hard to overcome it i couldnt win.

Reply

TutorPhil August 29, 2010 at 3:12 am

Mahmut,

My whole purpose on this site is to help you write better and faster, which you can do. Here’s my advice:

Make it your goal to spend at least 10 minutes to proofread your writing, but ONLY on the next 5 essays. And when you proofread, focus ONLY on the Sentence Cleanup. After that, you may go back to your usual 2-3 minutes. I guarantee you, that as a result:

1. Your proofreading skill will improve so that you will get more done and catch more stuff in less time.

2. You will start catching yourself being wordy AS YOU WRITE. You will become a better writer, not just better proofreader.

You may repeat this process for different aspects of your writing, using different techniques I give you on this site.. Let me know how this works for you.
Are you a college student?

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mahmut August 30, 2010 at 11:33 am

Hi Phil.

Actually i am a graduate trying to enroll a Masters Program.
I graduate from college 6 years ago. I had Toefl recently.
And now need a GRE score but it is a bit harder than TOEFL. You know better than me for sure. MAybe you had the same exams.
Take care and be happy:)

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TutorPhil August 31, 2010 at 6:09 am

GRE really should be harder, because it’s for the grads. But nothing you can’t handle.
I never had to take mine because I went to the same school for undergrad and grad studies :)

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mahmut August 30, 2010 at 11:39 am

By the way thank you very much for the advices.
I set my goal to write a argument essay and an issue essay everynight but i should be more persevering on that.
Nevertheless i will definitely practice your techniques in my essays and share them in your blog.

Reply

TutorPhil August 31, 2010 at 6:24 am

Writing an essay every day is a lot of work, but I’m not so sure it’s the best time and effort investment.
Trust me on this one: identify key problem areas, and then work on them one by one instead of writing an essay and making the same mistakes over and over every day.

Cheers

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Sanjay November 2, 2010 at 10:32 pm

Phil!
Cheers!
I’ve a feeling that whenever my students want to write great sentences, they end up writing a very long sentence without a full stop! I don’t know whether you are aware of it or not. S. Radhakrishnan, the second President of India, had written a sentence which went on to 18 pages!!!
Now my question is it wise to wait for a great sentence to come to our mind or simply write a sentence which is effective and communicative. I think the whole purpose of writing is to convey one’s idea in simplest manner. So that everyone who reads it, understands what is conveyed.
Do you agree?

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TutorPhil November 4, 2010 at 2:56 pm

I agree. At the same time, it is a mark of an educated person to write good sentences.

And they don’t have to be fancy or long. They must be just this:

CLEAR

That’s it, Sanjay.

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maria March 31, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Dear Tutor Phil,
I ´d like to know if the sentences in this paragraph need cleanup.I think they do, but I cannot see the way.
Thanks in advance

The prosecution against James Brown (18), the young bully who killed Tommy Lewis(12) after beating him severely in the head, is nowadays dubbed by people as “The endless injustice”. Tommy Lewis died after long agony hours at the Houston Hospital last Monday morning.
At first, the defendant attorney tried to make a plea bargaining with Tommy´s parents. Arguing that his client was to make an allegation of insanity, he offered far less money than the proper the case deserved. It seems that the fact of the solicitor has brought enough evidence to proof that he had committed commercial burglary, several violent breakings in dwelling houses as well as imprisonment for two rapes and all sorts of felonies has been forgotten. It is clearly a sociopathic personality, in opinion of the writer. Nonetheless, this counsel for the defense stated to some newspapers that they were facing a hung jury. For this reason, he added, he was highly confident to get a very short prison term for his defendant. In his belief, the plaintiffs and the Federal Prosecutor are not going to win the suit.
Some things that we have to hear might be unbelievable these days.

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TutorPhil March 31, 2011 at 8:55 pm

Maria,

Most sentences here seem pretty concise and to the point. I like them. Only one of them has a problem:

It seems that the fact of the solicitor has brought enough evidence to proof that he had committed commercial burglary, several violent breakings in dwelling houses as well as imprisonment for two rapes and all sorts of felonies has been forgotten.

I simply don’t understand it. What exactly has been forgotten here? Enough evidence was brought to prove what? I don’t think it is possible to get answers to these questions just by reading this sentence.

This may be a punctuation or a verb form problem. It would be a good idea to break this into two sentences.

Cheers…

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maria March 31, 2011 at 8:56 pm

Dear Tutor Phil,
Thanks a lot for your quick answer.
May this one be a better alternative?
The solicitor brought enough evidence to proof that James Brown had committed commercial burglary, several violent breakings in dwelling houses as well as imprisonment for two rapes and all sorts of felonies .This fact seems to have been forgotten by his barrister to lay out insanity.
Thanks in advance
Your web is extremely useful.

Reply

TutorPhil March 31, 2011 at 8:56 pm

Yes. Absolutely.

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htanobal May 30, 2011 at 9:18 pm

I am not totally sure about this “sentence clean-up”. I know that sometimes it is necessary to remove words, but your advice to ONLY do that is not what i might say… valid. I am, personally, an advocate for cumulative sentences – which are usually longer. A cumulative is adding adjectival steps such as: “The woman walked into the room, her hair glimmering in the light, her skirt swirling around her thighs, walking with a rhythmical, nonchalant step, glancing briefly from side to side, gazing at one lucky man in the room.” It has a very nice and attractive flow – a lot more rhetoric than grammar. And cutting out extra words shouldn’t be the ONLY thing to do. It is important to make sure that the grammar is fine, and that the sentence is enticing; not boring. Just a few observations, but otherwise, good!

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TutorPhil May 31, 2011 at 8:12 am

Hi. Great comment!

A couple of things.

First, you see, the advice I give here only applies in expository prose. This includes college term papers and articles. I wouldn’t dare give advice on creative writing, which includes fiction, etc. Of course, you wouldn’t use sentence cleanup in a novel – it’s just a totally different animal. Sentences in fiction can be run-on, sentence fragments, etc., and still work.

And second, in expository prose, especially at the beginner level, if you can remove one or more words without the sentence losing its meaning, you’ve just improved the sentence. It happens automatically. I hope the examples in the post are convincing enough.

Note that in your sentence, a sentence cleanup wouldn’t work for two reasons. First, it sounds like a sentence from a piece of fiction, not an article. And second, I read through it a couple of times and I couldn’t find a way to remove any words without the sentence losing its meaning. In other words, it is a fine sentence, even if I found it in an article.

And, by the way, I never said that sentence cleanup was the ONLY way to improve a sentence. :)

Thanks for posting,

TP

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Oscer June 11, 2013 at 6:41 pm

thanks for posting this amazing video it is very helpful!!! i hope everyone fines this very helpful! good luck to everyone on there essay i hope everyone gets a A which they will for this video

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alphatutoring September 26, 2013 at 9:56 am

This is the third time I’ve been to your website.
Thnx for posting more details.

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