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The Sentence

Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2014 at 11:52 PM

Four books dedicated to constructing the best sentences.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I now have four books devoted, by title, to the sentence. Three I've mentioned to you in past columns: When Good People Write Bad Sentences: 12 Steps to Better Writing Habits, by Robert Harris (St. Martin's Griffin); It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer's Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences, by June Casagrande (Ten Speed Press); and How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, by Stanley Fish (HarperCollins).

The fourth has just come to my attention. It is titled Building Great Sentences, How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read. Brooks Landon is the author; he's professor and former chairman of the English Department at the University of Iowa. Published by The Great Courses.

I don't know if you need all four. Each is of value. All devote attention to kinds of sentences and purposes and structure. You'll also find gobs of examples to point the way. And every author argues that in the sentence, we have the critical foundation for good writing, that if we don't know how to craft this basic unit, we're in trouble.

Here are tidbits from the earlier volumes.

Stop Writing Bad Sentences

From author Harris: "Stop writing weak sentences. Stop writing formal sentences. Stop writing overweight sentences. Stop writing unclear sentences. Stop writing careless sentences. Stop writing unpersuasive sentences. Stop writing incongruous sentences. Stop writing unstructured sentences. Stop writing unsightly sentences." The book digs into how.

Give the Readers What They Want

From author Casagrande: "If you want to master the art of the sentence, you must first accept a somewhat unpleasant truth -- something a lot of writers would rather deny: The Reader is king. You are his servant. You serve the Reader information. You serve the Reader entertainment. You serve the Reader details of your company's recent merger or details of your experiences in drug rehab." The book reinforces the argument.

Content Takes a Backseat

From author Fish: "It doesn't matter what the sentences you practice with say; it doesn't matter what their content is. In fact, the less interesting the sentences are in their own right, the more useful they are as vehicles of instruction because, as you work with them, you will not be tempted to focus on their content and you will be able to pay attention to the structural relationships that make content -- any content -- possible. The conventional wisdom is that content comes first -- "You have to write about something" is the usual commonplace -- but if what you want to do is learn how to compose a sentence, content must take a backseat to a mastery of the forms without which you can't say anything in the first place." The book takes you through the exercise.

Constructing a Sentence

Landon's Building Great Sentences begins with thoughts about sentences from three writers, novelists. Don DeLillo says: "This is what I mean when I call myself a writer. I construct sentences." Thomas Berger says the sentence is "the cell beyond which the life of the book cannot be traced, a novel being a structure of such cells." Michael Cunningham says: "I'm still hoping to write a great sentence. If I do, I'll let you know."

Building a Great Sentence

Landon puts himself right out there amidst those quotes to say where he stands, in the process summarizing what he's going to cover in his treatise on how to construct and deconstruct and reconstruct sentences. They "come in all shapes and sizes," he notes, "and lots of difference things can make them great." He lists: "Great precision and specificity, great dramatic impact, great sound, great ways to which they direct the reader's thinking, great ways in which they reveal the writer's mind at work, great logical progression, great imagery -- and the list goes on and on." It is a good list, I say, rich enough to get one to thinking about the care that must go into the most basic aspect of writing: how to put our words and the meaning of those words together into a unit that, then also, must fit into a series of such units.

Landon covers the territory thoroughly: word sequence, grammar and rhetoric, length, the importance of propositions ("A statement about reality that can be accepted or rejected"), sentence growth, rhythm and syntax, use of delay and surprise and balance of form, and what the shaping of sentences reveals about an author's style.

There's much to be learned from Landon's study of the sentence. The instructive journey he lays before us is both useful and eminently readable. I left the book's pages with much to consider for my teaching and my own writing.

And when I leaf through the pages now, I realize how much I underlined just because of how he verbalized the what. As when he says: "One of the most important goals of our writing is to reveal the nature of the writer's mind at work, a process in which the writer wants readers to value the writer's thoroughness, accuracy, and logic, but also the writer's unique way of looking at and understanding the world."

Sentence Length

As when he preaches for variety of sentence length: "...we need to know how to write effective long sentences so we can throw them in and mix them up with all those short sentences. Let's forget that bit of hoo-ha that says a sentence of over forty words is generally ineffective. I don't know who came up with that magic number, and I can't begin to imagine how it was arrived at, but I can tell you that this advice is completely arbitrary, way too simplistic, and it actually discourages some of the skills an effective writer needs to develop."

As when he ends the book with this sentence: "Start writing, keep writing, and find some way to share the gift of your writing with others!"

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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