The Naked Writer: Vary Sentence Structure

This past week I edited a novel written in a way meant to echo the method used by a handful of successful mystery authors.

He took the stairs down. He walked into the kitchen. He stood at the refrigerator. He got out a pitcher of cold water.

I understood that the writer was trying to replicate a sparse, clipped, detailed style that has netted several lucky crime fiction folks both money and fame.

However, in going back to the originals, as I just did using the “Look Inside” function on Amazon, I found that the innovators showed much more fluidity in the writing than this recent follower. I might describe both the trendsetters’ style and the imitator’s attempt using the same words, but the more inventive work went by the creators’ artistic instincts (not to mention an undoubted later lot of heavy editing). What is produced by the originators is an effect—and not just a grating one.

Let me also say that I see this same writing approach from any number of naïve newcomers who aren’t at all aware of what they’re doing. They simply only know how to present short and simple declarative sentences.

So what’s wrong with producing one plain sentence after the other with a subject followed by verb?

Easy answer. A repeated sentence structure, as with any number of various recurring elements in a literary work, is simply boring to the ears. Yes, we read with our ears just as if we were listening to music.

In taking up a basic writing strategy, those of us slinging together words for human consumption are called upon to provide variation.

He took the stairs down. He walked into the kitchen. He stood at the refrigerator. He got out a pitcher of cold water.

Jerry took the stars down two at time. In the kitchen, he pulled a pitcher of cold water from the refrigerator. Eager to quench his thirst, he filled a glass to the top and drank.

Vary your sentence structure. Don’t bore our ears.

Dragging a chair behind him, he went into the drawing room. Listening to the music being played in there, he stopped. Sitting in the chair for a minute, he found himself tapping his toes to the beat.

Dragging a chair behind him, he went into the drawing room where he stopped and listened to the music being played. He sat for a moment and tapped his toes to the beat.

Vary all types of sentence structures, and when you edit your own work, fiction or nonfiction, listen for whatever elements are repeated—and rewrite.


Want more writing suggestions? Take a class I teach at Writer’s Digest University or download The Naked Writer on Amazon. Need an edit? Contact me at Want to read a novel of mine? Try Question Woman & Howling Sky if you like speculative fiction.

The Naked Writer: Vary Sentence Structure

The Naked Writer–Lay Versus Lie

These are two different verbs. I once actually heard an editor say if she saw an author had confused the verbs, she would reject the manuscript. She had a point. 🙂 I tell students to either find out how the verbs are used or don’t use them. But of course the two are important verbs, and writers want to use them where necessary.

The distinction between the two words is a simple one: Lay, meaning to place something, is a transitive verb—which like all transitive verbs takes an object. Lay the napkins on the table (you wouldn’t say lie the napkins on the table, would you?). Lie, meaning to stretch out, is an intransitive verb (never mind the vocabulary) and never takes an object.

We would “lie down”—no object. We wouldn’t “lay down.”

The misuse of the verb form signals a bit of educational class warfare, explaining the above editor’s prejudice.

Let’s go to the past tense.

I lay (rested) there for quite some time then I remembered I had to lay (place) the napkins on the table.

So the past tense of lie (recline)—lay—is the same word as the present tense of the word for “to place”—lay.

That would seem to be confusing, but only if you don’t have the declension of the verbs in your head.

We don’t say I laid down and I laid there for quite a while. The word “laid” belongs to the verb to lay. (This is one I see a lot.) “I lay down, and I lay there quite a while” would be correct.

I also see “I was laying there,” also incorrect. I was lying there.

Because this is a bit confusing for some, I took this chart from Writer’s Digest (I teach there, so take a class with me at

Lay vs. Lie Chart

Infinitive          Present   Past    Past Participle    Present Participle

to lay (place)     lay(s)      laid        laid                  laying
to lie (rest)       lie(s)       lay          lain                  lying

I ask him to lay the silverware on the table. After he had laid the knives there and after he laid the spoons there, he lays the forks there. Soon, he is laying the plates on the table as well.

Meanwhile I decide to lie down. I lie on the floor. I lay there for quite a while until I had lain for too long. I was lying in the same position all that time.

Of course we do have another verb “to lie,” which means to tell an untruth. The past tense and the past participle of that verb is “lied.”

We’re clear on all this now, right? If not, do as I suggest my students do—if you don’t understand how to use these two quite different verbs, avoid them. Of course the better choice is to learn the difference. Good luck.


You can download my style guide The Naked Writer at Or buy one of my novels in print (or ebooks) there—a middle grade fantasy, Strings; a YA fantasy, The Heroine’s Journey; and an adult science-fiction fantasy, Question Woman & Howling Sky. Contact me at if you need an edit.

The Naked Writer–Lay Versus Lie