Writers On Writing / Focusing on the sentence level of writing, with Emily Bitto

We chatted to award-winning author Emily Bitto about how focusing on sentences can carry the narrative forward, tips to avoid clichés and authors who taught her to pay attention to the sentence.

How does your writing process include working on prose? Do you focus on individual sentences in the drafting stage, or more in the editing stage?

I’m very focused on the sentence level of my writing, even in the first draft stage. A lot of what’s usually described as ‘voice’ happens on the sentence level, and I find that I need to get that figured out before I can launch into the narrative. I also focus a lot on rhythm when I’m writing the first draft, and I find that the rhythm of the prose can carry the narrative forward. However, having said this, everyone is different, and a lot of other writers I know don’t pay as much attention to the minutiae of word choice etc. in the first draft stage. 

What are some tips for writers wanting to avoid clichés in their writing? 

Slow down and pause when you come to descriptive sentences or passages in your writing. Notice the first words or images that come to mind; they will often be clichés. Our brains are trained through repetition to connect particular words or images together. So, for example, if you are describing someone’s eye, verbs like ‘sparkled,’ ‘shone,’ or ‘pierced’ are likely to come to mind, as are images of stars, pools of water, etc. But if you think a bit more, there are plenty of other verbs and images available to draw on. Focusing on verbs is a really good place to start. Go through your draft and circle all the verbs, looking for the places where you’ve made lazy choices.

Can you give some examples of writers who write beautiful sentences?

There are so many that it’s very difficult to choose who to include here, so, I’ll just mention two writers who had a big impact on me early on, and who really taught me to love and pay attention to the art of the well-crafted sentence: Michael Ondaatje (particularly his early books: Coming Through Slaughter and In the Skin of a Lion), and Toni Morrison (especially Beloved).


Emily Bitto is an award-winning Melbourne-based writer of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Her debut novel, The Strays, won the 2015 Stella Prize. She has a Masters in literary studies and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Melbourne, and has been teaching creative writing for over a decade.

Join Emily for her online course, Writing From the Sentence Up, 1 September to 7 September.

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