Write Stronger Sentences Using Trick 2-3

In six semesters as an English majors, this is the best I’ve learned: When in doubt, put the best part of a sentence at the end, the next best part at the beginning, and the rest in the middle. So, in ascending order, it’s 2, then 3, then 1.

What’s the best part? This probably sounds the best. This might be what you need. It could be the most specific or surprising word.

This can only be the “best snippet” in the context of the rest of the proposal. In his book How to Write a Sentence, Stanley Fish praises this introductory line from a student essay:

I was already on the second floor when I heard about the box.

The “box” itself is a commonplace expression, but this is what gives it so much strength here. By the time you read When I Heard About, you’ll be more ready for an ending like “Mother’s Death” or “Explosion”. No, it’s a box! Box! What’s in this box !?

Most of the sentences you write will not be parsed this way. The 2-3-1 structure works best on initial lines. Like the first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude :

Many years later, faced with execution, Colonel Aureliano Buendía had to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him in search of ice.

Or the introductory line of Beloved :

124 was vicious.

Every part of the 2-3-1 rule is flexible because it is not a rule. The best comes first. The best passage can be used to form a whole sentence. And if the proposal already works, don’t break it just to match the pattern. The Dawn Traveler’s opening line goes 3-2-1:

There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubbe, and he almost deserved it.

Sometimes the main thing is to break the rules. The opening line of The Bell Jar is a 2-1-3 arc:

It was a strange, sultry summer when the Rosenbergs were electrocuted and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

Of course, by now you disagree with at least one of these examples, because it is all subjective, finicky and a little fake. The least interesting part of the sentence may be related to the presentation of the story or essay, or to setting the tone. You may find a good reason to structure your proposal differently. That’s okay too! It’s just helpful – if I can add another nagging caveat – to think carefully about how you organize your thoughts at the sentence level.

But sometimes the 2-3-1 rule should be taken literally. Try this whenever you pause while completing a sentence, or when you wonder why your brilliant thoughts are crumbling. Then write another sentence and try again.


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