How to Write Damn Good Sentences

Demian Farnworth imparts his vast wisdom to teach you what makes a good sentence a damn good sentence.

Well look at that.

Can you believe this is already the fourth installment in our 11-part series on the essential ingredients of a blog post?

Time sure does fly when you’re having pure podcasting fun … and churning out a new bite-sized episode each week.

We’ve already explained how to write a magnetic headline, discussed how to nail your opening, and (hopefully) convinced you about the importance of using persuasive words.

Today, we take it one step further.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • The importance of showing versus telling
  • Why you should trust your reader
  • How thinking about the 5 W’s (and the H) can help you write sentences
  • Active versus passive voice
  • Why reading Hemingway is one of the best lessons in sentence writing you could ever give yourself
  • Tips to improve your writing that you can implement today

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The Show Notes

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Please note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.

The Lede Podcast: How to Write Damn Good Sentences

Jerod Morris: You’re listening to The Lede, a podcast about content marketing by Copyblogger Media. If you want to get a content marketing education while you mow your lawn or while you fold your laundry, this podcast is the way to do it.

I’m your host Jerod Morris, and in this episode we resume our series on the essential ingredients of a blog post. You are going to learn about sentences, but not average or okay sentences … damn good sentences. And who better than the Duke of Damn himself, Demian Farnworth, to explain how.

Demian, I like alliteration and I like giving credit where it is due, and so I have a new nickname for you: The Duke of Damn. It’s one that you have earned with damn fine blog posts about how to write damn good copy, how to write damn bad copy, and of course, how to write damn good sentences — which is the fourth in our rundown of the 11 essential ingredients of a blog post. You are a master at the art of the sentence, which is why I want to do a lot more listening than talking on this episode.

So let’s start with the obvious question: What is the difference between a good sentence and a damn good sentence?

Showing versus telling

Demian Farnworth: It boils down to this: the difference between showing and telling.

A good sentence would tell you what’s going on in a particular action. So I might say, “She is crying,” versus something like “She sobbed,” or “She was trembling.” It’s simply the quality of — you have a concrete, specific image versus a sort of vague, ambiguous instruction. See, what you’re after is this goal of allowing people to use their imagination, and I think it comes down to this idea of being able to trust your reader, to trust them to use their imagination. And they will. I think there’s some confidence that comes in enjoying, embracing that idea that people are going to. If you say, “She wept,” that’s going to be more powerful than “She was over there and her eyes were wet with tears.” It’s a lot more powerful when it’s short and sweet, and it’s powerful like that.

But it’s not easy, right? I’ll admit that. It takes years of practice, but what you’re thinking about when you’re trying to show somebody, what you’re after, is being specific and concrete. And one way that I use to get to that point is to think through the five W’s. So you’re thinking of the who, the what, the where, the when, the why, and even the H, the how.

For example, you want to write a damn good sentence, so you would say, “In Istanbul, the bullfighter liked to drink vinegar because it made him angry.” So you’ve got a pretty specific, concrete idea that would allow you to get a vivid picture of what’s going on in that … there’s life to that … and there’s imagination. I know that just by saying the word “Istanbul” that people will get in their minds a sort of exotic, far-away, ancient city. There’s a lot of stuff that’s sort of swirling around, and that’s really the power of choosing the right words, choosing those powerful words, using those words that generate and paint that picture.

For the next part, in getting to that point of writing a damn good sentence, is this idea of creating images, and I kind of already did that. But here I want to talk more about something like this idea of the five senses. That’s what I kind of did in that previous sentence. But if you want to paint an image, you want to think through the five senses, also. So for example, that same sentence, I talked about, what is the weather like there? Is it hot? Is it cold? I imagine it’s probably hot there, so we might add some sort of elements of humidity, like “The air was humid, was moist, was thick with water.” We might talk about something like, what time of day is it? And what color is the sun? Is it golden, or is it more orange or red? And you might think of an odor, like vinegar. I said “vinegar” and a lot of people probably turned up their nose at that. So there was that sense of smell and odor going there. And so you’re thinking….

Jerod: Let me ask you a question really quickly, Damien, because I know a lot of times we talk about specific and concrete, and sometimes that can be boiled down to mean “short,” because we talk a lot about short sentences.

Demian: Yes.

Jerod: How do you determine what is a detail worth giving, an image worth painting, and what is too much?

Demian: That’s a great question. I think it’s a gut thing, really, because obviously you can’t think through every sentence and put in the five senses, because then it would just become too much. It would be almost impossible for you to get anything done. It would also be overbearing for the reader himself, so you have to be selective. And it just takes time to kind of catch an ear.

Like, you may in one sentence just want to highlight some sort of color. Like the sight. And the next sentence, you want to heighten something about the texture and the smell. In the next sentence you may want to simply talk about the taste, or a sound they heard. And a good writer would combine those with action, right? With some sort of action. So instead of “He ran up the stairs,” say “He darted up the rough-hewn stairs.”

You want to combine all those pieces together, being specific, using active verbs versus passive verbs. And make sure you mesh those together, and sprinkle them throughout your senses when you’re hitting these sort of concrete and specific images.

Active versus passive voice

Jerod: Can I add a quick note on active versus passive verbs?

Demian: Yes.

