Orwell advised cutting as many words as possible, Woolf received energy in verbs, and Baldwin aimed for a sentence as clean as a bone. What can we learn from celebrated authors about the art of writing well?
very writer, of school age and older, is in the sentences game. The sentence is our writing commons, the shared ground where all novelists stroll. A poet writes in sentences, and so does the unsung author who came up with” Items trapped in doors cause lags “. The sentence is the Ur-unit, the core material, the granular component that requires get right or nothing will be right. For James Baldwin, the only aim was ” to write a sentence as clean as a bone “. E
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What can celebrated writers teach the rest of us about the art of writing a great sentence? A common piece of writing advice is to stimulate your sentences plain, unadorned and invisible. George Orwell gave this piece of advice its epigram: “Good prose is like a windowpane.” A reader should notice the words no more than person seeming through glass notices the glass.
Except that you do notice the glass. Picture an English window in 1946, when Orwell wrote that sentence. It would be smeared with grime from smoking and coal dust and, since houses were damp and windows single-glazed, wont to mist and ice up. The glass might still be cracked from air-raid gunfire or bombs, or covered with shatterproof coating to protect people from flying shards. An odd metaphor to use, then, for clear writing.
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A memorable sentence stimulates immediate sense but sounds just slightly odd. The model Kate Moss, once asked for her motto, responded:” Nothing savours as good as skinny feels”- a terrible message to send about dieting and body image, but a well-turned sentence, surely. Skinny, usually an adjective, is here was transformed into an abstract noun, paired with another abstract noun , nothing. And yet skinny is also quasi-concrete, because where it lies in the sentence suggests that it can actually be felt, just as food has a savor. But feels also retains its non-sensuous sense of intuiting or experiencing something: skinny feels good. As the sentence ends with the snap of a stressed syllable, our perspective has been altered in a way that feels true, even though it is we don’t share the sentiment. Reality has changed a little and then clicked back into place.
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A sentence is much more than its literal meaning. It is a living line of words where logic and lyric meet- a piece of both sense and sound, albeit the voice is only heard in the reader’s head. Rookie sentence-writers are often too busy worrying about the something they are trying to say and don’t worry enough about how that something appears and sounds. They look straight past the words into the meaning that they have strong-armed into them. They fasten on content and forget about form- forgotten that content and sort are the same thing, that what a sentence says is the same as how it says it.
The word ” sentence” comes from the Latin sentire, to feel. A sentence must be felt by the reader, and a feeling is something that grows and fades-out like anything else that is alive. A line of words should unfold in space and day , not expose itself all at once, for the simple reason that it cannot be read all at once.
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Contemporary writers largely side with Lutz. They leave space and stillnes between their sentences, so that the reader can see the full stop and hear its click. Sentences have become less shackled to each other. Those written a few hundred years ago typically began with a whereof or a howsobeit, to resume an unfinished believe. And they used lots of conjunctive adverbs, those connecting words like moreover, namely and indeed. Such adverbs are in historical retreat. The use of indeed peaked in publish in the 18 th century and has been declining ever since. The number of howevers and moreovers has been falling since the 1840 s.
If a writer’s sentences have enough life and interest in them- with” every step an arrival”, as Rainer Maria Rilke set it- they will hold the reader and move the writing along. The writing procures a concealed unity that has no need of the mucilage of linking phrases. Each sentence is like a tidal island that appears cut off until, at low tide, a causeway to the mainland appears. A good lesson for any writer: build each sentence worth read, and something in it will result the reader into the next one. Good novelists write not just in sentences but with sentences. Get them right and everything else solves itself or ceases to matter The Argonauts tells the story of a developing romance and relationship in short paragraph and single sentences surrounded by white space. One paragraph begins with a sentence that sparingly communicates a new intimacy:” And then, just like that, I was folding your son’s laundry .” *
* Joe Moran’s First You Write a Sentence: The Components of Reading, Writing … and Life is published by Viking( PS14. 99 ). To order a copy for PS12. 89, go to guardianbookshop.comor call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over PS10, online orders merely. Telephone orders min. p& p of PS1. 99.
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