Chelsea Delaney

Practicalities: Sentence Structure & The Neurodivergent Writer

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6 min read

In twenty years of writing, editing, and coaching writers of all ages and genres, no one struggles with how much to include in a sentence more than neurodivergent writers.

I’ve worked with writers for twenty years. It’s always hard to know how much to include in a sentence, especially when the topic is something you care about and are personally invested in. However, in my experience, no one struggles with this more than neurodivergent writers.

Creating readable and authentic sentence structure is hard.

As neurodivergent writers, we have so much to say, but we don't always know if it's all necessary. We love our clauses, parentheses, colons, semicolons, and, my personal favorite, dashes. When I see the question of simplifying sentences raised on social media, the answers aren't often helpful: "Ask someone else to read it for you," "Ask yourself if it relates to the main idea," "I have the same problem, good luck figuring it out."

While I can't make this issue easy, I hope I can make it easier. I present the following list, from practical to self-reflective, with the hope of giving you more agency in your editing practice.

A wooden hand giving the finger.
Photo by Yan Krukau from Pexels

1. Know when to give the finger to "proper" English grammar.

You may be surprised to see this as number one on my list, but it's an important philosophical piece that underpins my practical approach to writing and editing. We were all taught that Standard American English (SAE) is a real thing. It's not. There's no governing body that makes and enforces the "rules." "Proper grammar" is like every other construct—born of racist, capitalist, patriarchal, neurotypical expectations. There is confusing writing, and there is clear writing, and we can get to clear writing in an endless number of ways.

That being said, choose your moments of wordiness so they have an impact. Know which of your "run-on" sentences to fight for and which you don't mind editing down. Know it before you send drafts to an editor or beta reader, and ask them to track their changes so you can take your time deciding how you feel about their suggestions. Whether you're writing fiction or non-fiction, it's okay to be "stubborn." Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, by Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, is written in one long sentence. And I won't lie, I lost the narrative thread of the novel several times, but it almost didn't matter after a while. I was mesmerized by the words coming in and going out, like waves in the ocean—endless but purposeful.

2. Can you read 70-80% of your sentences in one comfortable breath?

Attention is entwined with breath. If it takes more than one breath to read a sentence, there is naturally a break in someone's attention where they might get confused. With auditory processing differences, not all of us can hear what's "wrong" with a sentence just by reading it out loud. However, most of us can feel when a breath ends. The same principle applies within sentences. If you have several compound, complex, or complex-compound sentences, can you read most of your clauses in one breath?

3. Walk while you read out loud.

If you can walk and read out loud without falling down (says the guy who regularly fell off curbs in my 20's while trying to read a book and walk down the street), give it a try. It may sound kind of nutty, but what do you have to lose? The body knows things that the brain alone does not, and punctuation naturally creates rhythm. If your walking feels like a death march with no place to pause, you might need to add some more simple sentences to your work. If your walking is a sprightly dance, but you're writing about how climate change is destroying the planet, you may need some more complex sentences.

Hands on a sheet of paper. One of the hands holds a pen and is signing the document.
Photo by Cytonn Photography from Pexels

4. Write different versions of the same sentence(s).

This is a time-consuming practice, but great for those moments when you need to restart stalled momentum. Pick a sentence every few paragraphs and write several versions of it. If you do this long enough, you will start to develop the ability to see your work from an outside perspective. This is another issue that neurodivergent writers struggle with more than neurotypical writers.

5. Make sure you have transitions.

Sometimes we get way too wordy because we're trying to connect to the previous paragraph or pivot to the next one. Transitions don't need to add much to the word count to be effective. Can you identify the transitional words or phrases at the beginning, end, and possibly middle of your paragraph? Look to them to do the heavy lifting.

Mosaic of two clouds on a building's wall. Below the clouds, there's a yellow box with a black question mark on the front and a plant on its top.
Photo by Sami Aksu from Pexels

6. Simplify with the right question in mind.

Even with all this advice, sometimes it'll still be hard to escape the impression that you're rambling. I've had more than one neurodivergent writer say to me, "But I neeeeeeed those clauses!" When I ask why, I'm looking for a specific answer: the reader won't understand the writing without them. What I often get, however, is that the reader won't understand me without them. Some will disagree with me here, but your job as a writer is not to be personally understood. It's to take your reader through your information, journey, or story in the most impactful way possible. This doesn't mean you need to disappear by any means. It does mean that neurodivergent writers, who have spent a lifetime being misunderstood, have to get better at understanding the different journeys happening while writing.

First, there's the personal journey—what does it mean to me to write this? Even if you're writing something that you're not really invested in, there is still a personal journey. Your name will go on this boring thing you're writing to pay the bills, you will be asked/forced to open yourself up to feedback from someone you do or don't trust, and the list goes on. All writing is personal. Readers will naturally feel the echoes of that without us making them responsible for it. And if that's not enough for you, that's okay! Find other writers, friends, and family members to talk with about the personal journey. The second journey is the one we're more familiar with—the process journey—brainstorming, drafting, revising, and editing. This journey ends in a product which, if we're skillful and lucky, produces the desired effect on a reader.

Simply put, "Do I need this for the reader to understand the writing?" and "Do I need this for the writer to understand me?" are NOT the same question. Keeping this in mind while you edit your way through sentence jungles can make it easier to let things go.

At the end of it all, know that you're not alone if you're struggling to simplify and streamline. Also, know that the difference between confusing and clear writing is often not that wide—a dozen more punctuation marks, not hundreds, and a hundred fewer words, not thousands. Feel free to message me on Instagram @newstoriescallingart. Let me know how these strategies work for you or don't, and let me know what else you struggle with in your writing. We here at Re-Route hope to have many more Practicalities pieces in issues to come. We believe you can thrive, and we're aiming to help you get there.

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6 min read
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August 16, 2023
Chelsea Delaney

Chelsea is a gender-fluid artist who is autistic and self-taught. He currently serves as the Creative Director and Editor at Re-Route Magazine.