How to Write Better Sentences and Paragraphs | The 2-3-1 Rule

The position of words in a sentence matters. Generally, you want to place the most important words or images at the end, so the idea hangs with the reader. Consider examining your work through the lens of The 2-3-1 Rule, where you have your most important part at the end, the second most important at the beginning, and the next most important information in the middle. 

Take this example and see how the order of words and images affect the tension of the story

The door was locked and after knocking two or three times he was sure the apartment was empty. He had rapped loud enough to make someone on the floor above rap back, like an exasperated ghost. But he would have to go in and make sure, and he didn’t have a key. He turned to go down the stairs to Mr. Freeman’s apartment, and that was when he heard the low groan from behind the door. The Stand, Stephen King

The 2-3-1 Rule is great for building suspense, but it can also be useful when you’re trying to evoke emotions such as fear, shock, and hopelessness: 

I was alone and orphaned, in the middle of the Pacific, hanging on to an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging about me. Had I considered my prospect in the light of reason, I surely would have given up and let go of the oar, hoping that I might drown before being eaten. But I don’t recall that I had a single thought during those first minutes of relative safety. I didn’t even notice daybreak. I held on to the oar, I just held on, God only knows why. Life of Pi, Yann Martel

The 2-3-1 Rule can be used in many ways, regardless of what you’re writing. However, what I believe is the most powerful use of the rule is in misdirection and humour: 

For thousands more years the mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came across — which happened to be the Earth — where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

Have you tried The 2-3-1 Rule? Did you find it useful? Let me know in the comments below. 

For more writing and editing inspiration and stories, please sign up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, they’ll only include my proudest works.

This article was inspired by the tip from Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark (Amazon)

How to Write Clearly: Right-branching Sentences

He replaced the receiver in its cradle without answering her, turned off the ringer, and pressed his face into the doorframe. 
– The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

This is a right-branching sentence, where the subject and the verb are at the beginning. Right-branching sentences are great for guiding a reader through an idea with clarity and narrative energy.  

Check out this 76-word sentence: 

He’d solved the problem of family Christmas gifts on the last possible mailing day, when, in a great rush, he’d pulled old bargains and remainders off his bookshelves and wrapped them in aluminum foil and tied them up with red ribbon and refused to imagine how his nine-year-old nephew Caleb, for example, might react to an Oxford annotated edition of Ivanhoe whose main qualification as a gift was that it was still in its original shrink-wrap. 
– The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen (Amazon)

Because it began with the subject and verb, we were able to follow along through all the descriptions and details, without losing track of what the character was doing — solving the problem of family Christmas gifts. 

It’s common to keep the noun and verb separate. Many times, we’d begin by describing the subject and then moving to the verb much later on, but by separating subject and verb we increase the possibility of confusion. This delay in important information can be risky depending on the length and complexity of the sentence. 

However, you should not rely solely on right-branching sentences. By using a structure where the subject and verbs arrive at the end, aka a left-branching sentence, you create suspense. 

Here’s this one for example: 

Earlier in the day, while killing some hours by circling in blue ball-point ink over uppercase M in the front section of a month-old New York Times, Chip had concluded that he was behaving like a depressed person.
– The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

Try putting your subject and verb in different spots in your sentence and see how that changes the clarity, tone, and pace of your writing. Feel free to share it in the comments below! 

This article was inspired by the tip from Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark (Amazon).

For more writing and editing inspiration and stories, please sign up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, they’ll only include my proudest works.

What Is Pejorative Language?

Cynthia was on a work trip. Everyone at the office knew it was an exclusive trip to an International conference with their CEO Lou. This was a big deal for those in the paper clip industry. That’s why her best friend at the office, Emily sent her a message, asking about it as soon the conference started. 

“Well,” wrote Cynthia, “the hotel is in a ghetto. You can tell by the lack of restaurants that it’s a complete wasteland.” 

“Oh my,” replied Emily, “that’s sucks. 😆” 

“On the other hand,” wrote Cynthia, “Lou is consistent: he’s as much a Nazi here as when he’s at the office.” 

“ Heh heh! That’s good lol 😋” 

“Yes,” typed Cynthia, “he keeps insisting that I do the presentation for these foreigners,” 

“Hahahaha well,” replied Emily, “I look forward to you having you back next week.” 

“My husband will be glad too,” wrote Cynthia. “He’s such a loner without me.” 

How did this conversation make you feel about Cynthia? Perhaps you thought she was funny. Perhaps you thought she was cynical. Perhaps you thought she was raw and truthful. 

How did this conversation make you feel about Emily? Maybe you thought she was impressionable. Maybe you thought she was overly polite. Maybe you thought she was completely ignorant. 

Pejorative languages wear many disguises depending on the person speaking those words and the person listening. Sometimes called slurs and sometimes called insults, these derogatory words have the ability to morph between the journey from mouth to ear. But seldom does it leave the story untainted, unbiased, or open for criticism. Pejorative languages are blunt blows of words that carry with them the weight of history. Of course, the past is interpreted by the listener and the impact can be weak or it can be excessive. 

 Pejorative language is not kind. Even when made in jest, it’s designed to give a negative impression of the subject. 

  • The ghetto
  • The wasteland
  • The Nazi 
  • The foreigners 
  • The loner 

Pejorative language acts as a negative filter you can place over your text to criticize, disregard, or slander without going into details. One pejorative word, phrase, or clause is all you need to let the listener or reader know exactly how you feel. 

Calling a place a ghetto gives a certain impression of poverty. Calling a person a Nazi is so much more than just saying the person is bossy or authoritative. Calling a person a foreigner is to exhibit a general disregard for them, saying that they’re the other and are unworthy of being recognized. Calling a person a loner is to say that they are pitiful and pathetic. 

These loaded terms are heavy. They say a lot with little. Like a bullet, they are small but they could do a lot of damage. Depending on who’s aiming these words and whose these words are directed at, it can do more than leave a negative feeling. 

Emily sat there reading Cynthia’s message, influenced by her words. Cynthia became a victim of all the horror and oppression of the world around her. She had propagated Emily’s viewpoints. The city she visited was terrible. Her boss was unfairly demanding. The clients were unworthy. And her husband was inadequate. While this conversation, in the grand scheme of things, won’t affect Emily’s perspective on life. However, it will change her perspective for the convention city, her boss, the overseas clients, and Cynthia’s husband. 

There are no wonderful ghettos. There are no terrific Nazis. There is no genuine basis to call someone a foreigner when you are a foreigner. There is no way to speak of loners without attaching a sense of mental ineptitude. Each of these words lands somewhere upon a scale: some are deeply offensive and some merely ignorant. However, one cannot deny that they always leave you with a certain image

These images rest uniquely within each person. These words can trigger the intensity of these images. We all know derogatory terms for people of different races and we know they are not all equal in weight and firepower. Some barely make dents. Some are explosive. 

So when should you use pejorative words? Simple, when you want to insinuate negativity without any control. When your speech or writing requires an emphasis where a punctuation mark won’t do. When you need to sway a viewpoint in a negative direction. When you need to gain sympathy at all costs. 

How do you feel about pejorative language? Do you use it in your writing and speech? Let me know in the comments below. 

For more writing and editing inspiration and stories, please sign up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, they’ll only include my proudest works.