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By the time the young preacher took the podium, the crowd had swelled to over 250,000. Some had sought relief from the 90-degree heat by cooling their feet in the water of the large reflecting pool. But when Martin Luther King, Jr. uttered the first words of what would become his most iconic speech, the crowd stood in rapt attention.
King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Naturally, he opened by referencing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s executive order that declared the freedom of three-million enslaved people.
You or I might describe that great act as a “beacon of hope.” But not King. He called it “a great beacon light of hope.” And in King’s telling, average black Americans weren’t “underprivileged,” they were, “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
Throughout the speech’s 1,652 words, King alluded to the Gettysburg Address, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and, of course, Scripture. He used the beauty of language to unite a diverse group of people around a common cause. This became the greatest speech of the twentieth century not just because of its powerful ideas, but because of the way King presented those ideas.
How you present your ideas matters. If you want your book to change people’s lives, it’s not enough to only have good ideas. You can spend months hammering out hundreds of pages of world-changing insight, but if your writing is forgettable—or worse, just plain bad—it will never live up to its full potential.
Here are three tips you can use right now to write beautiful sentences that will stick with your readers.
If you want to write better, don’t try to sound “fancy.” Writing long, indecipherable sentences full of obscure words doesn’t make you clever.
Instead, write a clear sentence focused on a single idea. Then write another. This style of writing is called parataxis. Its opposite is hypotaxis, and it’s the writing style of the novice and the insecure.
That last paragraph used parataxis. The sentences are short and simple. It’s a breezy style of writing that requires little of the reader. But that doesn’t mean the ideas conveyed are simple. (The first line of the Bible uses parataxis, and what could be more profound than, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth?”)
Hypotaxis, which I first learned of in Mark Forsyth’s book, The Elements of Eloquence, the very book that inspired this article, is a style you probably first ran across in your seventh-grade literature class (perhaps when reading some long-dead author fond of decorous language)—a style characterized by sentences like this: long, meandering, often maddeningly complex, full of subordinate clauses, which, in case you’re less familiar with the grammatical features of our fair language, are all the little bits of information offset by commas in this sentence; it’s a style some writers are tempted to imitate in order to be Taken Seriously—a temptation to resist at all costs.
The most memorable lines from the most memorable books are not long and tedious and complex. They are elegant and profound. King’s speech is beautiful, but it’s not hard to understand. Parataxis is the style of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and pretty much everyone who has written since them.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
“To be or not to be? That is the question.”
Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare aren’t known for simplicity, but they were capable of writing powerful ideas, simply. We should strive to do the same. Or, as E.B. White and William Strunk succinctly put it in their Elements of Style, “Omit needless words.”
Even after you conquer overwriting, another enemy lies in wait, eager to snatch power from you’re writing.
I’m talking about weasel words.
I think just about every writer is tempted by these rascals. They probably have crept into the works of some of the most iconic writers in history.
What are they? Look no further than the last paragraph.
“I think . . . ”
“Probably . . .”
“Some of . . .”
These are weasel words—the mark of lazy and impotent writing. Who cares what I think? Readers want to know the truth: what is. When I use words like “probably” I don’t sound open-minded, I lack conviction.
“Some of . . .”? Why that phrase? Because I am gutless. I am afraid to make an absolute statement, even though I believe it to be true—and even though saying so would make for a more powerful sentence.
Every writer is tempted to hedge—even the most iconic writers in history. Be merciless. Don’t give weasel words an inch.
Beware the undead.
Some writing is dead on the page yet manages to live on paragraph after life-sucking
paragraph. Why this literary pandemic?
The passive voice.
When the subject of a sentence receives the action of a verb, the verb is in passive voice. If your eyes just glazed over, don’t worry: there’s an easy trick for spotting passive voice. And it involves zombies, too. Here it is:
If you can complete a sentence with “by zombies,” then generally the verb is in passive voice.
For example: “The man was bitten.” Using the trick outlined above, we get, “He was bitten by zombies.”
Compare that to, “The zombies bit the man.” Is that in passive voice? Because the sentence, “The zombies bit the man by zombies” is nonsense, we know the verb is in the active voice.
What’s so bad about the passive voice?
Nothing, per se. If you’re writing a novel about zombies and a character is attacked by an undead hoard, at some point you may write, “The man was bitten by zombies.” But, “The zombies tore the flesh from the unsuspecting man,” would probably do better. And it just so happens to be in active voice.
But rules are for breaking. There are times when passive voice is necessary to convey your point.
For instance, let’s say I’m describing my relief after finishing this article. I might say: “The article was written. My work was complete. It was time to relax.”
I want to direct my reader’s attention to that final sentence. The emphasis is on hard-earned relaxation. Through the magic of passive voice, I draw my reader along, helping her understand my point. The first two sentences create mild suspense.
Now watch how the active voice completely alters the focus: “I wrote the article. I completed my work. It was time to relax.”
It’s subtle, but in this version, the focus is on the work itself, not the relaxation. Because the first two sentences are written in active voice, they feel forceful, less fluid. They scream for attention. In this recasting, the emphasis is placed on the work, not the relaxation.
Thus, your choice of voice—whether active or passive—alters the meaning of your sentences, even if only mildly.
But we usually employ the passive voice for less strategic reasons. We’re just plain lazy. We write, “The man was bitten by zombies,” because we’ve reduced writing to the delivery of information; we haven’t bothered to evaluate the effectiveness of our words. All of us have stood idly by as the passive voice sucked power from our writing.
To avoid this, take the work you produced in your last writing session and run it through the Hemingway editor. The app will show you everywhere you’ve used passive voice, among other things. Ask yourself, “Is passive voice helping or hurting in this instance? Will this sentence be more effective if I rewrote it in active voice?”
And while you’re at it, be sure to choose strong verbs. Verbs like “To be” (is, was, were, etc.), “become,” and “begin,” almost always “sound passive” even when they’re in the active voice. It’s often better to leave out “begin” entirely. “He began to punch the zombies,” is less direct and forceful than, “He pummeled the zombies.”
Talk to a seasoned writer, and at some point, you’ll probably hear the adage, “Writing is rewriting.”
In other words, your first draft isn’t a final product. The real act of writing begins after you let go of your fears, crank out a rough draft, and take a good hard look at what you’ve produced. It’s the editing, the cutting, the rearranging that produces good writing.
And if you want your writing to be truly powerful, at some point you’ll have to open yourself up to the insights of others. Whether that means hiring a professional editor, sharing it with a friend, or ultimately publishing your story, you have to let others into your writing journey.
Thankfully, we’re stronger together.
We created the BookWorthy course because we believe powerful writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You have a life-changing story the world needs to hear, and we want to help you tell it. Over the course of 16, self-paced lessons, Aaron, Jennifer, and Simon will help you write, publish, and share your story with the world. And they’ll be right there with you every step of the way. When you sign up, you’ll get access to a private Facebook group where you can tap the knowledge of the entire BookWorthy team—and a group of fellow writers in the trenches right alongside you.
If you’re ready to write and publish a powerful story but don’t know where to start, register for BookWorthy today.