Are you a reader who values a writer's style as much as the meaning it conveys?

Are you a writer who seeks to refine your own style?

Would you like to improve your understanding of the techniques writers use to create beautiful sentences?

Welcome to the search for the perfect sentence!

Most readers and writers focus on the content of a piece--the ideas it conveys, the story it carries, the events it chronicles. "So many books, so little time" we readers chorus, rushing through our stories, newspapers, websites. "Is it finished?" we writers ask. "Have I written enough words? Have I gotten the content across?"

Here we'll focus on the style of writing more than its content. We'll slow down. We'll read very short passages, sometimes single sentences, and we'll savor their wordcraft. We'll examine why each word was chosen, how they were arranged into sentences, and how those sentences evoke our responses. In the process, I hope we'll become more careful, perceptive readers and more effective writers.

Beautiful writing is everywhere--on the sports page of the morning paper, in the novel that relaxes you at night, in your grandmother's love letters found in the attic. If you would like to contribute a passage for close reading, with or without your own interpretation of its techniques, please email me at

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A life in a few sentences

Unlike many readers, I love the piling-up of details. A series of short phrases can create a rhythm that pulls us  into the dance of the writing. Here Junot Diaz uses two such series to encapsulate the life a young girl hopes for (sent. 1) and the one she's had so far (sent. 3). It's a novel in four sentences.

What exactly it was she wanted was never clear either: her own incredible life, yes, a handsome, wealthy husband, yes, beautiful children, yes, a woman’s body, without question. If I had to put it to words I’d say what she wanted, more than anything, was what she’d always wanted throughout her Lost Childhood: to escape. From what was easy to enumerate: the bakery, her school, dull-ass BanĂ­, sharing a bed with her madre, the inability to buy the dresses she wanted, having to wait until fifteen to straighten her hair, the impossible expectations of La Inca, the fact that her long-gone parents had died when she was one, the whispers that Trujillo had done it, those first years of her life when she’d been an orphan, the horrible scars from that time, her own despised black skin. But where she wanted to escape to she could not tell you.
 from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The long, itemized series--what she wants and what she lives-- alternate with shorter, elegantly constructed noun clauses, three ribs forming a skeleton that supports the weight of the passage:

  • What exactly it was she wanted...
  • From what was easy...
  • But where she wanted to escape to...
When I started reading, I wasn't sure I liked Diaz's slangy, uninhibited style,  peppered with vulgarities in two languages. By the time I finished, I understood why he had won the Pulitzer--mostly for the gradually unfolding story of a family and a country, but also for his mastery of wordcraft.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sentences about Sentences

From "My Life's Sentences" by Jhumpa Lahiri

Surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.

The best sentences orient us, like stars in the sky, like landmarks on a trail. They remain the test, whether or not to read something. The most compelling narrative, expressed in sentences with which I have no chemical reaction, or an adverse one, leaves me cold. In fiction, plenty do the job of conveying information, rousing suspense, painting characters, enabling them to speak. But only certain sentences breathe and shift about, like live matter in soil. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Hamilton Cain: Playing with Parts of Speech

Changing nouns or adjectives into verbs--prioritize, activate--is a natural part of our ever-changing  language, even though many writers and editors hate such forms. Multi-syllabic verbs with Latinate suffixes can indeed bog down our sentences. But a skilled writer, by turning a word on its ear and slipping it into an unusual place in a sentence, can illuminate meaning in an original and pleasing way.

Hamilton Cain is one such writer, as seen in these sentences from his memoir This Boy's Faith:

     a screen door resined with insects

    Now she’d embedded herself in the ball of my skull, where she preyed like a Venus flytrap on the thoughts that buzzed there, her leaves hinged open, waiting to spring.

    the muddy, serpentine rivers that veined the South

   The path horseshoed behind the falls.

    He lunged across the blanket and hooked Craig in an elbow vise, toppling Trudie’s Fanta can and geysering fizz over her baloney sandwich and a slick of wax paper.

    I’d bask in the spiritual passion raying out from the canvases of Tiepolo and Fra Angelico at the Metropolitan Museum.

