The Anatomy

killer sentence

The paragraph

The paragraph is a unit of thought. All sentences in a paragraph should be about the same thing and move in a sequence.

The sentence

The sentence is the foundation of any written work. Understanding it, means understanding writing and how to structure ideas, emphasize what’s important, cut the bull and so forth. There is one thing all reader want: clear, concise, comprehensible sentences that mean something to them. Ask yourself, how will this affect the reader? Why should he care? Make sure your sentence is serving your reader, not yourself. E.g. starting the sentence with “while” basically tells your reader “Bear with me, I’ll get to the point..”.

Subordinate conjunction

The purpose of a subordinate conjunction is to subordinate (no shit sherlock!). It relegates a clause to a lower grammatical status in the sentence. A cause is a unit containing a subject and a verb (a doer of an action and the action itself). Subordination means that what was a whole sentence, is no more. It is now a mere subordinate clause and it depends on another clause to make the sentence complete. The reader’s needs should dictate which information is subordinated.

Examples of subordinate conjunction words are: after, although, as, because, before, if, since, than, though, unless, when, until, while.

The problem they often create is called the upside-down subordinate, meaning a sentence takes less interesting information and treats it as more noteworthy than something exciting. This undermines the sentence.

Example: John was tired (is emphasized) rather than John shot him in the face.

Writers are prone to making this mistake when they have become emotionally attached to details in a story and force as many of them in as possible. This is a common occurence in query letters, when the author has to summarize and sell his own book after spending years emerged in the details of the characters and the world.

To refresh your memory, a conjunction hooks up words, phrases and clauses. Coordinator conjunction words link units of equal grammatical status. They are easily remembered through the acronym FANBOY (for, and, nor, but, or, yet)


A phrase is a unit of words that works as either a noun, verb, adverb, adjective or prepositional phrase. It cannot stand on its own as a complete sentence. It is a single word or cluster of words that form a single part of speech. Phrases are more portable than clauses and their placement is even more likely to affect your meaning. They come in five varieties:

  1. Noun phrases, e.g. “John” “Big bad John”
    The name is the headword in this phrase. Subjects perform the action in a verb and objects receive the action.
  2. Verb phrases, e.g. “has killed”
    It conveys action.
  3. Adverb phrases, e.g. “happily”
  4. Adjective phrases, e.g. “happily killed”
    Containing the adverb and adjective.
  5. Prepositional phrases, e.g. “who wore jeans”
    It works like an adjective and adds extra description to the noun.

Example: Happily married woman.

Adjective phrase: happily married, which contains the adjective phrase married and the adverb phrase happily. They all modify the noun phrase woman.

Phrases and clauses as modifiers of sentences

Relative clauses.

They can be restrictive or nonrestrictive relative clauses.
This refers to the function in a sentence. A restrictive clause cannot be removed from a sentence without harming the point of the main clause.

A no-no is the stacking of relative clauses. Each added clause removes us further from the main point. Overuse of them is disorienting and possibly even rude.

Relative pronouns are which, that, who or whom. They introduce relative clauses, which in turn modifies a previous noun. Simply put, it comes after the noun while describing the noun. They are good tools to add information, but only if that information is fitting.

Prepositional phrases

Like relative clauses, prepositional phrases are modifiers and they are devious.

Example: Antique desk suitable for lady with thick legs and large

This statement claims the desk is suitable for a very special kind of lady. This lady has thick legs and large drawers. Obviously the author intended the drawers to be an aspect of the desk rather than the lady. The prepositional phrase in this example is “for lady”. The preposition is “for” and its object is the noun “lady”.

Fixing the mistake

Mistake: They said that it’s going to rain on the radio.
Fix: move the prepositional phrase closer to the verb it modifies.
Solution: They said on the radio that it’s going to rain.

Sometimes it’s not so easily resolved. The sentence can still be confusing. Additional information clutters the sentence. In this case, rewrite the entire sentence. Try to reword it or leaving unimportant information out if possible. If the information is important enough to give, you can put it in a separate sentence.

The Words

Adverbs (avoid them)

Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs.

For example:

Modify the verb -> “He slowly chewed his food.”

Modify the adjective -> “The overly attentive man sat on the bench.”

