Composition refers to the process by which a text is written, and it can occur on multiple levels. A writer can be skilled at one level of composition but unskilled at another. How well a text functions is a product of its composition across all levels.
So, what are these levels?
- Word level. A text is made up of words, and the simplest level of composition is choosing the correct words.
- Sentence level. The purpose of words is to convey meaning, yet how words are arranged into sentences can dramatically alter how effectively they perform this task.
- Paragraph level. A group of sentences, all of which relate to the same point, form a paragraph. Well-constructed paragraphs are essential for clear, purposeful writing.
- Text level. A text is made up of a collection of paragraphs, all of which are related to expressing a particular message, idea, or story. A well-written text reflects this and can entertain, inform, or persuade as needed.
In order to improve as a writer, it is necessary to improve across all of these levels. However, the steps required for improvement are not the same across each level.
Improving at the word level is arguably the easiest. What is necessary is a larger vocabulary, and this can be developed through both indirect means (e.g., reading more) or direct means (e.g., studying word lists and using a thesaurus regularly). Other ways of increasing your vocabulary include reading a wider selection of material (e.g., newspapers and magazines instead of just fantasy novels) and talking to more people.
The important thing for improving at the word level is consistent effort. It simply isn’t possible to massively increase your vocabulary overnight, but most people can handle learning one new word a day. Consistent effort is also required to master new words since it is one thing to know what a word means and quite another to use it in a skilful and nuanced manner.
Constructing better sentences is something that many writers struggle with. Part of this is undoubtedly due to style. Some writers naturally tend toward more ornate and complex sentences, and there are some schools of thought that maintain that such sentences are somehow ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’. Personally, I don’t think that there is anything inherently wrong with ornate or complex sentences. To me what matters is whether or not the sentence is intelligible and whether or not it reads well.
An intelligible sentence is one that makes sense. More importantly, it is one that makes sense to the reader. In other words, a good sentence is one that the reader can make sense of without further assistance. If a sentence needs to be explained to the reader, then it’s entirely possible it isn’t a very good sentence.
It is a little more difficult to define what it means for a sentence to read well. To some extent, it is very much a qualitative thing. When you read a sentence that reads well, it flows smoothly, either in your mind or when it is spoken aloud. It is one that feels right. If the reader reads it more than once, it is because they want to savour it and not because it feels clunky and necessitates a second look.
The best way, I’ve found, to get better at sentence construction is through practice. The first draft of something is usually fairly horrible, and bad sentences are a big part of that. Go through your drafts and work through the sentences one by one, working on each of them until they are better. They don’t have to be perfect, just better than when you started. If that is too difficult, then simply start with one paragraph and tinker with the sentences in it until they improve.
Paragraphs are made up of several sentences that cover the same point or are in some other way related. Improving at the paragraph level requires a grasp of how sentences can fit and work together.
Consider a paragraph designed to build up a sense of unease. It is very difficult to build up a sense of unease in just one sentence. Instead, it is how the sentences in a paragraph fit together that builds up the sense of unease. The first sentence might set the scene, depicting something that would ordinarily seem quite cheerful and warm. The second sentence might point out a few oddities, things that don’t quite fit. The third sentence might imply some disturbing reasons for why those oddities exist. The fourth sentence might offer some evidence that those reasons are correct, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.
Here’s a brief example:
The rocking horse moved back and forth. In their beds, the children continued to sleep. The darkness in the room quivered and stretched out over them, one by one. And the rocking horse continued to move, its creaking growing louder as the darkness deepened.
The example given above shows how a paragraph is more than the sum of its parts. Individually, none of the sentences are particularly creepy, but together, they can create a much creepier atmosphere. They do this because each sentence builds upon the previous one, providing the reader with more information while guiding their imagination in the desired direction.
To improve on a paragraph level, it is important to understand that although sentences can stand alone, they are much stronger when they are connected to each other on a logical or thematic level. An argument is stronger when each sentence hammers away at the same point, making opposition impossible, and a description is much richer when each sentences adds another detail or fleshes out one that has already been given.
This is another instance in which practice is invaluable. But you can make the process more efficient by focusing your attention on paragraphs, as opposed to entire texts. Try to write a single paragraph that provides as rich a description of a setting as possible. Now, try a paragraph that inspires as much fear as possible. Regularly repeat this for different genres and styles, and you should notice an improvement.
A well-written text is almost always one that has a goal. That goal may be to entertain, it may be to inform, or it may be to persuade. Whatever the goal is, improving at the text level means learning to use the entire body of a text (i.e., every word, sentence, and paragraph) to advance that goal.
The first thing you should do is to learn the basic structure of the form of writing you’re doing. If you’re writing to entertain, then you’re probably writing a story although you could be writing a poem, a script, or a song. In any case, each of those formats has particular rules and guidelines. Learn them. Likewise, if you’re writing to persuade or inform, then those forms of writing have rules and guidelines too. Learn those as well.
You don’t always have to follow rules and guidelines, but they can be enormously helpful when you’re starting out. That’s why courses teaching students how to write essays and reports generally suggest similar structures. Those structures aren’t always ideal, but they will do a reasonably good job most of the time. That’s why people use them.
To improve at the text level, you need to understand what purpose your writing serves. If it is to entertain, you must ask yourself how you will entertain the reader. If you are writing a story, then focus on things like the characters, plot, settings, and ideas. If you are trying to inform the reader about an issue or topic, then ask yourself what you want to tell them about (e.g., what details are important, what does past research say, and what does future research need to look at). And if you’re trying to persuade people, think about how you can do that. What are the different sides of the argument? What are the key arguments for and against each side? What does the evidence suggest?
Improving your writing can be difficult, but it often helps to break it down. Working on one thing at a time – one level at a time – can make a seemingly insurmountable task much more approachable.
If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find those here.
I also write original fiction, which you can find here.