You have to be a writer of great instinct and precision to use this technique well. The new form of the old word has to fit smoothly in the sentence, enhancing the meaning without drawing attention to itself. I've seen awkward, self-conscious attempts that make me cringe, so finding a writer who does it sparingly and subtly is a joy.

Cain gives a verb a different kind of twist here:

    There’s a raft of poinsettias along the marble-topped Lord’s Supper table, in florist poses around the pulpit, a swath of crimson that aches the eyes, beautifully static, petals crisp as wax paper.

Ache is a common verb (as well as a noun), at least when used intransitively: My head aches. Cain makes it transitive--taking an object, eyes--and this small twist adds a bit of poetry to the sentence. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Stunning Sentences

I've discovered a little gem of a book that I recommend to any writer working on sentence craft. Stunning Sentences (Norton, 1999), one of a series on writing and editing by Bruce Ross-Larson, packs an entire course on style into 100 pages. There's little theory or rule-based grammar here; Ross does what I do--he finds effective sentences and shows what the writer has done to make them work. His examples come from journalism and business, where readers expect not pretty metaphors but hard information and expert opinion efficiently articulated. 

Writers can probably benefit most by taking small, regular bites from this book. Nine chapters cover broad syntactical techniques for improving sentences--Dramatic Flourishes and Elegant Repetitions, e.g--further broken into specific writing devices. I've admired many of these techniques before, but often with a vague, holistic appreciation; I can't always parse out exactly what a writer is doing that I might be able to add to my bag of tricks. Ross-Larson catalogues, defines, and illustrates rhetorical devices with perfect lucidity. Discussion is brief and concise, and examples abound. Here are a few of my favorites:

Inversion of conventional sentence order "to shift a word or group of words to the emphatic opening slot and to add cadence":
    Only in the virtual world of her fiction could Austen assert control. (Kevin Barry)

Repetition, here of prepositions:
    She has an instinctive politician's gift of connecting--to women, to men, to old people, to teenagers, to the guy in the Staten Island deli who took her order the other weekend after she finished a five-mile run. (Eisabeth Bumiller)  (And isn't the length of the final prep phrase, after the other short ones, perfect?)

Pairs or trios of short sentences:
   Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. (Vladimir Nabokov)

Ross-Larson's work is now part of Clearwriter, an online writing and editing service. After briefly sampling one of the online classes, I suggest you save a lot of money the old-fashioned way: just buy this little book on amazon. (OMG. I just called amazon old-fashioned because it sells actual books!)  

Friday, July 8, 2011

Revisiting Salinger

I picked up Franny and Zooey at the library yesterday, just in case I'm not reading enough books right now (the usual half dozen), and hadn't finished the first page when I found this gem: 

[It was] the weekend of the Yale game. Of the twenty-some young men who were waiting at the station for their dates to arrive on the ten-fifty-two, no more than six or seven were out on the cold, open platform. The rest were standing around in hatless, smoky little groups of twos and threes and fours inside the heated waiting room, talking in voices that, almost without exception, sounded collegiately dogmatic, as though each young man, in his strident, controversial turn, was clearing up, once and for all, some highly controversial issue, one that the outside, non-matriculating world had been bungling, provocatively or not, for centuries. 

I could do with fewer numbers here, but isn’t that last sentence wonderful? Doesn’t he just nail the know-it-all twenty-year-old we’ve all been?

Back with more soon…

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Master of Repetition

My first encounter with the writing of Gary D. Schmidt has left me awed and a bit envious. In Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, he creates a gripping coming-of-age story, a tale of love and injustice that can change the lives of the children who read it. And he does it with enviable artistry, much like Cat Weatherill, whose work I wrote about earlier.

For a review of the story, see my book blog. Here I’ll focus on his style.

Schmidt is a master of repetition and the rhythm it creates. I love the way he uses both repetition and variation in this passage. Each successive sentence grows longer as it echoes and expands the one before it. 