Modify the adverb -> “She ran very quickly.”

Adverbs answer the following questions:

  • When? (tomorrow)
  • Where (there)
  • In what way (prudently)
  • How much/often (very)

Adverbs give commentary on whole sentences. This is why they are known as sentence adverbs.

Example: Frankly, I don’t care.

When they link sentences, they are called conjunctive adverbs.

Example: Consequently, the engine exploded.

Adverbs can modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs or whole sentences. The broad group includes the -ly words. When you are asked to avoid adverbs, people usually mean the manner adverb.

Not all adverbs have to be scrapped. There is a particular kind of adverb, the manner adverb, that hurts the writing. The ones that describe the manner in which an action occurred.

Example: “walk quickly” <- scratch that out, instead use an active verb such as “raced”

Test your understanding of adverbs

Find all the adverbs in the following text:

Knowing well that I can visit you there soon is not really very
helpful, as I am not well and therefore cannot prudently travel

How did you do? Here’s the answer:

Knowing well that I can visit you there soon is not really very
helpful, as I am not well and therefore cannot prudently travel


Tense Example
Simple present I walk
Simple past I walked
Future I will walk / am going to walk
Present progressive I am walking
Past progressive I was walking
Future progressive I will be walking
Present perfect I have walked
Past perfect I had walked
Future perfect I will have walked
Present perfect progressive I will have walked
Past perfect progressive I had been walking
Future perfect progressive I will have been walking

Fiction is often written in past tense and occasionally written in present tense. The present tense has the advantage of being in-the-moment at any given time in the story. This effect requires more work when writing in the past tense. Writers can have various reasons to write in the past tense despite the in-the-moment advantage. It is a lot of work to keep up with the high level of intensity created by the present tense. It can be tiring to both the author and the reader. It is hard enough to maintain for a short story and truly exhausting to maintain for a novel (300 pages). Simple past form is the safe choice, the standard form. You can deviate from it but it is ill-advised unless you truly master the tenses and know what you’re doing.


A nominalization is a form of a verb or an adjective that functions as a noun. They are also known as hidden verbs. Usually “John was sad” is better than “John felt happiness”.

The form of nominalization:

the + gerund + i

Seeing the formula in action:

Killing is difficult. (killing as subject = gerund)

John was killing. (killing is part of a verb phrase = partiple)

Combing this with -the- and -of-, gerunds are bad news.

The killing of the people.

It is wordy and it downplays the doer of the action. Improvement is easily made by bringing it down to the base gerund form.

The killing of the people reduces overpopulation.

Killing people reduces overpopulation.

Improve it even further by making it into actions done by characters.

John kills people, reducing overpopulation.

When you fix a nominalization, you turn the action into the main verb and you gt to bring in the person or thing doing the action. Sometimes though, the nomination form is preferable.

Example: John supports Mary and she appreciates it.

The word “the

The, is called the definite article. It is its own part of speech. It is a category of its own. It carries a lot of responsibility and puts the burden on the reader. It says, I expect you to know what I’m talking about. When you say “a car”, it can be any car. But when you say “the car”, there’s only one car the reader is supposed to be thinking of. The exact same car you’re thinking of.

Sometimes writers forget the gap of knowledge between reader and author. The word the is then used whilst the reader has not been fully informed yet. As an author, it is your job to bridge that gap.

An easy fix is to quickly explain the item after mentioning it. This gives the reader just the necessary information, why it is this particular item rather than any of the others.

The flip side of the coin is using the word to trick readers into familiarity. The word in itself suggests the reader is familiar with something, so putting it in front of something creates that sense.

The little girl jumped onto the sofa.

What little girl? We don’t know who this is, but it doesn’t bother us. Nifty, right? It foreshadows and teases, promising explanations will come later. The promise the reader has to make in return, is to keep reading.


A big lessons to learn: adjectives are no substitute for solid information. Start by dividing them into two categories, facts and value judgments. Facts are fine, they carry valuable information. But value judgements are vague and a common source of trouble.

Example: The big bad filthy bully chased him down. The bully chased him down.

Even worse, are adjectives that are meaningless. E.g. the fresh rejuvenation, basically means the fresh freshed.


Clark, R. P. (2006) Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writing.