What is good writing?
What is good writing?

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What is good writing?

2.5.1 Sentences

We can see that Philip knows what a sentence is because he writes some perfectly good ones. For example:

In many ways going into urban life from the countryside was beneficial to woman of the upperclass.

This sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop. It has a subject (urban life) and a main verb (was). As any sentence is, it is a self-contained ‘unit of meaning’. It makes sense read out on its own. The only thing wrong with it is that ‘upper class’ should be two words rather than one. Also, although it is not wrong to say ‘woman’, it sounds odd because we normally say ‘women’.

But what about this one? (Read it out loud.)

With society becoming more wealthy it was possible for the fathers and husbands to provide an even better standard of life for their wifes and daughters, more servants could be provided to do the work and this left the woman more time than ever to develop the social skills of the era, but this in turn led to extreme frustration among woman of that class.

It sounds long and rambling. But in fact all it needs is two full stops and a couple of minor corrections (to ‘wifes’ and ‘woman’) to turn it into three pretty sound sentences, as follows.

With society becoming more wealthy it was possible for the fathers and husbands to provide an even better standard of life for their wives and daughters. More servants could be provided to do the work and this left the women more time than ever to develop the social skills of the era. But this in turn led to extreme frustration among women of that class.

Writing sentences

Every sentence needs a verb – a ‘doing’ word – and (almost) every sentence needs a subject – a person who, or thing that is ‘doing’. Take this sentence: ‘She popped the question’. ‘She’ is the subject (because she was ‘doing’ the popping) and ‘popped’ is the verb (because that is what she was doing). If you are not sure whether you have written a sentence, a simple test is to ask ‘Does it have a subject and a verb?’ – in this sentence ‘it’ is the subject and ‘does have’ is the verb.

It is quite possible to use grammar effectively without knowing the rules in a formal way. Many people can ‘hear’ whether a string of words is a sentence or not because it ‘sounds’ complete when it is. They don't have to stop and think about whether it contains a subject and a verb. If you find it isn't obvious to you, even when you read your work out loud, then you need to get some help with grammar (by going to a local class or getting a book about it). You will find it very difficult to develop your writing style until you have a good feel for what a sentence is.

At first sight it looks as if writing in sentences may be a big problem for Philip. Yet he does have a sense of where a break is needed – but he tends to use commas where he needs a full stop and capital letter. The sentences are there; he just hasn't marked them as sentences. I doubt if he needs to worry too much about this. With prompting from a tutor and plenty of practice – and especially through reading his essays out loud – his sensitivity to sentences will develop spontaneously. But the local library or bookshop would be a good place to ask about courses and books if need be.

Hansa's writing is much more assured. But, as I said, some sentences strike me as over-formal and elaborate. Take this one, for example:

Because of this, and because an urban environment offered women so much more scope, not only to display their accomplishments but also to indulge their own desire for sociability, amusement and companions’, the female population of England's towns expanded dramatically.

Too many points that are important in their own right are squashed into one sentence here. The construction is extraordinarily complicated: ‘Because A.., and because B., not only C.. but also D, E and F, the female population..’ It would read more easily if she removed the central part – ‘not only to display…amusement and companions’. (Incidentally, she does not need the apostrophe after the ‘s’ in ‘companions’.) There would still be more than enough to think about. Also, more emphasis would be placed on the last part of the sentence, which is actually the main point of it. As things stand, we arrive at ‘the female population..’ over-burdened and out of breath, as it were.

In sentences such as this Hansa's meaning is so condensed that it gets lost. She is trying to say too much. Her sentences are over-elaborate and her meaning too densely packed. If she wrote more directly, in simpler sentences, her meaning would be clearer and she could give more emphasis to the points that are most important.

Keeping it simple

A sentence is a self-contained unit of meaning. An essay is constructed by putting these units in sequence, one after another. Meaning should flow from one sentence to the next, carrying the argument forward.

If you sometimes do not make proper sentences, or you make them too dense and complicated, your meaning becomes unclear. Your reader cannot follow you because the flow of meaning is interrupted. Until you have a lot of experience you should write fairly short, simple sentences that carry your meaning forward in a reliable way.

In the main, aim to make one point in each sentence. If a sentence delivers two points, consider splitting it in two. A reader may want to agree with one point but not the other, so it is useful to have them set down separately. Then your reader can examine the logic of each one more easily.

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