Secrets of a Master:
Jen Stevens on How to Propel Your Reader Forward With Sentences That "Look Back Early"

Your writing must keep your reader moving forward from one sentence to the next. You don't want to give him cause to stop reading. Give a reader any excuse to look away from the page … and he'll take it.

Your sentences should nudge your reader along from one to the next. Some writers do this very well. And when you read their work, you find yourself enthralled, turning pages, and salivating for more.

But no matter how talented a writer may be, this forward motion comes not from some special, indefinable gift, but because he or she writes seamless transitions. You can too. Sentences that propel a reader forward are sentences that, as Dr. Thomas Murawski (a long-time advocate for clear writing) puts it, "look back early." (By the way, Dr. Murawski has graciously given me permission to use his ideas and examples in this article.)

I think of it this way: Your sentences should function together like a well-practiced relay team. One sentence has to hand off the baton to the next without stumbling. How? Just as the second and third and fourth runners on a team stand poised with an arm outstretched behind and a head cocked over a shoulder, so should each of your sentences take a glance back to that which preceded it.

Your second sentence should echo a thought in your first. Likewise, your third sentence should echo your second. And this echo, this link to the sentence that precedes it, should come early in the sentence.

How do you make sure your sentences are "looking back early?" That's easy. Here are five ways you can link one sentence to the next –

  1. A repeated word

    EXAMPLE:

    "It's no wonder that the place is abuzz about a Hollywood connection to the sale of a local ISLAND. Navy ISLAND, 64 verdant acres just a three-minute boat-ride from town, is being purchased by Louis Gossett Jr."

  2. A synonym

    EXAMPLE:

    "But AUSTRALIA'S scope is far more than geographical. THE CONTINENT encompasses a complex national psyche, a potent mix of the spirited "mateship" and rugged self-reliance that developed through centuries of isolation, and the relaxed sophistication of its increasingly urban population."

  3. A pronoun (he, she, it, they, etc.)

    EXAMPLE:

    "A silver-haired, silver-toothed RUSSIAN MAN in a Harley-Davidson jacket knocked at my door the following day, accompanied by a hotel clerk. HE had found my wallet, with the hotel identity card in it, in the Arbotskaya metro station."

  4. A transition (but, however, on the other hand, for example, in fact, etc.)

    EXAMPLE:

    "Best of all, the property's peninsular location provides a buffer from the island's nightlife. HOWEVER, there is one threat to the Heads' paradise: 'Whenever there is a hurricane, you worry so much about whether the house is going to be there,' Mimi confides."

  5. An implied connection

    EXAMPLE:

    "VERKHOYANSK, in the republic of Sakha, northeastern Siberia, has the dubious distinction of being the coldest inhabited place on earth. It's not considered chilly HERE until the thermometer has dipped to about 60 below."

In the following selection from an article about Dalkey, Ireland by novelist Maeve Binchy (National Geographic Traveler, January/February 2001, page 56), the sentences consistently look back early, and the reading is effortless.

"When I was a child I used to pray quite seriously that God would arrange things so that we need not live in DALKEY any longer. IT* was a village-style suburb south of Dublin on the coast of the IRISH SEA, a genteel, quiet place of irregularly shaped houses and windy roads. The SEA** crashed around cliffs and in and out of the little picturesque fishing harbors, but there were no big long beaches like in the ATLANTIC SEASIDE RESORTS. The SLEEPY MAIN STREET*** of Dalkey had old-fashioned stores that closed at lunchtime."

* The pronoun "it" looks back early.

** The repeated word "sea" looks back early.

*** The "sleepy main street" is an implied transition, a contrast to "Atlantic seaside resorts" and looks back early.

And in this second selection, too, taken from an article by Ken Chowder about Baja, California ("The Sophisticated Traveler," New York Times Magazine, November 19, 2000, page 88), the author creates seamless transitions that propel you forward as you read.

"Every out-of-the-way town in the world seems to have a CHARACTER IN RESIDENCE. In Buena Vista, the CHARACTER* is an almost legendary American named STEVE CHISM. I find HIM** down at the beach, in a hut full of fishing tackle, lying on a crate reading Jared Diamond's weighty 'Guns, Germs, and Steel'; books by Gunter Grass and Philip Roth are beside him. STEVE*** has a deeply creased sun-darkened face and a long, ghostly beard. HE**** looks like John Muir; like Muir, he's a self-taught naturalist. He knows everything; after all, he's been on this beach for more than 20 years."

* The repeated word "Character" looks back early.

** The pronoun "him" looks back early.

*** The synonym "Steve" looks back early.

**** The pronoun "he" looks back early.

Now it's your turn …

Improve the following 8 sentences by creating seamless transitions from one sentence to the next.

  1. You should buy your concert tickets early in the week. The show is sure to be sold out and you'll be disappointed by the end of the week.
  2. When Borders Group Inc. decided to expand beyond its home U.S. market, the bookseller chose Singapore for its first overseas store. Many Western retailers make this city-state their first stop in Southeast Asia, so Singapore is familiar with this role.
  3. The young woman was dressed in a tight pair of bell-bottomed pants, a cropped shirt, and an elaborate nose ring – "a sight to behold," as her mother put it. She had a quick mind and a fiery wit, however.
  4. Signor Bassolino's administration even tried valiantly to reform the city's chaotic flow of traffic by improving public transport, creating special lanes for buses and taxis and assigning more police to enforce the regulations. The Neopolitans, who are great improvisers and have a long history of evasion when confronted by authority, still pretty much make up their own rules, as it turns out.
  5. Set to open in December, Rosewood's Marineau Bay is the first grand hotel on the east coast island of Vieques. In addition to two beaches, two restaurants, a spa and a center for children and teens, all the rooms overlook the Atlantic.
  6. Marooned in the small village of Fenza, we and four other stranded tourists were ushered into a house belonging to the most important man in the village. We sat in a windowless room in this two-story, clay-brick building.
  7. In the 1960s, an enterprising mayor announced free land to anyone who would be willing to build or help renovate the town. Attracted to this new, inexpensive frontier, artisans and artists put Mojacar back on the map as an artists' outpost.
  8. That night I dined at Albertos, an Italian restaurant gracing the top floor of my narrow wooden house. I have a panoramic view of downtown from my table on the tilting balcony.
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Published: October 8, 2001

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