How to Improve the Next Sentence You Write.

verbal identity looks at copywriting exercises

(c) SFMOMA Julie Cloutier "Dislodging Four Objects"

Look around the room you are in now. Pick four items at random. Make a sentence from them.
My words are, “Door”, “Handcream”, “Tape Measure”, “Desk”.  And my sentence is, “I wonder if the tape measure can reach from the door to the handcream that’s on the desk.”

How can possibly we make a sentence out of a list of random objects?

I could have written, “The handcream’s in the top drawer of the desk next to the tape measure and the door.” Which is clearly nonsense.


Because it tests the logic of possible relationships between a door and a drawer: generally doors are too big to fit in a drawer.  Stanley Fish, in his book “How to Write a Sentence” explains that a sentence is a way of demonstrating the relationship between things: cause, effect, contiguity, subordination, place, and a few more.

So how can you make a sentence better?

Sentences go wrong when the relationships aren’t sharp enough; or when there are too many of them. In either case, your items (or themes) are left wandering around the edge of the party looking for someone to hang out with.

If you want to improve the next sentence you write, ask yourself, “What’s the one relationship  I need to express here?”

Dave Trott’s blog is a masterful demonstration of this.
Each paragraph is one sentence.
Each sentence is one idea.
Each idea is one relationship between two objects.

After a few moments the Abbot saw the monk walking away.
     He asked him how the debate went.
     The monk said “That is a very clever novice, he beat me.”
(Dave Trott’s blog, 20.11.12)

All of Dave Trott’s male relatives were sergeants. His verbal identity is the cadence of barked orders. No room for confusion.

All sentences don’t have to be that short. A brand’s own verbal identity comes out of its own personality  – or the one that a good copywriter creates for it.

But the best sentences clearly define the relationship between different objects.

Let me know if this helped you. I keep Tuesdays free to answer questions. Email me or leave a comment. I’ll get back to you.

And next Tuesday, I’ll talk about wrangling longer sentences.