Seven Rules for Powerful Sentences

Lyn Cote~ By Lyn Cote

(First published in “Writer’s Forum,” a publication for students, faculty, and friends of Writer’s Digest School, Fall 1998 as “Dramatic Sentences in Seven Steps.”)

When I completed my first manuscript, I thought a national day of celebration should be proclaimed.  Imagine my chagrin when I discovered contest judges, agents, and editors weren’t impressed by my 700 neat pages.  They expected not only that each chapter, page, and paragraph be effective, but they also demanded that exacting standard apply to each sentence and even each word.  Didn’t they know that perfectionism of this level put them at risk for early cardiac arrest?

When I had no luck changing their minds, I decided I would have to conform.  Being a seasoned (or shell-shocked) English teacher, I went back to the basics of sentence structure.  There are only four types of sentences in English.  (Yes, that’s all we have to work with.)  They are:

Simple: subject + verb

Compound: subject + verb + conjunction + subject + verb.

Complex: subordinate conjunction + subject + verb, (comma) subject + verb.

Compound-complex: a compound and a complex sentence joined by a conjunction.

These are the basic building blocks for every page you will ever write.  So you ask, what’s a dramatic about them?  How could the Brontës, and Jane Austin do magic with these building blocks?  Here’s how.

Seven Power of Rules

1.  The simpler the better.  The clear, simple sentence packs more power than a long string of clauses.

2.  Keeping #1 in mind, a variety of sentence structures is preferred to repetition of just one.  Even one paragraph of only simple sentences irritates the reader.

3.  In a paragraph of long sentences, a short sentence takes on prominence and vice versa.

red pen and page of text4.  Humans always remember the last word they’ve read.  Just as we build a plot to a climax, every sentence reaches a climax at its end.  Save the best to be used as a last word.

5.  Subordinate conjunction subordinate or weaken the clause they introduce.  They make the clause dependent on another clause, one which can stand alone.  Example: “when we come home late” cannot stand on its own be and understood.  (Common subordinate conjunctions: if, because, after, before, since, when).

6.  Don’t bury your most striking word or idea in the middle.  Example: “Jake will explode when we come home late.”  Explode is the most evocative word in the sentence and it lies buried in the middle.  Why not build up to that evocative word? “When we come home late, Jack will explode.”

7.  When you break rule #6, everyone notices!  If you put the most important word first (instead of last), you give it special emphasis.  Example: “Explode, that’s what Jake will do when we come home late.”

These seven rules are the touchstones of powerful sentences.  And, once you can create these, you’ll be able to use those sentences to build evocative stories and articles — and make sales.

USA Today bestselling author, Lyn Cote has written over 45 books. A Romance Writers of America RITA finalist and an American Christian Fiction Writers Carol Award winner, Lyn writes contemporary romance, romantic suspense and historical novels.

No matter which kind of story, her brand “Strong Women, Brave Stories” comes through. Her most recent achievement is being added to Romance Writers of America’s Honor Roll for bestselling authors.

Lyn’s new novella, Loving Winter, is part of the 14-author box set of sweet holiday novellas, Sweet Christmas Kisses 4.

Visit her website/blog at and find her on Facebook, GoodReads and Twitter.

11 thoughts on “Seven Rules for Powerful Sentences”

  1. Fantastic post, Lyn. Concise, precise, and informative. I learned something (or several somethings!) new. So glad you shared. Many congratulations on the new boxed set, Sweet Christmas Kisses 4. Already preordered!

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