“Pitch one,” she said.
          So he did. The first was too high and fell short. The second was too long and lobbed over her head. But…the third went somewhere in the middle, and Lizzie, Lizzie of the steady eye and firm hand, Lizzie Bright Griffin swung and hit the stone dead center. In fact, every time Turner pitched her a stone within shouting distance, she hit it dead center—no matter how high the arch, no matter how straight the descent.

          Here Schmidt uses a series of three phrases to provide information about a character. The repetition of words and the vivid, concrete language convey in one sentence the work of a lifetime.  
[Turner] took Reverend Griffin’s hand. He wasn’t surprised that it was strong, but he was surprised by how he felt every scar that ridged the man’s palm, every cut drawn through by a quick and sharp pull on a fishline, every slit opened by an accidental knife.
(I’m reminded of Robert Newton Peck’s advice in Secrets of Successful Fiction to always show our readers the hands of our characters.)

At one point Turner needs desperately to see Lizzie, and he goes to the edge of the river  in hopes of finding her. Through repetition and use of numbers Schmidt captures perfectly the thoughts and actions of a child forced to wait as his hopes diminish. And don’t miss that wonderful metaphor at the end of the paragraph:

He waited to see if Lizzie might come around the point. He counted waves and told himself that he would leave after twenty-five had tumbled in. After that, he skipped rocks and told himself he would leave after he skipped one seven times. (He did it with the eleventh stone.) After that, he counted fifty gulls—except they came almost all at once. And then, with nothing left to count, Turner climbed back up the ledges, with a pile of loneliness on his back as heavy as nightfall.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Rick Bragg's World of Boys

In Rick Bragg's third memoir, The Prince of Frogtown, he returns to the Alabama town of his youth to learn about his father, a legendary drunk who abandoned the family early but was mythologized by the locals. We also learn about Rick’s grandfather and Rick’s own testosterone-laden boyhood, as well as the very different twenty-first century childhood of the stepson he is struggling to relate to.

Listening to the audio version, narrated by Bragg with his, well, hillbilly accent and colorful dialect  enhances the vivid writing. I had to get the Kindle version as well so I could grab the great sentences (almost every one). Herewith a few for your enjoyment:

This was our place. From a running start, I could leap clear across it, heart like a piston, arms flailing for distance, legs like shock absorbers as I finally, finally touched down. This is where I learned to take a punch and not cry, how to dodge a rock, sharpen a knife, cuss, and spit. Here, with decrepit cowboy hats and oil-stained BAMA caps on our burr heads and the gravel of the streambed sifting through our toes, we daydreamed about Corvettes we would drive, wondered if we would all die in Vietnam and where that was, and solemnly divined why you should never, ever pee on an electric fence.

It took something as powerful as that, as girls, to tug me away from this tribe of sunburned little boys, to scatter us from this place of double-dog dares, Blow Pops, Cherry Bombs, Indian burns, chicken fights, and giggling, half-wit choruses of “Bald-Headed Man from China.” Maybe we should have nailed up a sign—NO GIRLS ALLOWED—and lived out our lives here, to fight mean bulls from the safe side of a barbed-wire fence with a cape cut from a red tank top, and duel to the death with swords sliced off a weeping willow tree. I don’t know what kind of man I turned out to be, but I was good at being a boy.

There would have been hangover in his eyes and in the tremble of his hands around his cigarette, but it wasn’t anything a little taste of liquor wouldn’t heal, once he had shaken free of his wife and kids like a man slipping out of a set of too-tight Sunday clothes.

It was a good world for drunks then, and a bad world for everybody else. A man could rise up in his drunkard’s raiment at night, dripping poison, and pull it off in the day like dirty clothes.

My attention span, in romance, was that of a tick on a hot rock.

Bragg’s vivid, grass-roots imagery and poet’s sense of rhythm remind me of Woody Guthrie's autobiography, Bound for Glory. Early in my career teaching high school English, I was ordered to teach literary style to my sixteen-year-olds. It was the first time I had been asked to articulate the principles of style, and I was stymied at first. Somehow I happened to open Bound for Glory, a book of such stylistic and story-telling power that I immediately ordered it for my classes and had a wonderful time teaching it. Time to go back and enjoy it again.