Jerod: So you’re right, you want to make your verbs active, not passive. And if you actually want a good example, look no further than this very podcast, because last week I received an e-mail with the subject line simply, “Passive voice.” And it said, quoting one of our episodes, “Change ‘next week Demian and I will be resuming our series of the eleven essential ingredients of a blog post, we’ll be discussing persuasive words and you won’t want to miss it,’ change that to ‘next week Demian and I resume our series on the eleven essential ingredients of a blog post. We’ll discuss persuasive words, and you won’t want to miss it.'” The difference, of course, is the verbs. “Will be resuming” gets replaced with “Resume,” and “will be discussing” gets replaced with “we’ll discuss.” It makes those verbs active, right? You hear how much better that sounds, and it reads better too, because the subject of the sentence becomes the doer, and the verbs are invigorated.

And I’ll give you one guess who sent me that much-appreciated, clear, concise, reminder about how to write better sentences. (Laughs)

Demian: (Laughs)

Jerod: So….

Demian: Yeah.

Jerod: So yes, be active with your sentences, not passive, and it’s something I try my best to do that all the time, and it even slips in like that and you don’t even realize it. It’s definitely something upon an edit you can go back, because that’s one way to eliminate some of those unnecessary words so you can put in some of the ones that paint the picture, that make your sentences so much better.

The best sentence-writing teacher you can read

Demian: Right. And so, being an Ernest Hemingway fan — and working for Copyblogger, you sort of have to be — I read a ton of him probably 10, 15 years ago. And the thing that I walked away with was the simple sentence structure. It’s a subject, and then a verb.

And when we talk about active versus passive verbs, you’re talking about instead of having an action done to something, someone is doing an action. So where it would say, “The dog was kicked by that man,” it would be just a simple inversion: “The man kicked the dog.” So yeah, talking about Ernest Hemmingway, I just remember reading it, such a simple sentence structure. Basically it was just subject and verb.

And I think that as far as we’re talking about, like ways to become better at this, is practicing writing that way. Simple sentence structure. Subject, verb.

Jerod: Mmm-hmm. That’s a good point, and let’s go to that, in terms of practice, and this can probably be a tip that we leave everybody with.

You know, as we prepped for this I was reading something — and I’m going to put this in the show notes. There’s a podcast, an NPR podcast with Stanley Fish, the author of “How to Write a Sentence.” And he recounts in his book, actually, a story from Annie Dillard’s book “The Writing Life” where she had a conversation with a painter — asked him how he got into the profession. And he told her, “I like paint.” And of course, as Fish explains, you have to really have a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, and so as a writer there’s nothing more nitty-gritty than words and sentences.

Demian: That’s right.

Tips to improve your sentence writing

Jerod: And so Demian, what would you say is a tip or two that people can take away from this that will make them better at just that simple, nitty-gritty art of writing sentences?

Demian: I would definitely encourage anybody, whether they can stomach his stories or not, to read as much Hemingway as you can.

Outside of that, one of the ways that I kind of mastered the ability to do this, at least get really trained highly in it, was early in my career I wrote a ton of text ads — Google AdWords text ads. So I was forced to compress those words into a meaningful, persuasive message in a short space. So that really forced me to write small. But you don’t have to do text ads like that.

You could also treat your Twitter account this way, and just give yourself the task of, say, writing 100 Twitter posts a day for seven days, and in each one you just try to, within 140 characters, tell a story. Make a message. Use one of the five senses. Dig into the five “whos.”

Another trick you can do is try to condense an event, like a historical event like the Civil War, into one sentence. Sometimes I will go read the front page of Wikipedia or the front page of The New York Times. Read a few of those stories, and then try to tell that story within one sentence.

And finally after every article or blog post that you actually read, try to summarize that particular article or blog post in one sentence. That will give you practice. Not only will it help you remember what you just read and sort of process what you just read, but it will also force you to write those sentences, saying a lot into one sentence. That’s really what it boils down to: just trying to stuff a lot into a small space, as much space as you can with the sentence.

And here’s the thing to keep in mind, too: you’re not going to do this with every single sentence. I don’t sit there and agonize over every single sentence. It’s pretty much kind of native to me now, and I do dozens of rewrites of stuff that I write where I’m working systematically through each word. But I don’t give the same amount of attention over each sentence. I just try to, for the most part, kind of work that into the sort of warp and woof of what I’m writing.

Jerod: Yeah, and if you want to see a great example of what Demian was talking about with Twitter and summing up a story in one sentence, follow Robert Bruce on Twitter and Google Plus.He does a great job of showing that.

All right, Demian. Thank you very much.

Demian: Thank you.

Jerod: I thought you did a damn good job today.

Demian: (Laughs) Thank you, Jerod. I appreciate it. Lived up to my name.

Jerod: (Laughs) We’ll talk soon.

Demian: All right. Thank you, sir.

Jerod: Thank you for listening to The Lede. If you are enjoying our show, please consider leaving us a rating or a review on ITunes, or tweet about us, or tell a friend. We appreciate your helping us spread the word any way you can.

The next installment of our series on the essential ingredients of a blog post will be about killer bullet points. Now you may not think bullet points are a topic with enough meat to demand their own episode, but you’d be wrong. Listen and you’ll see. Talk to you soon, everybody.

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*Credits: Both the intro (“Bridge to Nowhere” by Sam Roberts Band) and outro songs (“Down in the Valley” by The Head and the Heart) are graciously provided by express written consent from the rights owners.