It Was The First of Words, It Was The Last of Words

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Today I’m going to look at sentence construction on the micro level, particularly at the effect of word placement. This is something I don’t stop to think about until my second and third draft; in first drafts I just want to get the bones down as quickly as possible. But as I’m revising my work, I will keep an eye open for opportunities to strengthen the prose by getting the words in each sentence in just the right order, and one of the primary things I look at are the word or phrase at the very beginning and (especially) the very end of each sentence.

What’s so special about the ending of sentences?

The answer will sound flip, but it’s true. What’s special about the end of the sentence is that’s where you’ll find the period (or question mark, or exclamation mark).

Seriously.

Because when the reader gets to the punctuation mark at the end of each sentence, they pause. It may only be for a micro-fraction, but that’s punctuation’s job: to make the reader pause. When they do so, that last word or phrase lingers, giving it extra weight.

Consider this: In my first draft of this essay, the opening sentence originally ended this way: “…particularly at the effect word placement has.” With “has” as the last word, the sentence ends on puff of empty air. It’s weak. But with a slight rearranging, the sentence reads “…particularly at the effect of word placement,” and now there is something solid. The reader knows concretely what I’m going to be talking about.

So one of the things you can accomplish by carefully considering your sentence’s last word(s) is to take some of the fluff out of your writing.

What else can it do?

Just now I pulled out my copy of David Coe’s novel, The Sorcerer’s Plague, randomly flipped it open, and found this: “After a moment, the bloody mixture in her hand began to swirl, as if stirred by some invisible hand.”

By ending on “invisible hand,” David places his ‘ending emphasis’ on the most magical element. All of the same information could have been conveyed by writing: “After a moment it appeared as if some invisible hand was stirring the bloody mixture and it began to swirl.” But the point isn’t the ‘swirling,’ it’s the magic, so the focus needs to be on the invisible hand.

If this were a horror novel, or David was going for a more  horrific feel in this scene, he would probably have focused more on the bloody hand by writing, “After a moment it began to swirl, as if some invisible hand was stirring the bloody mixture.”

Again, the information is exactly the same in all three versions, but the order the information is presented in, especially the emphasis given to what comes last, has a significant effect on the feeling the reader takes away from it.

Now, to a lesser extent, this is also true of the power/effect of the word or phrase that begins a sentence. And to an equal extent, it is also true for the first and last sentence in any paragraph.

As I’ve said before, this isn’t something you should worry about during your first draft, but as you’re reviewing subsequent drafts keep it in mind, especially when revising any sections that don’t flow well or don’t have the emotional impact you had in mind when you first wrote it.

It’s definitely not something to obsess over – trying to apply this principle to every sentence you write could lead to insanity – but it can be a useful/helpful tool during the revision process.

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10 comments to It Was The First of Words, It Was The Last of Words

  • Obsess over? No. But it certainly is something to take more than just a casual glance at. I’ve always thought that it’s the little tweaks like these that often separate the published author from the almost-published author. Published authors tend to take the extra time to work and re-work their stories from the micro- to the macro-levels (or they are lucky enough to have an innate talent to get it right the first time). It’s not that we have to be perfectionists, but that we care enough to take the extra pass at our manuscripts. That caring, that passion for making the story the best it can be, translates across the pages. Readers can sense artistic passion just as much as they can sense lazy writing.

  • Unicorn

    How few words are needed to add weight to a story, if they’re used with skill… Thanks Edmund, I enjoy your posts about getting the small things right. Keep it up!
    Unicorn

  • Stuart, You’re 100% correct that the little tweaks are often what separates the published from the unpublished. I was just afraid some new writer would read this and try to apply it to EVERY sentence they wrote. That way lies madness. (I tweaked the last sentence of my essay to hopefully be more specific with regard to Stuart’s excellent point and the one I was trying to convey. It is, after all, the last sentence of the entire essay!)

    Unicorn, Many thanks. You’ve brought a smile to my weary old face.

  • Sarah

    Great post, Ed. A rhetoric professor once told me that people remember beginnings and ends best. Middles have to stay on topic and be full of solid content or you’ll lose the reader, but what people will actually remember is beginnings and endings. He was talking about essays, not fiction, but I think it applies here. He stressed that this works on the sentence level as much as the chapter level.

  • >>trying to apply this principle to every sentence you write could lead to insanity

    So *that* explains it! (gibbering in the corner, my blankie clutched close) Well… It was only a matter of time, after all.

    Writing has power or it doesn’t, and powerful writing gets noticed. I totally agree with Stuart’s comment that it’s the little things that become the dividing line between published and unpublished. And Edmund, this tells us what some of the little things are. Like you, I try to save most micro edits and rewrites for my last run through. *Try* being the operative word. I’ve spent whole days rearranging sentences, and not gotten a lick of new word count. (Note gibbering comment above.)

  • Young_Writer

    I’ll keep this in mind when I edit. It’s smart, I’ve never realized how much impact it could have. Thank you.

  • Glad you found something useful in one of my books — Lord knows, I’ve been trying for years….

    I agree with what others have said: Your ability to tease out these little gems of writing advice brings so much to this site. Great stuff, Ed.

  • Sarah – Thanks. I’m not surprised this concept crosses over into rhetoric and essays, but it’s always nice to get reinforcing points.

    Faith – That’s why I do my first drafts longhand; if I try to compose anything longer than about 1000 words on a computer I start tinkering with micro stuff and never finish.

    YW – Keep up the good work.

    David – I was looking for examples of what NOT to do, but you kept doing it right. I hated having to settle for that, but you left me no choice. 😉

  • I’m currently prepping a talk about the power of the individual word choice–it was great to see your take on placement! I think we underestimate the impact that those choices can have on the reader’s experience of the book.

  • Thanks, Elaine. When and where is your talk? I’d love to hear more about it.