Varying Your Sentence Structure and Vocabulary
Effective writing includes variation of sentence structure, vocabulary, and other elements to keep the reader interested and engaged with the argument.
Use varied sentence structure
- The tone, voice, and style of your writing are as important as the details you provide to support a thesis.
- Papers will be boring for the reader if every sentence uses the same structure. Some of the best ways to vary sentence format are by adding and rearranging clauses.
- Sentence length, sentence structure, sentence type, tone, vocabulary, transition words, and types of evidence can all be varied
so that your argument is more convincing and your points
more compelling to the reader.
- clause: The smallest grammatical unit that can express a complete proposition.
- tone: The manner in which speech or writing is expressed.
Argumentation isn’t just about what you say but how you say it. Even the most solid argument won’t get far with a reader if the text isn’t engaging. But how do we do that?
Perhaps the biggest secret to creating captivating writing is variation. Without it, your reader might fall asleep from boredom.
If you’ve ever been in a vibrant debate with someone you respected about beliefs you hold dear, you have a sense of just the kind of life we want to capture when we’re writing. Learning, debating ideas, digging for the truth: these things are all fun! No need for “anyone” to be drooling on his desk.
If variation is key, what can we vary? We’ve discussed the importance of structure. Readers need to depend on the paper’s structure to be able to follow the argument. The introduction, conclusion, body paragraphs with topic sentences and transitions are all essential. Within the structure, however, you can vary the following:
- sentence length
- sentence structure
- sentence type
- transition words and categories
- types of evidence
You’ll want to have reasons for the choices you make. Adding random rhetorical questions will sound strange, but if you ask the right question at the right time, it will make the reader think. The same will be true of all variation. There must be a good reason to choose a particular sentence structure or a new type of evidence.
There are no codified rules on how to vary sentence structure, nor are there lists of all the different types of phrasing you can use. The English language allows for so much flexibility that such a list would be never-ending. However, there are some aspects of writing that you should consider when looking for different sentence formats.
Clauses: The easiest way to vary sentence length and structure is with clauses. Multi-clause sentences can connect related ideas, provide additional detail, and vary the pattern of your language.
Length: Longer sentences are better suited for expressing complex thoughts. Shorter sentences, in contrast, are useful when you want to emphasize a concise point. Clauses can vary in length, too.
Interrogatives: When used sparingly, questions can catch your reader’s attention. They also implicate your reader as a participant in your argument by asking them to think about how they would answer the question.
Tone: If you really want a sentence to stand out, you can change the tone of your writing. Using different tones can catch the reader’s attention and liven up your work. That means you can be playful with your reader at times, sound demanding at times, and cultivate empathy when that feels appropriate. Be careful that the tone you choose is appropriate for the subject matter.
Syntax variation cultivates interest. Start playing with structure. Try changing a sentence’s language to make it sound different from the ones around it.
Here is an example of what a paragraph with a repetitive syntax can sound like:
“Looking Backward was popular in the late nineteenth century. Middle-class Americans liked its vision of society. The vision appealed to their consumption habits. Also, they liked the possibility of not being bothered by the poor.”
Choppy? Uninteresting? Here’s the rewritten version, with attention paid to sentence variation:
“The popularity of Looking Backward among middle-class Americans in the late nineteenth century can be traced to its vision of society. The novel presents a society that easily dispels the nuisance of poverty and working-class strife while maintaining the pleasure of middle-class consumptive habits.”
What’s different here? The rewrite simply combines the first two and the last two sentences and adds a bit of variation in vocabulary, but the difference is powerful. Of course, if all the sentences were compound like these, the paper would begin to sound either pretentious or exhausting. If this were your paper, you might want to make the next sentence a short one and get to your thesis statement soon.
One way to avoid appearing overly repetitive is to consult a thesaurus and use synonyms. However, when using synonyms, you should make sure that the word you choose means exactly what you think it means (“Penultimate,” for example, does not mean “the highest,” and there’s a difference between “elicit” and “illicit.”) Check the connotations of synonyms by looking up their definitions.
Varying Transitions, Signal Words, Pointing Words, and Pronouns
Writers who are familiar with their own habits will sometimes research a word or phrase they typically overuse (“however,” “that said,” “moreover”) and replace some of those words with another transition, or they might rework a sentence to avoid using any transition words in that spot if they feel they’re overdoing it. Nouns, too, often get overused when pronouns would sound more natural. Don’t worry about this too much in the writing phase. You just want to get your thoughts on the page. But as you revise, keep an eye out for repetition and switch things up a bit to keep your paper interesting.
Introducing variation benefits not only your reader but also you, the writer. Conceiving of different ways to communicate essential elements of your argument will allow you to revisit what makes these elements essential and to consider the central argument you are making. Each variation is a chance to introduce nuance into your writing while driving your point home. However, variation should never be your main goal—don’t sacrifice audience comprehension to achieve stylistic virtuosity. You’ll just sound silly. The argument is the point.