Do you struggle to write professionally for university? Do you feel like you’re just smartening up your language; throwing in a few words like ‘thus’ and ‘utilise’; and hoping for the best? Read on for simple tips to help improve your sentence structure. 

In this blog post, you’ll discover:

  • Simple writing tips for better sentence structure (which equals higher grades!)
  • That – with simple tweaks to your punctuation, sentence length and idea ordering – the writing you’ve worked so hard on will be clear and easy to understand
  • Free resources to improve your academic writing.

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1. Vary your sentence length

If your sentences are too short your writing will appear clunky and the reader will soon get bored by the monotony. Yet, if your sentences are too long their value becomes lost; buried deep among multiple clauses and punctuation.

Instead, vary your sentence structure by using a combination of short, medium and long sentences. When used correctly, short sentences add impact and can focus the reader’s attention. Conversely, well-crafted longer sentences can develop a key idea, add in details and build to an important conclusion.

Read Gary Provost’s ‘This Sentence Has Five Words’ to experience the impact of great sentence structure.

THIS SENTENCE HAS FIVE WORDS GARY PROVOST

Top sentence structure tips

· Copy and paste a section of your work into a new document. Edit your section without fear of making it worse then add it back into your work when you’re happy with it.

· Each sentence should contain one idea so you may need to split some to aid clarity

· Play around with sentence length so longer, detail-filled sentences are interspersed with shorter, snappier sentences to add impact and sum up an idea.

Here’s a before and after paragraph where you can hopefully see the difference some changes to sentence structure make.

Before

After

VARY LENGTHS OF YOUR SENTENCES FOR IMPROVED SENTENCE STRUCTURE AFTER

2. Become best friends with linking words

You want your writing to flow and for each point to be logically connected to the next. If you’re successful your writing will take the reader on a clear journey, they will understand your work and, therefore, find it easier to award marks.

The magic ingredient for clear, flowing arguments…

…is linking (or transition) words. Whenever you switch topics, ideas or perspectives, you need to give the reader a verbal cue. Linking words improve your sentence structure and progress your writing. Without them, your essay would simply read as a list of unrelated ideas and statements – which is definitely not what you want!

You might already be using linking words, but here’s some examples to help you gain the full benefits of them in your writing.

For addition or indicating similarity:

· In addition,

· Furthermore,

· Similarly,

· Also,

· Likewise,

· Moreover

For contrast:

· Nevertheless,

· Yet,

· But,

· On the other hand,

· Alternatively,

· Conversely,

· In contrast

For exemplifying:

· For example,

· To illustrate,

· For instance,

· To exemplify,

For consequences:

· Thus,

· As a result,

· Therefore,

· Consequently

For summarising/concluding:

· To conclude,

· To summarise,

· In conclusion,

Top sentence structure tip

When you’re editing your writing, try and pay attention to how often you’re using linking words. If you notice you have to include these words between most of your sentences, you may be jumping between ideas too much. If this is the case, spend some time reorganising your writing so related ideas are grouped together.

3. Read your writing out loud

This is a simple tip that could be so valuable, but people rarely do it!

Reading out loud to yourself might make you sound a little silly but it’s a great way to check your sentence structure. Read slowly and pause according to the punctuation you’ve used. You’ll soon be able to tell whether a comma is needed or not. If you find you need to catch a breath while reading a sentence, try splitting it in two.

4. One idea, one sentence

Each sentence should contain one idea. Make sure you don’t try to fit two separate points into one long sentence. This means you need to omit digressions (shifts in focus) from your writing so each point is strong and stays on topic. Also, omit any deviations (unrelated details).

Every word in your essay should be there for a reason: either to directly gain you marks or to provide additional information that supports your ideas. Get rid of any irrelevant details and you’ll: improve your sentence structure, cut words, and make your writing stronger.

Have a look at the below sentence.

Honda’s smaller motorbikes opened up the market to younger buyers not interested in the “gang persona” of big bikes; Pascale argues that Honda’s success was not due to “bold insight” from executives, but from not “taking their initial strategic positions too seriously”.

Here, a semi-colon has been used to connect these two clauses when, instead, this sentence should be split into two with a full stop. The first clause is a description of Honda’s success. The second clause is an author’s opinion on the reasons behind this success. Though these points are related, they are SEPARATE points so should be structured like it.

Honda’s smaller motorbikes opened up the market to younger buyers not interested in the “gang persona” of big bikes. Pascale argues that Honda’s success was not due to “bold insight” from executives, but from not “taking their initial strategic positions too seriously”.

Changing one semi-colon to a full stop may not seem like a big deal but if your writing is clear and easy to read, your tutor will find it easier to award marks.

5. Don't bury the main idea

Complex sentences – those with multiple clauses – are necessary in academic writing. As you learned above, you cannot just write in short, punchy sentences as you’ll never be able to give the details or build the arguments necessary for high marks.

But, complex sentences can be hard to follow. You may have spent hours crafting the perfect argument for your essay, yet this brilliant idea may not stand out if your sentence structure buries it deep within your sentences. Include the main idea early in a sentence to ensure your point is always clear.

Have a look at the below sentence.

Younger buyers are not interested in the “gang persona” of big motorbikes so Honda’s small motorbikes opened up the market and became a huge success.

The main idea is that Honda’s bikes became a success, but the sentence implies the “gang persona” phrase is key. With some simple editing the main idea moves to the start of the sentence with the details following afterwards.

The small motorbikes became a huge success and opened up the market to younger buyers not interested in the “gang persona” of big motorbikes.

You might say this sentence is relatively easy to understand both ways. This is because the topic of motorbikes is fairly understandable to ‘normal’ people. However, sentences full of subject terms and academic jargon become harder to follow when they have poor sentence structure. Learn this skill now and you’ll know your sentence structure will allow your key points to be noticed.

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